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A conservative case against Trump’s apocalyptic view of America

A screenshot of the video game "The Last of Us," showing a man looking at a devastated city.
Trump, and some conservatives, sees a grim America.
Flickr/All Games Delta

Donald Trump tells black people — typically in front of white people — that because their lives are so horrible and hopeless, they should take a flier and for once vote for the Republican presidential nominee. "What the hell do you have to lose?" Trump said before a suburban Detroit audience last month.

That YOLO argument, although seemingly race-specific, is really just a cruder variant of what Trump has been saying for more than a year at his rambunctious rallies. Embedded within Trump’s "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan is something more depressing and desperate than merely the idea that modern America falls short of some past Golden Age.

Rather, Trump paints a picture of America as a depleted, even failed state. Disrespect abroad, disorder at home. And here come even more dangerous, parasitic immigrants. As he told the Washington Post earlier this year, "I think we were a very powerful, very wealthy country. And we're a poor country now." And in Monday’s presidential debate, Trump twice referred to the United States as a "Third World country."

If Trump’s dystopian picture is at all accurate, why not take a chance on an outsider with no political experience, an impulsive personality, a checkered business background, and a flimsy understanding of public policy? It’s the end of days for the republic, with one final, long-shot, orange-hued chance for national renewal.

In America, it’s not two minutes from midnight

What do we have to lose? Quite a bit, actually. Trump World’s pervasive pessimism about the state of America — shared by too much of the right —  is fully detached from reality. The nation isn’t a shambles, nor only a tick or two from midnight and doomsday.

Does it face challenges? Of course. It always has and always will. Yet no advanced economy is better positioned to prosper in the coming decades amid sweeping technological change. Vote for Trump. Vote for Hillary Clinton. But whomever you vote for, don’t make your decision based on some nightmarish view of the state of the union.

I’m a conservative who finds the self-described billionaire businessman wildly unfit to be the next American president. Trump’s bigotry and boorishness are morally offensive. His apparently willful ignorance of domestic and foreign affairs is alarming. But also deeply troubling is the apocalyptic picture Trump paints of the American project in 2016, one that may frighten voters into supporting him but is totally at odds with the facts.

The angry, gloomy harangue that has been the Trump campaign has helped undermine core American values — including openness, generosity, and an unshakable optimism that led Ronald Reagan to say that "the difference between an American and any other kind of person is that an American lives in anticipation of the future because he knows it will be a great place."

From Reagan’s "city upon a hill" to Trump’s "Third World nation"

We'll find out in November if Trump’s message has truly broad appeal or is just narrowcasting to the future audience of the Trump News Network. But we already know it’s struck home with Republicans. They long ago made their political risk-reward calculation, basically agreeing with Trump’s view of a financially broke and spiritually broken nation.

Indeed, for all of Trump’s vaunted media mastery, selling Republicans on the American apocalypse really wasn’t so hard. Polls show nearly 90 percent of Republicans think the country is headed down the wrong track — presumably toward some Scandinavian, social democratic hellscape. And apparently it’s been on the wrong track for some time. A Pew Research survey found that two-thirds of GOP and GOP-leaning voters thought life in America "for people like them" was better 50 years ago than it is today.

The dismal metaphor of the "Flight 93 election"

Some on the right argue the roots of the current cataclysm extend even further into the past. The Claremont Institute, a small but influential California-based conservative think tank, recently published an essay arguing that America has been on the wrong track "for at least a century," as progressive values usurped conservative ones.

And now the great reckoning is finally at hand. In "The Flight 93 Election," a reference to the plane brought down by passengers on 9/11, the pseudonymous author Publius Decius Mus warns that "death is certain" — unless those who value an isolationist, protectionist, and perhaps paler America "charge the cockpit" in Washington and seize control from the open borders–loving, free trading, perpetually warfighting "Davoisie oligarchy."

The essay, which went viral, is a clever attempt to make the nativist, alt-right­-influenced case for Trump in a way Trump-skeptical conservatives might find tempting. The author’s core logical construct is this: Conservatives have long offered a broad, declinist critique of modern America — leviathan government, failing schools, family dysfunction — but are unwilling to take the next step and concede that immediate, radical change is necessary. They have little sense of urgency even as the cliff fast approaches.

What explains the conservative cognitive dissonance? Publius isn’t sure but doesn’t rule out that the fat and happy center-right intelligentsia in Washington have gone native, putting pocketbook before country. Maybe that’s what they have to lose.

