President Donald Trump this week addressed the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, exaggerating the successes of the U.S. economy to such a great extent that it was as though he hoped to match reality to his fantastical claims by sheer force of will. The WEF — a yearly meeting that he chose to skip last year — is a gathering of global elites that this year convened at the same time his Senate impeachment trial began in earnest. Trump’s attendance was perhaps a deliberate attempt to distract from the proceedings that could lay bare his corrupt dealings. He seemed to be saying, “Ignore the scheming corruption I was engaged in, and look at the riches I have brought Americans.”
Indeed, Trump’s version of the U.S. economy is so outlandish that it would be laughable were he not president of the United States. “The United States is in the midst of an economic boom the likes of which the world has never seen before,” he said triumphantly Tuesday at Davos. Throwing out as many buzzwords as he could gather together in one speech, Trump proclaimed, at the risk of sounding repetitive, “America is thriving, America is flourishing, and yes, America is winning again like never before.” And, he claimed, “America’s newfound prosperity is undeniable, unprecedented and unmatched anywhere in the world.” Giving few specifics beyond the standard talking points scripted by his economic advisers, Trump resorted to his usual superlatives, saying, “America’s economic turnaround has been nothing short of spectacular,” and proclaiming, “No one is benefitting more than America’s middle class.”
But when asked about the economy, Americans take a different view from their president. A recent Pew research poll found that “[s]even-in-10 U.S. adults say the economic system in their country unfairly favors powerful interests, compared with less than a third who say the system is generally fair to most Americans.” Large majorities in all income groups from rich to poor are convinced the current system benefits powerful interests such as corporations and wealthy individuals.
To coincide with the WEF, two major reports underscored this dismal view of the economy on a global level. The International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency, found that global unemployment is projected to rise over the next two years and that about half a billion people worldwide simply cannot find adequate work to support themselves. The non-governmental organization Oxfam released its yearly report on global inequality and concluded there are currently 2,153 people worldwide who are considered billionaires and that together they own more wealth than 4.6 billion people combined. Both reports highlighted the ongoing gender gap in income and wealth.
In his WEF speech this week, Trump had some advice for the global economy, offering his version of the U.S. as an example for the world: “[W]e are building an economy that works for everyone, restoring the bonds of love and loyalty that unite citizens and power nations.” He added, “I hold up the American model as an example to the world of a working system of free enterprise that will produce the most benefits for the most people in the 21st century and beyond.”
But a survey by Gallup last April concluded that Americans are among the most stressed people in the world. Stress levels in the U.S. went up in 2018 — on Trump’s watch — and reached levels higher than most places globally. About 55% of Americans said they were stressed out compared to the international average of 35%. Another new study examining minimum wage increases and correlations with suicide rates concluded that even a small increase in the federal minimum wage could result in lower suicide rates nationwide, suggesting Americans who kill themselves are often economically stressed. So much for “restoring the bonds of love and loyalty” in the U.S.
When compared to actual facts, Trump’s rhetoric on the American economy exists in the realm of fantasy. The official unemployment rate in the U.S. is indeed at a record low of 3.5%, according to the latest jobs report. That number suggests that only 3.5% of all Americans capable of working are currently unemployed and that more than 96% have jobs. But digging into the numbers offers a much different picture. As per an analysis by FiveThirtyEight.com, the 3.5% unemployment figure is misleading; only about half of all employable Americans are working full time, 10% are working part time, 2.1% are actively seeking work but are unemployed, and 1.8% are not seeking work but want a job. A whopping 35% are out of the job market and not actively seeking work.
The situation is worse for people of color, whom Trump likes to claim have benefited greatly under his presidency. Black Americans are far more likely than whites to be “underemployed” — a term for those who work part-time but are seeking full-time jobs. Additionally, the racial wealth gap in the U.S. remains strikingly high. According to a recent study, “The median black household holds just 10% of the wealth of median white household, and while blacks constitute 13% of America’s population, they hold less than 3% of its wealth.”
Yet in Trump’s version of the economy, he is “creating the most inclusive economy ever to exist,” and “lifting up Americans of every race, color, religion and creed.” On Monday, to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Trump shamelessly boasted on Twitter that it was the third anniversary of his inauguration as president and that it is, “So appropriate that today is also MLK jr DAY,” because “African-American Unemployment is the LOWEST in the history of our Country, by far. Also, best Poverty, Youth, and Employment numbers, ever.”
Trump offered several explanations for his rosy (but false) picture of a booming American economy, saying, “I knew that … if we cut taxes, slashed regulations … fixed broken trade deals and fully tapped American energy, that prosperity would come thundering back at a record speed.” But on taxes and regulations especially, Trump’s promises have fallen flat. Business Insider concluded last December that the highly touted Republican-backed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 “achieved none of the ambitious goals Republicans put forward, and there are few signs they ever will.” The Washington Post questioned Trump’s wild assertion that his deregulatory agenda was translating into a savings of $3,000 a year per household and awarded his claim “three Pinocchios.” The trade war with China that Trump dragged the country into to win a trade deal arguably cost the U.S. economy more than the proposed benefits. In a single tweet, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich demolished Trump’s triumphant celebration of his newly signed deal with China, calculating a net loss of $39 billion to the U.S. economy.
It should not surprise us in the least that the most dishonest president in U.S. history would spin a fantastical vision of the economy that appears to exist only in his imagination. After all, fact checkers at The Washington Post found that Trump made “16,241 false or misleading claims in his first three years” in office. The reporters pithily observed, “The president apparently believes he can weather an impeachment trial through sheer repetition of easily disproved falsehoods.” Given that Trump expects that economic prosperity is his strongest path to reelection, it is no surprise that it is one of the topics he lies about the most.
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV,…