Today on Trump Twitter:
Here’s my concern.
When US companies do something that sounds good in the next few years, whether it’s hiring new people, or deciding to stay in the United States, or reporting high profits, some of them are going to credit President Trump.
First, because it’s going to get them good press. “Ford decides not to build plant in Mexico” is tenth-page news. “Ford decides not to build plant in Mexico because of President Trump” is front-page news.
But second, because it’s going to make the President like them. I don’t know whether Trump is secretly sending people to whatever conferences all of these people go to, saying “if you decide to do something good, give me credit, and I’ll do you a favor later”. I assume he isn’t. This is the sort of thing that coordinates itself, without any inconvenient documents that can get posted to WikiLeaks later. If you’re the CEO of Ford, and you notice you’re doing something that would make Trump look really good if you attributed it to him, why not attribute it to him for free, then remind him how much he likes you next time you need a tax cut or a subsidy or something? Trump has put a lot of effort into crafting his image as a person who repays favors (think appointing many of his earliest supporters to Cabinet positions) – you think businesspeople aren’t going to notice that kind of thing?
0.1% of the time a US company does something that looks bad, like close a plant or move jobs overseas, Trump is going to launch a media crusade against them. The Presidency has a big pulpit and he’s going to get a lot of people angry. Then Trump will offer them some kind of deal, and the company will back down. Not because they’ve learned the error of their ways. Not even because the deal was so good. But because making the President (and the public) happy is much more important to them than moving jobs to Mexico or whatever they were doing before.
Mother Jones mentions in passing that Carrier air conditioning, Trump’s biggest job “success” so far, is owned by a giant defense contractor who gets probably like 1% of their profits from air conditioning. Presumably the company would be happy to never sell another air conditioner again if it meant that the government chooses their fighter jets over the competing brand. Knowing Trump’s style of corruption, they have every reason to believe this will happen after they handed him a big PR victory.
This plan isn’t going to scale. Even Trump can only create so many media circuses. 999 companies will successfully move to Mexico in the amount of time it takes Trump to convince one company not to. But almost tautologically, the only ones we’ll ever hear about are the ones that become media circuses, and so it will look like Trump keeps winning.
So based on these two strategies, we are in for four years of sham Trump victories which look really convincing on a first glance. Every couple of weeks, until it gets boring, another company is going to say Trump convinced them to keep jobs in the United States. The total number of jobs saved this way will never be more than a tiny fraction of the jobs that could be saved by (eg) good economic policy, but nobody knows anything about economic policy and Trump will make sure everybody hears about Ford keeping jobs in the US. Every one of these victories will actively make the world worse, in the sense that these big companies will get taxpayer subsidies or favors they can call in later to distort government priorities, but nobody’s going to notice these either.
I think it’s important that we be prepared for this and send a clear message, before this gets any worse, that these aren’t to be taken seriously.
I also think it’s important to be prepared for the fact that this clear message won’t work. Imagine you’re a factory worker in Indiana, and every week you hear on the news that Trump convinced another factory to stay in the US. And also, you read an editorial by Paul Krugman or someone saying that this is all a trick. What do you end out believing?
And saving jobs isn’t the only way he can do this. Trump’s talent is PR, having his finger on the pulse of the media. He can spot things like that guy who raised the price of the toxoplasma drug 1000%, and then he can go in, make some corrupt deal, and get him to back down. He can spot all of those culture war things where the entire country is going to spend a month focused on the same small-town bakery, and by throwing around the entire might of the federal government he can probably make everyone back off and pose together for a nice group photo. If he can get all of these things right (and it will play exactly to his talents), then a majority of people won’t care what policies his administration passes. I think this is a big part of his plan.
There’s an old joke about Batman. Suppose you’re a hypercompetent billionaire in a decaying city, and you want to do something about the crime problem. What’s your best option? Maybe you could to donate money to law-enforcement, or after-school programs for at-risk teens, or urban renewal. Or you could urge your company full of engineering geniuses to invent new police tactics and better security systems. Or you could use your influence as a beloved celebrity to petition the government to pass laws which improve efficiency of the justice system.
Bruce Wayne decided to dress up in a bat costume and personally punch criminals. And we love him for it.
I worry that Trump’s plan for his administration is to dress up in a President costume and personally punch people we don’t like, while leaving policy to rot. And I worry it’s going to work.
[prediction: highly-publicized stories about Trump successfully keeping businesses in the US on a case-by-case basis, which never add up to a significant number of jobs saved, will keep coming, and be a central point of how his administration relates to the public over the next year: 50%]