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Why the Explosive Jobs Report Will Hit Trump Harder Than You Think

Trump depends on liberals believing that nothing matters. But good news like this should give hope that some facts will matter after all.

Donald Trump looking constipated
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In recent weeks, a deep fatalism has set in among liberals and Democrats. The proximate cause has been the disconnect between President Biden’s terrible poll numbers on the economy and conditions out in the country, which by many economic metrics are quite good, and the toll that has taken on his reelection prospects.

The deeper reason for the fatalism, though, is a loss of faith in the power to change that disconnect in perception. There’s an online meme for this—“LOL nothing matters”—which means real-world conditions will never register politically, validating Donald Trump’s calculation that relentless, totalitarian-style lying has blotted out the possibility of reality still being able to influence our politics.

This context gets at why Friday’s extraordinary jobs report—which showed that 353,000 jobs were created in January—is so important. This is good news for Biden, most obviously because fears of a recession are receding. But at a deeper level, such news can also provide a morale boost, an assurance to the liberal and Democratic grassroots that perceptions of the economy—and of Biden’s performance on it—can be changed as well.

The New York Times homepage splashed the jobs news with a big headline—“U.S. Job Growth Defies Expectations”—and an accompanying analysis declared:

After lagging growth early in Mr. Biden’s term, wages are now rising faster than inflation. The economy grew 3.1 percent from the end of 2022 to the end of 2023, defying expectations, including robust growth at the end of the year. The inflation rate is falling toward historically normal levels. U.S. stock markets are recording record highs.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post noted that the job gains “were roughly double economists’ predictions,” adding:

The jobs report is a major victory for President Biden, especially heading into the election, as several recent benchmarks, including strong GDP and falling inflation, suggest a booming economy that even consumers are starting to notice.

Liberals and Democrats have had good reason to panic about Biden’s low approval numbers, particularly on the economy. Those numbers were, and are, very bad. But I believe this has had a second-order insidious effect. This, plus Trump’s enduring polling strength amid his conspicuous emotional decline, his deranged threats to unleash retribution and violence against opponents, and his extraordinary array of criminal charges, has produced despair.

The “vibe,” as the kids say, is that Biden has become in some mysterious sense a hopelessly compromised figure—the victim of a kind of Jimmy Carter Curse that’s unfathomable and irreversible. Never mind that the GOP has suffered losses under Trump it hasn’t experienced in decades. The current polling has spoken: Trump is untouchable, invincible, not subject to conventional rules that govern how we believed politics works. Trump has permanently hacked our politics. LOL, nothing matters.

But this fatalism has a cost. As Brian Beutler chronicles regularly at his Substack, a self-reinforcing negative feedback loop has set in. Precisely because Democrats have decided Trump is politically immune to his own glaring negatives—the appalling personal depravity, the contempt for laws and the civic contract, the serial corruption and likely criminality—they often decide that prosecuting the case against those negatives is hopeless, and therefore don’t do it.

As Beutler notes, this squanders a chance to “rekindle” the anger against Trump that helped produce that string of GOP losses. In short, we are talking ourselves into believing that the political rules don’t apply to him.

Consider a telling episode: Recently Trump declared that he hopes that if the economy crashes, it comes this year so Biden gets blamed. Trump also buffoonishly claimed credit for the current economy. All this generated outrage, but one reading of it was conspicuously missing: that this showed Trump knows the good economy is a threat to him politically, and that he’s the one who is worried about losing.

Indeed, as The New York Times’s Paul Krugman has noted, Trump has been vainly predicting the economy will fail under Biden for years. He badly needs that to happen, and he’s growing increasingly desperate about the fact that it hasn’t. Yet few analysts pointed out that with this episode, Trump revealed his own weakness. It doesn’t sync up with the internalized idea that Trump has got Biden on the run, and that we should all be terrified by Trump’s magical ability to freeze public perceptions exactly where he wants them.

This has cascading negative effects. Republicans can be counted on to chant in unison that the economy is in horrible shape as long as a Democrat is in the White House. Many simply keep claiming all the metrics still show what they have long since stopped showing. As supposedly reasonable Nikki Haley recently put it, “We’ve got an economy in shambles and inflation that’s out of control.”

By contrast, Democrats are sometimes reluctant to highlight economic improvements. Some fear this will sap the political will for a progressive economic program. But others paralyze themselves with hair-splitting about messaging, worrying about internal polls showing the public dislikes the term “Bidenomics,” and that giving Biden credit for the economy might color perceptions of it with his unpopularity. That produces a vast imbalance, given that the other party’s propaganda organs are blaring forth messages of economic malaise ceaselessly.

No one is saying it will be easy to translate improving conditions into a political lift for Biden. Democrats have tremendous work to do, especially in winning back alienated constituencies like young people and working-class men, including nonwhites.

But if jobs reports like this one can get liberals and Democrats to believe that this work actually can be done—that real-world conditions can influence voters, that Trump’s appalling personal qualities and legal travails can once again turn them against him—then that might sharpen the focus on how to marshal those factors effectively. Such an abandonment of learned helplessness will itself hit Trump hard, because he’s counting on all of us remaining trapped by it. LOL, some things do matter.