Donald Trump is right about one thing. He doesn’t get credit for the strong economy in the United States. Putting aside indicators of a coming recession, the US economy has been unquestionably strong over the past two years. Satisfaction with the economy among American voters is around 53 per cent, yet Trump’s approval is at just 43 per cent. That’s a significant gap – and almost unprecedented in modern US politics.
Trump’s approval rating has been depressed by his own actions – the lying, the racist statements, the daily grind of controversial and bizarre tweets. But that doesn’t explain how Trump has achieved the impossible: he’s divorced his own popularity from the economy. How did he manage this?
All Trump had to do with the US economy was nothing. Instead, he started a series of trade wars, abandoned the cherished conservative principle of free trade and ballooned the national debt. The US economy has remained resilient (so far) but Trump’s approval rating hasn’t benefited. This is partly due to his pursuing policies that are harmful to the economy, and partly due to the obvious fact that Trump doesn’t understand or care about economic numbers beyond bragging rights. This is the ultimate iteration of an old right-wing strategy.
Good economies keep conservatives in power
Parties of the right have always adhered to two simple ideas: conservatives are better at managing the economy and good economies will keep conservatives in power. The former has been disproved time and again, but remains the central argument conservatives make about the economy. The Tories have done it for years, painting Labour as reckless, overspending socialists. The latter point is absolutely correct. Bad governments are rescued from electoral defeat by strong economies. Or at least they used to be.
Voters are generally risk averse, particularly in a strong economy. That’s why governments are able to stay in power for long periods during economic booms. Even a series of high profile mistakes and scandals won’t bring down a government if people are happy with their standard of living. But even a slight recession can cause an earthquake at the ballot box, as we saw in the late ‘70’s, late ‘90s and 2010s.
Pursuing a policy that will lead to recession
If Donald Trump is defying the usual trend, Britain’s Conservatives are determined to ignore it completely. Brexit has yet to really hit the British economy. Yes, the pound is on the slide and jobs numbers have been negatively affected, but the UK is not in recession. Unemployment rates remain low. Under normal circumstances, this government would be sailing to re-election.
Instead, newly minted Prime Minister Boris Johnson is pursuing a policy that will lead to recession. A No-Deal Brexit will be an economic catastrophe, with food and medicine shortages, an end to free trade with the EU (and everyone else, at least for a while), a further drop in the pound, a drastic rise in unemployment and so on and so on. A normal, conservative government would avoid this because it is completely avoidable. Instead. Johnson and the hard Brexiteers are taking a punt.
Pulling a reverse Trump
The Brexiteers don’t really believe there’ll be an economic boom from leaving the EU. They know – and the government is planning to deal with – the disastrous results of No Deal. The Conservatives are betting that the visceral desire to leave will allow them to defy political logic. They’ll blame the EU for the coming recession and then brazenly ask for votes because they were brave enough to wreck the economy. The Tories will argue they should remain in power because of the recession, not in spite of it.
The Conservatives have abandoned the idea that a good economy will keep them in power. They hope to pull a reverse Trump: racing ahead of economic satisfaction. Like Trump, they are in the process of throwing off the cloak of ‘fiscal responsibility.’ This is political insanity for any conservative party.
Voters have shown themselves to be more sophisticated on economic policy than their governments expect. They’re factoring in the next downturn into their poll ratings and votes. The parties of ‘fiscal responsibility’ should be worried.