Donald Trump gave his first major speech of the election attacking Hillary Clinton on Wednesday morning. It mostly focused on labeling Clinton as corrupt, his stock "Crooked Hillary" line expanded to an hour.
But it also tried to label Clinton as incompetent, blaming her personally for a series of events ranging from the decline of manufacturing jobs in the US to the rise of ISIS in Iraq.
These policy arguments are pretty revealing — largely for what they say about Trump. In the speech, he takes a ridiculously narrow view of how the world works, assuming that if something in America or the world has gone wrong recently, it’s because of American policy — specifically, an American policy created by Hillary Clinton. His basic argument is that if a bad thing happened in the world and Hillary Clinton was alive during it, she’s the one who caused it.
This goes beyond normal campaign rhetoric — it reveals a basic ignorance about the way the world works on Trump’s part. This speech is supposed to be the debut of "serious Trump" after the past week’s disasters for his campaign. But it’s clear he still has no clue about the basic way American policy affects the world just months before he might be elected president.
Trump doesn’t seem to be aware of the Arab Spring
In 2011, the Middle East experienced a massive wave of protests that transformed regional politics. It toppled the Tunisian government and led to a temporary collapse in dictatorship in Egypt. Both the Libyan and Syrian governments decided to respond to the protests with violent repression, leading to civil wars in both countries and contributing to the rise of ISIS. You may have heard of this; it’s called the Arab Spring.
Yet according to Donald Trump, Clinton "managed to almost singlehandedly destabilize the entire Middle East" during that time period. In Syria, it was Clinton — and not Bashar al-Assad’s violent response to protesters — that kicked off a civil war: "Hillary Clinton’s support for violent regime change in Syria has thrown the country into one of the bloodiest civil wars anyone has ever seen."
ISIS, too, is Clinton’s personal doing: "ISIS threatens us today because of the decisions Hillary Clinton has made." Never mind the vacuum created by the civil war in Syria, or the Iraqi government’s decision to repress the Sunni minority, or the decision by regional players like Saudi Arabia and Qatar to shuffle arms to radical groups in Syria. It’s all Clinton’s fault, even though she wasn’t president.
Trump is going beyond blaming Clinton for mishandling the post-2011 crisis in the Middle East, which any Republican would do.
Instead, he’s saying the entire crisis was her fault, as if the Arab Spring protesters were doing her nefarious bidding. Trump seems totally unaware of the reasons the Middle East is currently in crisis or America’s actual role in handling said crisis, a really breathtaking display of ignorance in a potential president.
Trump, trade, and robots
Trump’s ability to magically blame Clinton for bad things extends beyond the Middle East. He says that she, personally, is responsible for the decline of American manufacturing jobs in the United States.
"Hillary Clinton gave China millions of our best jobs, and effectively let China completely rebuild itself," Trump said in the speech. "Hillary Clinton supported Bill Clinton’s disastrous NAFTA, just like she supported China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization."
What actually destroyed US manufacturing was structural changes in the economy itself, not Hillary Clinton.
In the past two decades, American manufacturing productivity has gone way up, due in significant part to automation and other efficiency-gaining innovations. That means fewer people are needed to do work, which is why manufacturing employment has gone down in the past two years while the output of the US manufacturing sector has skyrocketed:
Trump, the famous businessman, either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about what’s actually driving this.
In fairness to Trump, there is a reasonable case that US trade with China did cost a real amount of manufacturing jobs on top of the effects of automation. A famous paper by economists David Autor, Gordon Hanson, and David Dorn estimated that US-China trade cost about 1 million US jobs between 2000 and 2007. That was, you might note, during the George W. Bush administration.
Yet according to the authors themselves, these job losses were going to happen pretty much no matter what the US did. China’s rapid growth and economic liberalization, beginning in the early 1980s, caused it to join the global economy. Once that happened, the architecture of the global trading system essentially guaranteed that the US would lose massive numbers of jobs in the manufacturing sector.
"It was inevitable," Hanson told me in an April interview. "Once China became part of the global economy, what was going to happen was the US getting out of the really labor-intensive stuff as China moved into that."
So Trump’s argument here is a one-two whammy of ignorance: ignorance both of the fundamental ways automation is changing the economy and of the way the global trading system actually works to deprive US workers of jobs. Trump seems to have an absurd faith in the power of US policy to singlehandedly change the character of the global economy.
Why this matters
You might think I’m being unfair here — that all candidates blame stuff on their opponents unfairly.
That’s true, to a degree. But Trump goes well beyond other politicians in just how ignorant he is of policy conditions.
Here, for instance, is Bernie Sanders attacking Clinton’s Middle East policy in a December Democratic debate. The takeaway isn’t that different from Trump’s speech: Both men accuse Clinton of supporting interventions that destabilize the region. But Sanders correctly identified Clinton’s proposed solutions to the post-Arab spring crisis as the problem, without saying she’s responsible for the Arab Spring itself:
Yes, we could get rid of Qaddafi, a terrible dictator, but that created a vacuum for ISIS. Yes, we could get rid of Assad tomorrow, but that would create another political vacuum that would benefit ISIS. So I think, yeah, regime change is easy, getting rid of dictators is easy. But before you do that, you've got to think about what happens the day after.
The point here is that Trump has a unique lack of understanding about the effect US policy has had on the world, one that relates to his fundamental ignorance about substantive issues. His policy attacks on Clinton sound bizarre because he genuinely doesn’t understand policy.