Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?

Trump is the first incumbent president to think that sowing chaos helps him politically.

During a presidential debate in 1980, Ronald Reagan asked a now famous question: “Are you better off now that you were four years ago?” That was a provocative question coming on the heels of stagflation (rising prices combined with wage stagnation), double digit interest rates, and a Middle East oil embargo. As challengers often do during elections, Reagan wanted to focus the blame for all of that on the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter. It is a tried and true political strategy that worked well for him.

Given that Donald Trump has been in office almost four years, the folks at Midas Touch think it’s time to revive the question.

While that video makes a pretty powerful statement, perhaps it would also be helpful to look at the data on where things stood when Trump was inaugurated and where they stand today.

  • By January 2017, the U.S. had successfully avoided a crisis with the H1N1 flu in 2009 and Ebola in 2014. In contrast, this country leads the world in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, with almost 4 million cases and over 140,000 deaths. Even Trump has acknowledged that things will get worse before they get better.
  • The unemployment rate when Trump took office was 4.7 percent. Today it stands at 11.1 percent.
  • The federal deficit has ballooned from 3.2 percent of GDP in 2017 to 17.9 percent of GDP today.
  • By the end of 2018, the percentage of people in this country who were uninsured had risen by almost three points for a net increase of about seven million adults.

What that data tells us is that the vast majority of Americans would answer Reagan’s question today by saying that they are worse off than they were for years ago. Amidst all of that, however, there is some good news: violent crime rates have continued on their downward trajectory. But you wouldn’t know that from listening to Trump and his enablers.

For example, Michael Goodwin started off his column at the New York Post by writing: “From sea to shining sea, crime is surging and gunfire rings throughout the night. In some cities, anarchists smash windows and set fires, aiming to set up autonomous zones.” He is, of course, writing about the protests against police brutality. So this scene in Portland is what he is referring to.

The actual crime wave Americans are witnessing is coming from police officers and federal stormtroopers.

Kevin Drum nailed it by pointing out that, when it comes to what these federal troops are doing, the televised violence is the goal.

This whole thing is purely a campaign contrivance. Trump is trying to run on the idea that our (Democratic) cities are in flames and only a (Republican) president can save them. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough violence to keep that notion alive, so he decided to manufacture some.

Commentators like Goodwin step right up to the plate to not just scare people about what’s going on, but twist it all and somehow make it Joe Biden’s fault.

More broadly, the defense of the mobs puts presidential nominee Joe Biden in yet another bind. The fact that he seems to be a mute bystander on the issue is a sign of his fundamental weakness.

Even more bizarrely, the Trump campaign is using pictures of what is happening under this administration’s assault to suggest that “you won’t be safe in Biden’s America.”

Philip Bump describes what’s happening in that video.

At the end of the ad comes a warning for the viewer. This is the America that former vice president Joe Biden wants, it claims, superimposing the face of the probable Democratic presidential nominee over video footage of burning dumpsters.

“You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” it warns.

Ominous. Certainly not what Americans want to see. Except … all of those stark images from the ad were captured around the country in late May. Meaning that while they’re used to argue that America won’t be safe under Biden, they actually depict instability under Trump.

To get back to Reagan’s question, Donald Trump is probably the only incumbent president in this country’s history that thinks it helps him to make the situation worse by deliberately creating chaos. But the president’s biographers have been telling us for years that this is his modus operandi.

“The prince of chaos,” said Trump biographer Gwenda Blair.

The spawn of Norman Vincent Peale and Roy Cohn, Trump has stomped through life armed with the obstinate, self-centered tenets of optimistic thinking and the sneering, deep-seated lessons of attack, attack, attack. He creates chaos, and then he responds to that chaos, withstanding it, even embracing it, feeding on it—and then he outlasts the outrage, emerging not only alive but emboldened.

It is in that sense that Trump is actually goading the country into responding to Reagan’s question by saying, “No, we’re not better off than we were four years ago” so that he can once again blame it all on his evil opponent, while claiming that “I alone can fix it.” The man is clearly not well.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.