It is, and always has been, 'the economy, stupid'

It is, and always has been, 'the economy, stupid'
Comment: Unless Trump finds a strategy for translating flashy statistics into tangible economic relief for low-income and middle class Americans, his popularity will continue to plummet, writes Marcus Montgomery.
7 min read
25 Aug, 2017
Trump lacks the intellectual curiosity and personal leadership that most leaders rely on [Getty]
It seems that every week pollsters publish data indicating President Donald Trump is losing support and, shortly thereafter, journalists and pundits opine about the cause of this dwindling support. 

Lo and behold, this article is no different.

Following the criticism that stemmed from the unhinged, off-the-cuff press conference that spiralled into a heated exchange about the events that unfolded in Charlottesville, new polls indicate another downward turn in support for the president.

Even before the violence erupted and the president alienated a large segment of the country with his responses, there was already cause for concern in Mr Trump's approval ratings. This recent poll, however, is indicative of the troubles facing Mr Trump.

The recent poll - conducted after the Charlottesville chaos and the president's equally chaotic responses - showed President Trump with an all-time low approval rating.

Since about 16 June 2015, Donald Trump has been unpopular with varying portions of the US population, so these results should not be all that surprising.

But, these numbers should be especially troubling for the Trump administration because a core component of his electoral coalition - those in the "Blue Wall" state - appears dissatisfied with his time in the Oval Office.

Trump's base (ie, those who identify as "strong Republicans") has also dwindled, according to another poll. As recently as June of this year, Donald Trump polled at 91 percent with this group. His approval rating with the group in August? 79 percent.

Their disapproval of his job performance stems from economic considerations

With Midwesterners losing support for the president and his typically loyal base wavering, what should the pundits highlight to explain the phenomenon?

I hail from Trump country - a small, rural town in a northern county of Arkansas that Trump won overwhelmingly - and I have an idea, albeit not a groundbreaking one. Interestingly enough, it is a pretty straightforward explanation. One just has to recall the age-old American adage: It's "the economy, stupid." 

Unfortunately for Democrats, the drop in support has little or nothing to do with his unsavoury character (his base does not care), divisive rhetoric (he is frequently applauded as being a "straight shooter"), or the ongoing narrative of collusion with Russia (it's all fake news, his base says).

The aforementioned NBC News poll does illustrate that voters in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan are embarrassed by the president's behavior in office, but remember, those people voted for Mr Trump even after all of his blush-worthy moments from the campaign.

For the Republicans out there who are the establishment, "Never Trump" type: I hate to tell you, but his base is not dropping their support for him because they have seen the proverbial light and come to understand that your policies, not his, are the correct path forward (see the GOP-held Congress' approval ratings).

Trump supporter sells t-shirts at Ohio Trump rally
Trump supporter sells t-shirts at Ohio Trump rally [Getty]

While his response to Charlottesville may have utterly embarrassed many of the same people who contributed to his electoral college victory, their disapproval of his job performance certainly stems from economic considerations.

If the president was contributing great economic gains to communities like those in the industrial Midwest, they would, in all likelihood, ignore his combativeness and twitter use. They did, after all, take a chance on him after knowing very well what kind of person he is.

Here is some insight to the economy narrative: President Trump overwhelmingly won counties throughout the United States that rank high in indicators of economic distress and despair (eg, addiction, alcoholism, homelessness and rates of suicide). Months after his inauguration, the measureable dissatisfaction stems from these communities' sense of betrayal and economic anxiety that has not subsided under Mr Trump's agenda.

Donald Trump ran on a campaign pledge to fight for the underdog, protect entitlements, and bring back well-paid jobs. But, more than halfway through the first year of his first term, all Trump seems to care about is feuding with anyone and everyone, pandering to the social and cultural anxieties of some of his more extreme supporters, and spreading blame for the failures of key legislative goals.

Sure, Trump is not a politician, and many love him for that.  But, he also lacks the intellectual curiosity and personal leadership that most leaders rely on to learn and adapt to the political system they sit atop. 

One just has to recall the age-old American adage: It's 'the economy, stupid'

To those supporters that who believed in him and have since lost faith, his shortcomings thus far look like something between indifference and incompetence. Either he really does not care about the underdogs, or he does not have the will and ability to usher along aspects of his ambitious agenda through the gauntlet that is the legislative cycle.

In fact, many of his proposed policies on this point could hurt the people who supported him most. Pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and threatening to drastically change - or pull out of - the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) disproportionally affects Midwest agriculture counties that Trump won.

The GOP's Affordable Healthcare Act (aka Obamacare) repeal and replace efforts would likely strip crucial Medicare and Medicaid funding from vulnerable communities like those in post-industrial towns in Michigan or Ohio. This would leave people in those communities uninsured and financially unable to combat the ongoing addiction crisis.

Perceptions of economic success

Ironically, for Mr Trump, the trouble he faces with voters stems not from how the economy is actually performing, but how the American people perceive it to be performing.

Among his voters, especially, this should be no surprise. President Trump repeatedly derided official statistics such as those on unemployment, and his supporters - and even opponents who have struggled economically - likely bought into it because they simply do not see the tangible rewards of this supposedly strong economy.

Now that Trump parades unemployment, consumer confidence and stock market statistics, he is likely expecting Americans to praise his job well-done (never mind that he likely has contributed very little to the economic environment).

Trump's name on an abandoned home in a Pennsylvania coal town
An abandoned home in a Pennsylvania coal town [Getty]

For the majority of Americans who are not rich, the Dow Jones' historic performance and decades-low unemployment statistics means almost nothing. NPR accurately described why back in March. Take the stock market success, for example.

Sure, the Dow Jones has reached unprecedented highs since Trump took office, but 80 percent of stocks owned belong to the top 20 percent earners in the country

Sure, it has reached unprecedented highs since Trump took office, but 80 percent of stocks owned belong to the top 20 percent earners in the country. A full third of full-time working adults do not even have retirement accounts - which make up a large percentage of the stocks that middle class earners own.

So, President Trump might as well be speaking another language to his low-income supporters in places like West Virginia, Ohio, or my native Arkansas when he talks about a strong economy.

Contrary to the high consumer confidence President Trump touts, lower earning Americans continue to lose confidence in the economy. Combine this with the very real economic anxiety surrounding affordable healthcare and invasive drug addiction, and many pro-Trump communities may find themselves disappointed in his grandiose promises to make America great for them, again.

The president's inability to stay focused and disciplined will likely hurt his chances of Congress passing his economic agenda. With his CEOs darting from his advisory councils and the president publicly lambasting lawmakers of his own party, how in the world does he expect to drum up support for infrastructure or tax legislation that would provide relief for his struggling base, that more capable leaders before him failed to achieve?

We are seeing cracks in the president's base, regardless of what Trump loyalists and far-right pundits argue, and it is only going to get worse for him. If he cannot develop - and maintain - a strategy for translating flashy statistics into tangible economic relief for low-income and middle class Americans, then his presidency will careen into irrelevancy in the eyes of his voters.  

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Analyst for Congressional Affairs at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.