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The Great Economy Can't Save Republicans from Trump

The unpopular president is going to make life miserable for Republicans everywhere as the midterms approach.

by Matt Taylor
Oct 5 2018, 8:07pm

On Friday, the US Labor Department released its latest monthly job report, showing unemployment at 3.7 percent, its lowest mark since 1969. These numbers have been trending nicely for a while now. But the new figures also showed wages—which have been stagnant for many workers for decades, with the exception of a few periods of growth like the late 1990s—steadily ticking up as well. It was a reminder that Amazon didn't announce plans this week to boost its minimum wage for non-contract employees to $15 an hour just because of pressure from Bernie Sanders; the company also needed to attract workers in a buzzing economy where jobs are plentiful. “I view this as the strongest labor market in a generation,” Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at career site Glassdoor, told the New York Times. "These really are the good times."

It's remarkable, then, that the national mood feels as ugly and despairing as ever. It seems like everyone you run into outside these days is likely to register as somewhere between deeply weary and poised to have a nervous breakdown on the subway. The latest RealClearPolitics average of polls asking whether people thought the country was headed in the right direction or off on the wrong track found 55 percent chose the latter. That's not the worst this metric has been in recent years, but it's notably weak given how sublime the economic outlook is, at least on the surface. Meanwhile, even with Republicans freshly excited to vote in the midterms amid the controversy over alleged sexual assailant Brett Kavanaugh's troubled Supreme Court nomination, Democrats remain favored to win control of the House of Representatives, and at least competitive in the fight for the Senate.

The combination of a growing economy and sustained, energetic opposition to the status quo can be attributed to one simple factor, the albatross hanging around the neck of every Republican running for re-election in a swing district or state: Donald Trump. This is a deeply polarizing and extraordinarily unpopular president, and if the GOP can't get his personal approval—around 53 percent of the public disapproves of him—over the halfway mark now, with an objectively good economy, they probably never will.

That Trump is a uniquely loathed figure is not exactly breaking news. #Resistance-style rage has been fashionable since November 2016. In addition to enacting policies that are cruel to immigrants and the poor and which coddle his rich friends, Trump has personally attacked everyone from survivors of sexual violence to the woman he defeated, even dangling the prospect of Hillary Clinton's criminal prosecution after taking office. He has no qualms about openly calling for the legal system to favor his political party and has placed migrant children in a "tent city" that resembles a refugee camp. He has flouted every norm of public life and then some, pow-wowing with murderous dictators and snubbing close allies.

But Republicans can point to his appointment of judges—including two Supreme Court justices, if Kavanaugh's nomination goes through—and a rosy macroeconomic picture. That plus a congressional map tilted against Democrats gives the GOP a path to retaining power. If people are making ends meet, do a majority of voters really care about the erosion of norms, how rude the president, or how hard it is for women to get an abortion?

There's evidence that enough of them do, actually. A Washington Post report on a surprisingly competitive Senate contest in deep-red Tennessee captured the dynamic at play, whereby at least some Trump voters really seem willing to flip to Democrats just to punish him for being an extreme asshole. “I would vote for [Democrat Phil] Bredesen, to help out Tennessee—even if it means giving Democrats the majority in the Senate,” Jeanie Brakebill, a 63-year-old who pulled the lever for the president, told the paper. She was sick of his "confrontational brand of politics," the article noted, and ready for something new.

It's also worth pointing out that the unemployment rate has not historically predicted midterm election outcomes—that anger at the status quo is generally the decisive factor. Obviously, there are plenty of partisans out there who will vote for Republicans no matter what. But it's important for Democrats and liberals and everyone not firmly on the right to pause at this moment—as Kavanaugh careens toward a lifetime gig on the highest court in the country—to remember that they are as formidable an opposition as America has seen since at least 2010. Some conservatives may be furious at what they see as the persecution of Kavanaugh. But millions more are ready to respond at the ballot box, and show that Americans don't just think with their wallets.

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Donald Trump
2018 election
Brett Kavanaugh