Try to imagine yourself as a modern-day Rip Van Winkle awakening after a few years of hibernation. You weren’t following the election news, but you knew it was a big story, and so you tuned in to tonight’s first presidential debate to see what the hubbub was all about.
You’d be confused.
You’d quickly see that Hillary Clinton represents a familiar archetype. She’s been in American politics for a long time. She served as the nation’s top diplomat and as a United States senator. She sponsored bills and was part of diplomatic agreements. She spoke fluently about her ideas on a range of issues. She took some jabs at her opponents, and she was sometimes a little boring and in the weeds.
You would see, in other words, that the Democrats had nominated an experienced politician — it’s what you do.
The other party, by contrast, seems to have done something weird. Their nominee, Donald Trump, seems erratic — peevish, visibly annoyed at being referred to by his first name, lashing out at Rosie O’Donnell for some reason — and mired in controversy. Accused of practicing racial discrimination in his businesses, he says being sued by the federal government is “one of those things” and even though he paid up, there was “no admission of guilt.” Pressed to release his federal income tax returns, he said he can’t because he’s being audited, which really just seems like a confirmation that his returns would be interesting and worth seeing.
But beyond the personal controversies, he rather clearly has no idea what he’s talking about.
Trump doesn’t know much about the economy
Trump explained that he talks about how rich he is “not in a braggadocious way” but because “it's time that this country has somebody running the country who has an idea about money.”
And yet from his very first statement in the debate, Trump revealed a frankly bizarre level of ignorance about economic policy.
- Literally the first thing Trump said after thanking the moderator was that “our jobs are fleeing the country” when, in fact, employment has been steadily increasing for years.
- Three sentences later, he said the Chinese “are devaluing their currency and there's nobody in our government to fight them,” when, in fact, the Chinese are trying to prop up the value of their currency in the face of a massive investor exodus from Chinese real estate.
- He also said the Chinese “are using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China,” which isn’t even how piggy banks work, much less the US-Chinese economic relationship.
- He said that Mexico is feasting on American manufacturing and “building the bigger plants in the world” when, in fact, Tesla is currently building the biggest factory in the world right in California. The existing biggest factory in the world is also in the United States, and is where Boeing jumbo jets are built. No. 3 is a Mitsubishi plant located in Illinois.
One could continue with the factual specifics here, but the overarching theme is pretty clear: The Republicans nominated someone who doesn’t know anything about his signature issue. Trump lambasted Clinton for her involvement in NAFTA, which he said had devastated American manufacturing, but US manufacturing output has risen about 50 percent since NAFTA passed. And while it’s not true that the world’s biggest factories are opening in Mexico, it is absolutely true that both the Boeing factory and the Mitsubishi factory depend critically on international trade for their viability.
Trump’s trade hang-up is itself weird
What’s particularly odd about this is that while Trump doesn’t know anything about trade policy and isn’t in possession of any relevant facts about American manufacturing, he seems to see trade policy as the only economic issue worth discussing. You would never know from Trump’s discourse that the vast majority of Americans work in jobs related to domestic service provision — they work in hospitals and restaurants and schools and stores working with nearby customers, not internationally traded manufacturing.
A particularly vexing aspect of this is that the GOP nominee’s core business expertise is in real estate development. Under the circumstances, you might think he would have something useful and insightful to say about house building or some other adjacent sector of the economy. But he no more talked about construction than he talked about health care.
He did briefly mention that “our energy policies are a disaster,” but energy prices have been falling for years. The brief digression into being wrong about energy was immediately followed by a repetition of the idea that the country is suffering a disastrous outflow of jobs to foreign countries. “All you have to do is look at Michigan and look at Ohio,” he said, “and look at all of these places where so many of their jobs and their companies are just leaving.”
Ohio has a 4.7 percent unemployment rate, and in Michigan it’s 4.5 percent. These states have problems, no doubt, but they are strange examples of the economic devastation wrought by trade.
Trump has a lot of odd ideas
But let’s go back to our newly awakened debate watcher. A very curious aspect of the debate from the standpoint of someone who hasn’t been following this campaign for a while would be the repeated instances in which Trump was accused of believing something crazy and then he angrily denied it.
- “Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese,” Clinton said. He protested. “I did not. I do not say that.” But it turns out he did.
- “You even at one time suggested that you would try to negotiate down the national debt of the United States,” Clinton charged, to which Trump flatly replied, “Wrong.” But it turns out he did.
Trump also described in some detail a wild conspiracy theory in which the entire economy is being held up exclusively by a stock market bubble whose existence, in turn, depends entirely on the Fed keeping interest rates low. And he says the Fed is doing this not because it’s good for the economy but because it’s doing “very political things.”
He offered no evidence for this.
It also seems clear that Trump has a weird problem with admitting error. Confronted with his past statements about climate and debt, Trump just pretended he never said them. Confronted with his lack of past statements opposing the invasion of Iraq, he concocted a bizarre story about having opposed the war in secret phone conversations with the conservative pundit Sean Hannity. He admitted no error in the Obama birth certificate imbroglio and closed the debate pursuing a years-old feud with comedian Rosie O’Donnell rather than apologizing for past intemperate language about women.
Something strange is going on here
On one level, “Donald Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about” is the ultimate dog-bites-man story of the 2016 election.
But that’s why I think it’s useful to try to purge yourself of your existing knowledge of the campaign. If you just tuned in Monday night expecting to see two well-qualified and broadly competent candidates discussing the issues in some kind of recognizable shape, you would find yourself sorely disappointed.
The conceit of the Trump campaign is that he’s a smart, business-savvy outsider who can fix things. But he clearly has no idea how to fix things. He doesn’t even seem to have a grasp of what the problems are.
If you were just tuning in to this campaign, you would find yourself hung up on a pretty obvious question — why did the Republican Party nominate a guy who clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about? It’s a good question.