But here’s another possibility: Perhaps some Trump skeptics on the right think America, challenged as it may be, simply isn’t near collapse. It isn’t approaching a fateful inflection point from which there is no return or repair. And it’s not even a close call.

The doom and gloom can’t be squared with the data

Now, perhaps this measured optimism comes as a surprise to Republicans who’ve been told by some politicians and pundits that America is always only a year or two from government debt–driven financial calamity. They’ve also been told the economic recovery is "false" — Trump’s word — due to phony government statistics and Federal Reserve money printing at the behest of the Obama White House and the Hillary Clinton campaign. Inflation is really sky high rather than quiescent, and the unemployment rate is many multiples of the "official" number.

But the stubborn facts, both from within and outside government, paint a much different picture than that presented by the apocalyptarians. The data doesn't support the gloom. Sure, the recovery has been slow, at least the slowest since World War II, maybe in American history. But get in line. Great Britain’s recovery is perhaps the slowest in nearly two centuries, and the UK even has the low, low corporate tax rate conservatives lust after.

Perhaps what is wrong with the US economy in recent years isn’t mainly Obamacare or Dodd-Frank or the higher corporate tax rate or a withering of some intrinsic Americanness. Perhaps what’s wrong is something that affected both the US and UK, and the rest of the global economy.

It’s not the end times but a predictably slow recovery

How about this alternate theory: Recessions accompanied by systemic shocks to the banking and housing systems tend to be followed by miserably slow recoveries. At least that’s the view of economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. Their research suggests such anemic rebounds are characterized by "very sluggish U-shaped recovery" in incomes, Rogoff wrote last year, and persistently high unemployment. Sound familiar?

The deep financial shock of the Great Recession differentiates it from the nasty Reagan-era recession of 1981-'82, which was followed by a famously robust recovery. Looking at things that way, as the Goldman Sachs economics team recently noted, "the post-2008 U.S. recovery has not been unusually weak or prolonged relative to other financial crisis episodes, and in fact has been notably stronger when judged from a labor market perspective."

More than 15 million private sector jobs have been generated during the recovery. And over the past year the jobless rate has dropped to 4.9 percent from 5.1 percent, even as the labor force has grown by 2.4 million. Also encouraging has been the rise in total earnings — higher hourly wages combined with hours worked — by 3.5 percent during the past year years, economist Brian Wesbury of First Trust Advisors has noted. That’s pretty decent, especially with inflation so low.

America was not a poor country before the Great Recession, nor is it now. Its per capita GDP is 20 percent or more higher than other large rich nations such as France, Germany, Japan, and the UK. American households have a net worth of nearly $90 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve, a total that doesn’t even include intangible assets such as patents and copyrights ($15 trillion).

And while one can argue the merits of gradually reducing government debt as a share of the economy, there’s no indication investors think Uncle Sam is near his borrowing capacity — not with America a comparatively low-tax country and running the world’s reserve currency.

Remembering another era of unwarranted gloom

This is not the first time in the postwar era that America, or at least many Americans, has suffered a crisis of confidence. But America has always bounced back. For instance, while the 1980s were a time of American revival, there was also a steady unease about the rise of Japan — paralleling concerns about China today. Many observers, including a well-known Manhattan real estate developer with a penchant for publicity, saw Japan as a nation ascendant at the expense of America, with its twin budget and trade deficits and military overreach.

An optimistic counterpoint was presented in 1988’s The Third Century, by Joel Kotkin and Yoriko Kishimoto. The authors were correctly confident that America’s more freewheeling, free-enterprise system would out-innovate its Asian competitors and their industrial policy planning. That flexible, entrepreneurial economy is what gave America its "reserve power," or in Japanese, sokojikara.

How is America’s sokojikara doing? Not so bad. Google, Facebook, and Uber offer reasonable evidence America is still able to generate plenty of high-impact, innovative companies. And even measures showing some reason for concern seem to be turning around. Recent research from the Kauffman Foundation finds three straight years of growth in high-impact businesses, following a post-recession slump.

Another way of gauging America’s ability to create high-value entrepreneurship is by how many people get really rich that way relative to what happens in other nations. And no big, rich country translates entrepreneurial daring into wealth the way the United States does.

