Because his running mate is still the governor of Indiana, and can use political power there to scare up economic favors for Indiana-based firms threatening to move production to other countries, Donald Trump is spending his pre-presidency on a public relations tour of the state, bragging about the jobs he’s saving.
First the Trump administration-in-waiting cut a deal with United Technologies to essentially halve the number of jobs its subsidiary air-conditioning company Carrier was planning to send to Mexico.
On Friday evening, he foreshadowed the next target of his elaborately staged farce.
Come January, Pence will no longer be governor of Indiana. Unless his successor there, and perhaps other Republican governors around the country, agree to collaborate with the Trump-Pence administration by offering big bribes to save small numbers of jobs, this particular PR coup will expire soon.
And a coup it has been! On any given month over the past several years, the U.S. economy has generated about 200,000 jobs on net, sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less. Relative to that baseline, Trump-like opportunistic pseudo-bullying of random companies will generate a rounding-error of jobs saved. “On President Barack Obama’s watch the U.S. economy generated 8.6 million net new jobs—equal to 2,945, or about three Carrier deals, every day, including Sundays, for going on eight consecutive years,” wrote MarketWatch columnist Brett Arends. But you’d never guess that from the wall-to-wall cable news coverage and fawning headlines his antics won.
Trump, in other words, has been able to get a lot of mileage out of trivial stunts, and will likely keep pulling them once he’s been inaugurated. So long as he can command media attention with antic pomp, the payoff will be worth it.
Eventually, though, cognitive dissonance will catch up with Trump. To an unappreciated extent, Trump was able to stage the Carrier “deal” and will be able to play similar games in the early days of his presidency, because he’s inheriting an extremely stable economy and government from President Barack Obama. Against a backdrop of economic growth, climbing wages, and a quasi-stable global order, Trump’s weird, personality-driven industrial policy will be consistent with a story in which Trump is taking a decent situation and making it better. If the economy slumps, or Trump unleashes some other chaos, people who are currently sympathetic to Trump’s victory laps will come to see them as wildly propagandistic and inappropriate. And it’s worth nothing that the situation Trump is inheriting will be difficult to improve upon for very long, especially for an erratic right-wing figure like him.
When Obama addressed the press several days after the November 8 election, he made a point of reminding people that he’s leaving Trump a government and country in pretty good shape, both objectively and relative to the state in which he inherited them.
“The unemployment rate is as low as it’s been in eight, nine years,” he said. “Incomes and wages have both gone up over the last year faster than they have in a decade or two. We’ve got historically low uninsured rates. The financial systems are stable. The stock market is hovering around its all-time high, and 401(k)s have been restored. The housing market has recovered. We have challenges internationally, but our most immediate challenge with respect to ISIL, we’re seeing significant progress in Iraq, and Mosul is now increasingly being retaken by Iraqi security forces supported by us. Our alliances are in strong shape. The progress we’ve made with respect to carbon emissions has been greater than any country on Earth. And gas is two bucks a gallon.”
As Politico’s Ben White says, Trump is inheriting the “Obama boom.”
Perhaps Trump will preserve or build upon all of these gains. But in the likelier event that he screws some things up—if unemployment or the uninsured rate climb significantly—boasting about saving 300 Rexnord jobs will be whistling past the graveyard. Indeed, like George W. Bush’s aircraft carrier-staged declaration of victory in Iraq, Trump’s past antics might start to resemble “Mission Accomplished”—a huge PR victory in real time, but a longer-term symbol of failure and denial.
“Those aspects of his positions or predispositions that don’t match up with reality he will find shaken up pretty quick,” Obama explained at the same post-election press conference, “because reality has a way of asserting itself.”
When it inevitably does, Trump’s spectacle-driven vision for his presidency will fall apart.