Because Trump is the ground of being in our new post-2016 metaphysics, some people have decided to spend the Christmas holiday asking questions like "What will he do if the economy tanks?" The implicit assumption of many of these what-if arguments is that because he has taken credit for a robust stock market and low unemployment, a reversal of these trends would spell his doom.
This is sloppy thinking. It does not follow from the fact that the president drones on endlessly about the latest numbers when the market is trending up that he will lose credibility if things go the other way. This has very little to do with Trump per se — it is universal among politicians. When the economy was bad under Barack Obama, it was because he inherited it from George W. Bush. When things eventually picked up, it was irrefutable evidence of Obama's prudent stewardship of the recovery.
Every elected official does this. Trump is just more shameless about it than most. If a mother panda at the National Zoo miraculously gave birth to octuplets whose shining coats were the most magnificent in the recorded history of the genus Ailuropoda, he would claim that these were "my” pandas and have his picture taken hugging them.
So how would he respond to a bear market in stocks or even to a recession? By blaming everyone and everything else. Democratic intransigence in the House, Republican intransigence in the Senate, fake news CNN, fake news MSNBC, the "caravan,” George Soros, Robert Mueller, Hillary Clinton, Colin Kaepernick, the stars of the latest Disney live-action film — even a heavily abbreviated list of the likely culprits would exhaust the space of a brief column.
What’s more, he would get away with it. The inability of our pundit class to understand the transcendent nature of Trump’s appeal is proof that trickle-down economics has achieved a seemingly final victory over our imaginations. Trump did not campaign in 2016 on preventing a 16 percent sell-off in the S&P during the shortened holiday trading period. Nor did he promise that chaired professors of economics would approve of his policies.
Instead he talked about American unease, about betrayal, about lawlessness and carnage and — with occasional but horrifyingly apparent relish — bloodshed. His occasional willingness to use statistics to his rhetorical advantage is of negligible importance. His pitch to voters has always been about one thing — a nebulously defined but perpetually screwed-over us versus an equally intangible but unfailingly perfidious them.
He would have a point there. The wealthiest Americans would still be very wealthy indeed if stocks were to fall to their 2017 or even their 2009 levels. Drug addiction would still be rampant. And the ineffable sense of dread that has led so many people to entrust their hopes and anxieties to this former television star will become more pervasive. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that the worst happening — a repeat of 2008 in which stocks drop, unemployment rises, and whole industries are on the verge of collapsing — would be a political godsend for this president. More so than any politician of our time, Trump would be able to turn all of these things to his advantage. With 9 percent unemployment, a collapsing Dow, and The New York Times and the Heritage Foundation united in their chant of disapprobation, the kulturkampf would become a Trumpist blitzkrieg. It would be loud, ugly, and mostly on Twitter.
This is not to suggest that Trump isn’t vulnerable in 2020. He is. The right Democratic challenger could flip enough voters in the Midwest to recreate Obama's winning coalitions. But it would not be because, say, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) argued that he and only he would be able to get tech stocks back to 2018 levels or because he insisted that suburban boomers could trust him to make their retirements as comfortable as possible at the expense of the working class. And it certainly would not be because he mocked Trump's supporters for not contributing enough to GDP or deemed them insufficiently woke. It would be because Brown — or perhaps Joe Biden — presented himself as someone who understood their feelings better than the president who had betrayed their trust.