Donald Trump and Economic Growth: A Brief Interregnum on Growthism

January 24, 2017

What is wrong with the economy?”—that is the question that has driven American politics at least since Reagan, and of course is still driving it today.  For Reagan, the simple answer was that freedom had been curtailed.  Unleash the dreams, drive, and desires of the American people, said Reagan, and there are no limits to what we can accomplish or how much growth we should expect.  That simple message has been maintained with only minor modification through the presidencies of two Bushes, almost two Clintons, and Obama.  True, the Republicans tell us we can realize our dreams by way of liberty and deregulation, while Democrats (with somewhat more complexity) have emphasized the role of education and public investment. But beyond that, there is little disagreement, which is also why we have maintained our democratic decorum with relatively little trouble.

Despite whatever differences we often emphasize, liberals and conservatives have thus shared the belief that our common good resides in an expanding and growing world of material improvements, a broadening of horizons, increasing mobility, choice, possibility. They have shared the keywords of limitless and infinite, arguing only over differences in how to map our progress and chart our course “forward” towards this ever-receding horizon of limitless possibility.

This has come to an end with Donald Trump’s new metaphorics of economics.  To the question, “What is wrong with the economy?” Trump answers: we have made bad deals.  While it is certainly true that Trump’s business experience as a real estate developer and talk-show host (both equally requiring the so called “art” of the deal) colors his interpretation of macroeconomics, something much larger is afoot, and is embedded in this new way of answering our inescapable political question.  For implied in his focus on the deal and the bargaining-table are a number of unique assumptions. Chief among these, I think, is that the total amount of goods and services available are, at some level, fixed.

Trump doesn’t say this outright, but his words carry weight only if this is true.  His is a new mercantilism, a return to values that have been on the ropes for the past five-hundred years.  The deal-maker truly thrives in a world without the “win-wins” we have come to accept as a part of the normalized, but mythical, arc of a progressive history.  Although Trump is certainly not anti-growth, Trump’s economic vision operates independently of growth and his appeal is fueled by its waning.  In a fast-growing economy, Trump would be irrelevant and his focus on deal-making would appear trite and meaningless, a side-show to the primary business of expansion, the ravings of a monomaniacal out-of-work reality TV star.  In a world where growth has stalled, or has not kept its promise, he becomes the hero of the masses and the president of the land, most had believed, of eternal Growth.

From Reagan to Obama (and even to would-be Clinton II), the assumption had always been that more technology, more education, more freedom, more equality, more investment, less regulation, and so on and so on, would always create more bounty, around which little fighting would be required (only an ignoramus would turn away, fists clenched, from such possibility and promise). One of the main political points of economic growth was the way it allowed even the losers to win.  Self-interest could therefore also be magnanimous, inclusive, enlightened, universalizing.  With Trump, at least by dint of emphasis, the assumption is that we must fight others, and beat them without mercy and without reservation, to get what we want.  The economy is not suffering, here, because of a failure of innovation.  It is suffering because we let the Chinese or Mexicans take our stuff. . . and now, goddammit, we want it back.  Self-interest is pugnacious, combative, and belligerent (America First)—very much in keeping with the entire package of Trump, who maintains great consistency amidst the unpredictable veneer.  This is not to say that Trump is anti-growth.  But it is to say that he presents himself as the messiah who redeems the American project in a zero-sum world.

What are we to make of this?  The standard liberal answer would be to follow our Silicon Valley leaders and new Wall Street friends and double-down on innovation and growth, open the last corners of the world to ever-more trade, and invest in the so-called knowledge economy—messages that fit easily with the other liberal message of inclusion and increased freedoms for the previously dispossessed and marginalized others.  Regular readers of Resilience of course realize that this economic program has a strong mythical element.  Yes, I would remind us all, but without any joy, economic growth has been the strangely elastic glue (the subject of this series) that has held the body politic together—or sufficiently apart.  But economic growth was never simply about innovation or freedom; it was about using energy to turn more and more natural resources into more and more usable products under very specific historical conditions; it was not to be sustained without breaching ecological limits.  The price of continued economic growth will be an overheated planet, ecosystems spinning out of control, more war, famine, waves of forced migration initiated by political instability, a further narrowing of our trust horizons leading to tribalism and nationalism, the election of populist right-wing demagogues. . .

Like others, I have elsewhere suggested that Trump is a symptom of the end of growth.  I have long assumed that the end of growth would create exactly the sort of dangerous neo-populism and probably violent economic nationalism that Trump represents.  But what is left of the hopeful liberal in me had also held out the possibility that, at the same time, the end of growth would have also spawned a vigorous and vibrant post-growth communitarianism–that educated, structurally and system-minded liberals, at the least, would join a post-growth movement founded on values of earth care, people care, and fair share.  But as of yet, such values remain secluded in a small and powerless subculture. Liberal America is as lost as Trump with its unarticulated hopes for the rise of a cosmopolitan global middle-class, eight billion strong–a view that belies all reason and all math.  Because growth had become magnanimous, or so we could reasonably believe, liberals have narrowed their horizons to growth and only growth as the foundational value.  It had not occurred to me that the hard, boorish, and belligerent right would be the first to plant its flag in the end of growth.  But it has–whether it is aware of it or not.

To put this another way, yet to emerge is a widespread post-growth political movement grounded in universalism (rather than nationalism), in cosmopolitanism (rather than tribalism), in empathy (rather than pugilism), in sharing what is left (rather than competing over it).  Perhaps I was hoping for too much—for the impossible transplanting of a kind of altruism and generosity that, ultimately, may be the result only of growth and expansion, into conditions of contraction.  But the possibility that a whole-planet populism is not simply a contradiction in terms—however slight it may be—will keep me going for another round.

Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

Tags: American politics, economic growth, end of growth, neoliberal ideology