Well, if consumers really are feeling super-confident, they’re not acting on those feelings. The first-quarter G.D.P. report, showing growth slowing to a crawl, wasn’t as bad as it looks: Technical issues involving inventories and seasonal adjustment (you don’t want to know) mean that underlying growth was probably O.K., though not great. But consumer spending was definitely sluggish.
The evidence, in other words, suggests that when Trump voters say they’re highly confident, it’s more a declaration of their political identity than an indication of what they’re going to do, or even, maybe, what they really believe.
May I suggest that focus groups and polls of Trump voters are picking up something similar?
One basic principle I’ve learned in my years at The Times is that almost nobody ever admits being wrong about anything — and the wronger they were, the less willing they are to concede error. For example, when Bloomberg surveyed a group of economists who had predicted that Ben Bernanke’s policies would cause runaway inflation, they literally couldn’t find a single person willing to admit, after years of low inflation, having been mistaken.
Now think about what it means to have voted for Trump. The news media spent much of the campaign indulging in an orgy of false equivalence; nonetheless, most voters probably got the message that the political/media establishment considered Trump ignorant and temperamentally unqualified to be president. So the Trump vote had a strong element of: “Ha! You elites think you’re so smart? We’ll show you!”
Now, sure enough, it turns out that Trump is ignorant and temperamentally unqualified to be president. But if you think his supporters will accept this reality any time soon, you must not know much about human nature. In a perverse way, Trump’s sheer awfulness offers him some political protection: His supporters aren’t ready, at least so far, to admit that they made that big a mistake.
Also, to be fair, so far Trumpism hasn’t had much effect on daily life. In fact, Trump’s biggest fails have involved what hasn’t happened, not what has. So it’s still fairly easy for those so inclined to dismiss the bad reports as media bias.
Sooner or later, however, this levee is going to break.
I chose that metaphor advisedly. I’m old enough to remember when George W. Bush was wildly popular — and while his numbers gradually deflated from their post 9/11 high, it was a slow process. What really pushed his former supporters to reconsider, as I perceived it — and this perception is borne out by polling — was the Katrina debacle, in which everyone could see the Bush administration’s callousness and incompetence playing out live on TV.
What will Trump’s Katrina moment look like? Will it be the collapse of health insurance due to administration sabotage? A recession this White House has no idea how to handle? A natural disaster or public health crisis? One way or another, it’s coming.
Oh, and one more note: By 2006, a majority of those polled claimed to have voted for John Kerry in 2004. It will be interesting, a couple of years from now, to see how many people say they voted for Donald Trump.