Donald Trump and the Politics of Fantasy

On the economy and the military, Trump's promises are little more than bluster.

Amid all the “gotcha” journalism fueling this reality TV show masquerading as the Republican primary, Donald Trump’s fact-starved pronouncements on the U.S. economy and military remain insufficiently challenged.

“The country is a mess” is one of many tools Trump uses to stir the angry populist pot. He pulls figures from thin air, claiming that real unemployment in the United States is not 4.9 percent, but may be as high as 42 percent. America is being “beaten” by everyone—China, Japan, Mexico, etc.

Really? Please name one—just one—economy in the world that he would trade the U.S. economy for. Go ahead, make my day.

In fact, notwithstanding a tepid recovery from the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, the U.S. economy is by far the best positioned of any nation in the OECD. It is well ahead of other G-7 economies. By any measure—be it global competitiveness, growth in manufacturing courtesy of the shale revolution and cheap natural gas, innovation, energy production, quality of universities—the United States remains the world’s largest and one of the most dynamic economies.

Xi Jinping would trade his economy for Obama’s in a heartbeat. The same for François Hollande in France or David Cameron in the UK.

Trump charges that the U.S. military is a run-down mess that only he can “rebuild.” What military in the world would he trade the U.S. military for? What other military even comes close in air, land, sea, space and cyber capabilities?

Trump insists, “We’re gonna make our military so big and so strong and so great… Nobody’s gonna mess with us.” Despite the ill-advised budget sequestration adopted by the Republican Congress, the U.S. military budget of $585 billion in FY 2016 ($582 billion proposed for FY 2017) is still larger than the next eight military budgets combined. The military budget more than doubled from $316 billion to $666 billion in FY 2009.

No other nation can project air and naval force to any corner of the globe in short order. There is a reason the Chinese emphasize asymmetric warfare. While there is a case for increasing the defense budget—expanding naval capabilities and investing in emerging technologies would help sustain America’s edge—it is absurd to argue that the U.S. military has atrophied. Moreover, what amount of U.S. military spending would deter suicidal jihadists?

What does all this say about the psychology of Trump’s presidential campaign. In his classic 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” historian Richard Hofstadter argues that “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.” He justifies his use of psychological terminology, writing, “I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

It is difficult to find a better description for Trump’s precarious relationship with fact. When it comes to Trump perpetuating “birther” conspiracies aimed at Obama, depicting “thousands” of New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11 and branding Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, “heated exaggeration” may actually be an understatement.

Not until November will we know for certain what all this adds up to. This is certainly the year of angry voters—to a considerable degree the result of a struggling middle class, flat wages and demographic change. But keep in mind that Republican primary voters are only about 21 percent of the total electorate, and Trump has only received 37 percent of that vote—perhaps 7 percent of all registered voters. Once the primary dust settles, my bet is that cooler heads prevail, and the overall U.S. electorate will gravitate to the middle. Stay tuned.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security and its Strategic Foresight Initiative. You can follow him on Twitter: @RManning4.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore