What Happens in a Recession?
Trump loses, Uber evaporates, the social crisis gets worse.
This column is not in the business of forecasting recessions, based on inverted yield curves or any other form of augury. But when enough credentialed auguries suddenly think one might be possible, it seems prudent to speculate about the consequences if they turn out to be correct. So let’s imagine what might follow if, sometime this winter, our post-2008 economic expansion finally ends.
First, the easy part: Donald Trump loses re-election. It will be ugly and flailing and desperate and — depending on recession-era geopolitics — potentially quite dangerous, but there is no way a president so widely disliked survives the evaporation of his boom. The rules of politics have changed, but they haven’t been suspended. Polarization will keep Trump from being defeated in a landslide, but not from being beaten handily, and in a recession the Democrats can nominate any of their candidates and expect to evict the president with ease.
What comes next? In Washington, the centrists get a surprising opportunity. Blamed and written off by left and right alike, a Trump defeat would give the capital’s dwindling band of dealmakers and moderates another chance to govern — because even if it’s Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders in the White House, it’s still going to be red-state Democrats and blue-state Republicans holding the balance of power in the Senate. The left-wing revolution won’t be canceled, exactly, in those circumstances, but it will be postponed till after 2022 or 2024; in the between-time, the people who once pined after comprehensive immigration reform and deficit commissions may get a (last?) chance to prove their critics wrong.
Meanwhile, the right will have to decide whether it wants to be an opposition or an alternative. With a bad economy and a liberal Democrat in the White House, conservatives could well return to the scripts of the Obama era, rediscovering (with whatever absurd hypocrisy) the perils of deficits and big spending, and defining themselves entirely against whatever bargains the center-left attempts to make. But if the G.O.P. is reduced to a white working-class base at a time of increasing economic pain, there will also be incentives for Trump’s would-be successors to flesh out his populism rather than abandoning it. This will be the ground on which the next Republican civil war gets fought no matter what, but how long a recession lasts and how it gets interpreted will determine whether a serious post-Trump conservative populism is inevitable or stillborn.Then outside of D.C., the immigration crisis will diminish, while the social crisis gets worse. Notwithstanding the real horrors of gang violence in their native countries, many of the people trying to cross into the United States are clearly making an economic decision when they migrate — which means, in turn, that fewer jobs here will gradually take some pressure off the southern border. But at the same time, the domestic trends that have already worsened despite a strong economy —
- drug overdoses,
- suicide rates,
- middle-aged mortality, the
- slumping birthrate —
are likely to get even grimmer in a contraction. America’s social fabric hasn’t recovered from the rendings that followed 2008; a recession now would tear out the weakest stitching quickly.
Then in the commercial sphere, the venture-capital subsidy to American consumers will dry up. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson summed up the peculiarities of this subsidy with a recent tweet: “If you work at WeWork, drive home with Uber, and then order food by DoorDash, you’re engaging with three companies that are projected to lose about $13 billion this year.” Those losses are supposed to end with an eventual leap into profitability; in a bad economy, they may end a lot more suddenly than that. Presumably a few of the many money-losing, long-game-playing Silicon Valley companies will survive a recession — but how many? Gather your Uber rides while ye may …
Finally, to end close to home, my profession will be shellacked. As with the social trends noted above, the economic foundation for professional journalism has continued to erode amid relative economic plenty; midsize daily newspapers keep shrinking and closing, web start-ups struggle to find ad revenue, and the business of online subscriptions rewards giants like this newspaper but so far almost nobody else. For many newspapers and webzines struggling to make the economics of the business work, a slump now could be simply fatal. And academia, journalism’s comrade in “careers that made more sense in 1960,” could face its own reckoning, with midsize and small colleges closing and consolidating, like midsize and small newspapers.
So a recessionary America would find the center-left enjoying some kind of power but probably struggling to govern, a right tearing itself apart in civil war, our downscale social crisis worsening, Silicon Valley delivering substantially less than promised, and the institutions that are supposed to inform and educate struggling or in decline.Having guaranteed Trump’s removal from office, in other words, the recession would also set the stage for Trumpism’s eventual return.
Trump Is Waging War on the GOP. He’s Winning.
if you’re looking for confirmation bias—and by all accounts, that’s the mode of analysis our president prefers—there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the only thing the Trump administration needs is More Trump.
.. the Trump clones did well. Sure, Corey Stewart and Kris Kobach lost. But Trump can tell himself that Virginia is a Clinton state he doesn’t need and that he couldn’t lose Kansas in 2020 if he tried. In important states—tossups he has to have for reelection—the Trump clones won. In Florida and Georgia, Ron DeSantis and Brian Kemp ran as Mini-Trumps. And not only did these two win, but they beat the kind of young, progressive minority candidates that the Democrats are itching to put up against Trump in two years... Trump skeptics took a thumping. Barbara Comstock, Mia Love, Mike Coffman—all of those uppity conservatives who voted for Trump when they had to, but refused to bend the knee? Gone, gone, and gone. And in case you doubt how crucial this was to the president, he spent several minutes of his postelection press conference naming and shaming the Republican losers who did not sufficiently “embrace”—his word, he used it five times—him... Because, as everyone knows, Carlos Curbelo would have held on to Florida’s 26th District—which is 72 percent Hispanic and 50 percent foreign-born—had he gotten on board with Trump’s plan to sign away birthright citizenship. Cuck got what he deserved... The gains in the Senate are even better. Not only did Republicans add to their number, they did so while subtracting people, such as Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, who never showed the same level of discernment as Beautiful Ted. The result is a bigger, Trumpier majority, which, by extension, will put even more pressure on the one or two remaining Republican senators who have been reluctant to embrace the president... So if, for instance, the president needed the Senate to confirm a judge or a new attorney general, or—and we’re just spitballing here—vote on a trial of impeachment, then Trump is in a much stronger position... for all the talk about how Trumpism is a reaction to leftism and social-justice warriors and political correctness, the truth is that it is principally an intra-party fight... And like the Maoists, the Trumpers aren’t really interested in picking a fight with the other superpower. They’re much more concerned with controlling the near abroad—which is to say, the Republican party. That’s why they tend to focus their hatred on Republicans and conservatives who decline to get on board, rather than on Democrats and liberals. Jeff Flake is the enemy; Kamala Harris is just a random nonplayer character... Always remember that Trumpers—the people who believe in him, not the remora fish looking for their bits of chum—care very little about the left. Their real opponents are other Republicans. Seen from that perspective, Tuesday’s vote was a huge success. Because for Trumpers, it’s never a binary choice. Wherever a Trump-skeptical Republican was running against a Democrat, Trumpism couldn’t lose... In the final weeks of the midterm campaign, 4 percent looked like the most important number in politics: unemployment was under it and GDP growth over it. This was, economically speaking, as good as it gets, and most political professionals thought Republicans should be running on these numbers... Yet Trump decided to close the election with American Carnage 2. He obsessed about the caravan that was winding its way to our southern border. (No one seems to have asked why they wouldn’t be deterred by the Wall that Mexico paid for.) Trump ordered 5,000 troops to the border. Then the number was 10,000. Then 15,000. Then he said he was going to order these soldiers to fire on anyone who threw a rock in their general direction, even though the caravan was still a thousand miles away. The president ran an anti-immigration ad so vile that Fox News—the network whose journalists appeared onstage at a Trump campaign rally—pulled it off the air... In short, Trump looked at our fat, happy days of peace and prosperity and decided to run on fear, division, and chaos. And he was right... In politics, as in every other facet of life, you must always consider opportunity cost. And yes, it’s possible that some other closing message from the president might have produced marginally better electoral outcomes for Republicans. But maybe not. At the very least, the president’s gambit did no great harm. There was no big break against Republicans. Most of the races went according to form... The caravan worked. Sticking with Brett Kavanaugh was smart. There was no price for playing “false flag” games with the attempted mail-bombing of Democrats. No apologies, for anything, ever... Those are the lessons of 2018 and the doctrines that will shape the war of 2020. You can understand why Trump looked across the country on Tuesday night and tweeted, “Tremendous success tonight. Thank you to all!” He was smiling. The GOP caucuses in both the House and Senate will be even more friendly to him than before. His enemies have been crushed beneath his feet... The problem with getting rid of Love and Curbelo and Comstock is that it gives Democrats control of the House. Trumpism may not be interested in Democrats, but Democrats are interested in Trump. And now they have subpoena power.
.. Once a new speaker is sworn in, the Democrats will be able to investigate and call witnesses and poke and prod the administration in ways we can foresee and ways we cannot. There are, for instance, reports that the president’s son expects to be indicted. If that comes to pass, any attempt by the president to protect him will face scrutiny with the force of law behind it.
.. The White House and its surrogates have announced that they welcome Democratic overreach and are prepared to make war against congressmen who push investigations. Trump expressly threatened potential investigators in his press conference.
.. But the kinds of Democrats willing to take the hardest line against Trump will be from the safest districts. Trump can’t hurt them. And, moreover, getting to overreach means enduring an awful lot of pain during the initial-reach. Clinton and the Democrats benefited from Republican overreach in the 1998 midterm elections. The experience was not terribly pleasant for them... There are other problems on the horizon. The Democrats who won on Tuesday—Jon Tester, Joe Manchin, Tim Kaine—tended to be more centrist. The party’s progressive stars—Beto! Andrew! Stacey!—were wiped out, leaving Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sitting forlornly in the corner with her movie-star cheekbones, glamorous jackets, and lost dreams of a socialist-Democratic future. This does not mean that Democratic voters will choose a nominee who is in step with mainstream politics in 2020. But these losses make that possibility more likely. The lesson has been taught, and all Democrats have to do is learn it... There’s even the possibility that Democrats may look at the midterms and the caravan and learn a lesson about immigration. They’re never going to outbid Trump on nativism, but they don’t have to. All they have to do is convince a small share of marginal independent voters that they’re not secretly for open borders and that they do take illegal immigration seriously. If you can’t do that while maintaining your liberal base, then you don’t belong in professional politics. It’s not a heavy lift... The other problem for Trump is that the numbers don’t look especially good for him. It is difficult to imagine external circumstances being better for Republicans two years from now—you can’t really top “no major wars and 4 percent.” So the macro-environment will either be equivalent or worse... In 2016, he got the second-smallest share of the popular vote (46.1 percent) of any Republican since 2000. He ran 3 points—which is a lot—behind Republicans in the House popular vote that year. And in the 2018 midterms, he pulled the Republican share of the House popular vote down to his own 2016 level, to what is likely the third-smallest percentage for Republicans since 1994.. Trump won in 2016 because even though he ran behind most congressional Republicans, their turnout was enough to pull him over the line. Over the last two years, Republicans have been pulled backward toward him, not the other way around... The good news for Trump and his Republicans is that they won’t have to beat the ’27 Yankees. They just have to beat whomever the Democrats put in front of them... for Trump in 2020, there cannot be a Morning in America campaign. There will be no 48-state mandate that realigns American politics for a generation. At best, Trump can hope to radicalize Democrats into nominating a weak contender and then gamble that the country is closely enough divided to give him a chance of drawing to an inside straight, again. This is not a crazy strategy. It might even be the best move available on the board.All of which means more chaos, more apocalypse, more carnage. More Trump.
The Center Is Sexier Than You Think
The story of the 2018 midterms isn’t Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th District, Ben Jealous in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Maryland and a leftist surge. Or, rather, that’s just one narrative, eclipsed by the less cinematic triumphs of less progressive Democrats. They’re by and large winning the primaries in the swing districts that might actually turn from red to blue. They’re the stars of their party’s mission to erect a barricade against the worst of Donald Trump.
.. Without doubt, Ocasio-Cortez’s ouster of Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary delivered an important message about entrenched politicians disconnected from their constituents. But when she gets to Congress, she won’t be replacing a Republican. She’ll be a new Democrat (and yes, a new kind of Democrat) in a seat that the party already holds and wasn’t going to lose. And she’ll almost surely be outnumbered by Democratic newcomers who waged more moderate campaigns in areas of the country where that’s the safer tack.
“The real story out of these Democratic primaries isn’t left or right — it’s women,” Dave Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told me. Additionally, he said, he has been struck by the consequential role of candidates’ biographies, sometimes captured in compelling campaign videos, like Ocasio-Cortez’s, that go viral.
.. he doesn’t see many politicians like Ocasio-Cortez. “They’re mainstream Democratic candidates,” he said. “They’re more running against Republicans and against the tax and health care bills than they are running to reshape the Democratic Party.”
.. NPR found that pragmatism is winning out over progressivism in the key races that will decide control of Congress.”
.. While only a minority of candidates endorsed by progressive groups like Justice Democrats and Our Revolution had won their primaries, more than three-quarters of those endorsed by the more centrist New Democrat Coalition had.
.. On the same day that Ocasio-Cortez generated front-page headlines by beating Crowley, much less progressive Democratic newcomers came out on top in crowded primaries in New York districts that are currently represented by Republicans and are high on the party’s red-to-blue wish list.