The Peculiar Persistence of Trump-stalgia

“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Lately, I’ve been seeing people repeat Ronald Reagan’s famous question, many of them apparently believing that they’re making a slam-dunk case for returning Donald Trump to power.

Yet if you take the question literally, the answer is almost ludicrously favorable to President Biden. After all, four years ago, thousands of Americans were dying each day of Covid-19.

Soaring deaths aside, four years ago more than 20 million Americans were unemployed; Trump left office with the worst job record of any president since Herbert Hoover. Also, the country was in the grip of a violent crime wave, with murders soaring.

Today, by contrast, we’ve just experienced the longest stretch of unemployment below 4 percent since the 1960s, and the violent crime wave — Trump didn’t cause it, but it did happen on his watch — has been rapidly receding.

So how can anyone think that the Reagan question favors Trump? Spoiler alert: I don’t have a full explanation. But at the very least, we need to acknowledge that something very peculiar is happening.

One common explanation of Trump-stalgia is that many people give the former president a mulligan for 2020, attributing all the bad things that happened in his final year to the Covid pandemic (and ignoring the extent to which Trump’s botched response to the pandemic added to the death toll). That is, when they say “four years ago” they actually mean “before the pandemic.” That surely explains part of what’s going on.

But there are also problems with this story. If Trump gets a pass for the economic and social damage inflicted by the pandemic, why shouldn’t Biden get a similar pass for problems that manifested on his watch but surely reflected delayed effects of Covid disruptions?

For example, ripple effects of the pandemic clearly explain a lot of the inflation surge of 2021-22. How do we know this? Because prices rose almost everywhere. Different nations measure inflation somewhat differently, but if you look at the Harmonized Index of Consumer Prices, which is available for a number of countries, you find that cumulative inflation since the beginning of the pandemic has been almost eerily similar in the United States and in Europe.

Also, Trump boosters aren’t consistent about sending 2020 down the memory hole. Trump claimed that he presided over gasoline prices of less than $2 a gallon, but this was true only for a couple of months in 2020 — a period when global oil prices were low because the pandemic had the world economy flat on its back.

Furthermore, almost every measure I’m aware of says most Americans are, in fact, better off now than they were in late 2019 or early 2020. Yes, prices have risen a lot, but incomes have risen even more. Real incomes per capita, although lower than they were when the government was handing out stimulus checks, are higher than before the pandemic. Most workers’ wages have significantly outpaced inflation.

But, you say, people feel that they’re worse off — I agree that narrative is floating out there — except overall, they really don’t. I’ve written before about swing-state polls in which solid majorities of voters say that the economy is doing badly, but at the same time comparable majorities say that they themselves are doing well. The widely cited Michigan survey asks respondents whether their financial situation is better or worse than it was five (not four) years ago: 52 percent say better, 38 percent say worse. And if Americans are feeling financially strapped, why is consumer spending so high?

Negative assessments of the economy, as opposed to personal well-being, may in part reflect a familiar if frustrating consequence of inflation: When prices and wages are both rising, people tend to feel that they earned their wage gains only to have inflation take them away.

And again, when voters are asked about their personal well-being as opposed to the state of the economy, they’re relatively positive — although even there, partisanship shades responses. Notably, some swing-state polls don’t just show that registered Republicans have a much worse view of the economy than Democrats; they also show Republicans offering a substantially worse assessment of their personal finances, which suggests that at least some people aren’t answering the question they were actually asked.

All that said, Trump-stalgia is undoubtedly a powerful force.

Biden helped lead us through a time of turmoil — much of which happened even before he took office — to a pretty good place, with very low unemployment, fairly low inflation and falling crime. But many Americans seem unaware of the good news; for example, the drop in crime doesn’t appear to have broken through to public consciousness at all. And there seems to be a romanticized vision of what things were like under Biden’s predecessor, which somehow omits the terrible things that happened in 2020.

So are you better off than you were four years ago? For most Americans, the answer is clearly yes. But for reasons that still remain unclear, many seem disinclined to believe it.

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