Europe and Asia would love to have economies as entrepreneurially dynamic as America’s. A study last year found that the cumulative value of all European billion-dollar tech startups — the so-called unicorns — created since 2000 was only a third of Facebook. Instead of creating the next Apple, Google, or Netflix, Europe sues the existing American ones. This dynamism is perhaps one reason why other advanced economies, according to Pew Research, say the US remains as important and powerful a world leader as it was a decade ago.

The apocalyptic vision draws on stale ideas

Here’s another weird thing about the "Flight 93" critique: It’s kind of moldy and outdated. The number of unauthorized immigrants in the US has been stable for nearly a decade, according to Pew. Moreover, immigrants from Asia, mostly China and India, are now outpacing those from Mexico — yet the complaints focus on Mexicans. And a new economic literature review from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine finds immigration "has an overall positive impact on long-run economic growth in the U.S."

Likewise, concerns about trade — the subject at the very heart of the Trump campaign — overstates the case. The China trade disruption to particular regions of the country is a yesterday challenge, not a tomorrow one.

In their paper "The China Shock," economists David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson conclude, "The great China trade experiment may soon be over, if it is not already. The country is moving beyond the period of catch-up associated with its market transition and becoming a middle-income nation. Rapidly rising real wages indicate that the end of cheap labor in China is at hand." A more forward-looking critique of the US economy would look at the labor market challenges posed by automation. But one would not know this listening to Trump.

Will any of the above facts and figures change the minds of those who think America’s best days have come and gone? Probably not. False beliefs are tough to change when they are linked to ideology and self-identity — including political identity. When Americans are asked the broad "right track, wrong track" question, between 60 and 70 percent choose the negative option. Those numbers are what you might expect coming out of recession, not seven years into a recovery and expansion.

Oddly, people are happy about their own situations

But when Americans are asked how they feel about their personal finances, their mood is far more upbeat. Consumer sentiment surveys show normal cyclical improvement, tracking the gradual improvement in economic conditions. Normally all surveys move together, but they have diverged over the past decade. Gloom about the country exists side by side with personal confidence. Why the split? In an analysis of the trends, former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke theorized that political polarization has a big role to play:

In a highly polarized environment, with echo-chamber media, political debates often become shrill, and commentators and advocates have strong incentives to argue that the country’s future is bleak unless their party gains control. In this environment, it seems plausible that people will respond more intensely and negatively to open-ended questions about the general state of the country, while questions in a survey focused narrowly on economic conditions elicit more moderate responses.

So when your party occupies the Oval Office, then perhaps you are more likely to express optimism about America’s future. If the other party is running things, not so much. And, indeed, Democrats are far more optimistic about the country’s direction.

But there might be something else going on, too. In his 2010 book The Uses of Pessimism, English conservative philosopher Roger Scruton inveighs against the "unscrupulous optimists" of the left who think that with enough data and will, something like a heaven on earth can be imposed from above by clever technocrats.

Conservatives, however, tend to believe in a world of limits, constraints, and trade-offs. They show gratitude, as conservative thinker Yuval Levin has put it, "for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it." They don’t attempt to reboot the American Project under an authoritarian populist. Change is best done more incrementally, from the bottom up, after much trial and error. We often don’t know what we don’t know. Conservatives even like to joke about their inclination toward pessimism. George Will calls the trait conducive to their happiness, since it means "they are rarely surprised."

But that disposition may make those on the right sometimes susceptible to "unscrupulous pessimists" who think hell on earth is always just around the corner, effective planning or government action of any sort is rarely possible, and all progress is illusory. This includes radio talk show hosts and gold bugs who think the US has been in a "false" economy since at least the founding of the Fed in 1913.

So, sure, things really could be better. Growth could be faster and more broadly shared. Public policy — from both Congress and the Fed — during the Great Recession was hardly optimal for faster recovery. Raising living standards as quickly in the future as in the past may be harder due to demographic changes and the idea that all the "low-hanging fruit" of technological innovation have been picked.

Then again, for instance, we are now placing supercomputers with access to all of human knowledge in the hands of almost everyone on earth. That bodes well for future growth, both here and abroad. Indeed, there’s better reason to think government stats are effectively downplaying the economy, due to difficulty measuring the effects of the growing digital sector, than covering up its failures.

As long as America remains open to global talent, capital, and competition, there is reason to stay optimistic. Don’t think for a second America is a loser nation that has nothing to lose. It isn’t and it does.

James Pethothoukis is the DeWitt Wallace fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an official CNBC contributor. Find him on Twitter @JimPethokoukis.

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