As President Donald Trump has barnstormed battleground states in a frenzy of final campaign rallies, he hasn’t offered voters much of a plan for defeating the coronavirus (“We’re learning to live with it,” he says) or reviving the economy (“We’ve recovered”).
Instead of offering solutions for the disasters on his watch, most of his message focuses on fear of the catastrophes he predicts if Joe Biden is elected.
“Biden and the Democrats will offshore your jobs, dismantle your police departments and dissolve your borders,” he claimed in Ohio. All three charges are false; those aren’t Biden’s positions.
My favorite: “If Biden wins, the flag-burning rioters on the streets will be running your federal government.” Even red-hat-wearing Trump fans might not swallow that one.
And he’s telling voters — again without foundation — that their retirement savings will vanish if Biden is elected.
If the Democrat wins, he said in North Carolina, “Your stocks, your 401(k) and pension will be demolished.”
“Your 401(k)s will be cut in half and much worse,” he warned in Arizona.
“Throw them away,” he added in Ohio.
It has become one of his favorite arguments — a way to appeal to retirees and affluent suburban voters, groups where polls suggest his support has eroded over the last four years.
But no matter how often he repeats it — and he repeats it at every stop — it’s as flimsy as his other claims.
Trump has offered two reasons for his prediction of a falling stock market if Biden is elected: The Democrat has said he may call for renewed lockdowns in some parts of the country if the pandemic doesn’t abate, and has proposed higher taxes on corporations and high-income earners.
Neither scenario necessarily leads to a stock market crash.
This spring, when the pandemic first hit, a nationwide lockdown produced a sudden recession and a sharp dip in the stock market — but by June, the markets recovered and went on to record highs.
As for Biden’s proposed tax hikes, financial markets often don’t react negatively at all to such changes.
The last significant increase in income tax rates, in 2013, was followed by a 30% rise in the S&P 500 index — the best return for stocks in more than a decade. The president at the time was Barack Obama, a Democrat.
Trump often brags about the stock markets’ performance during his presidency — and he can. Since he was elected, the S&P has risen about 58%. That’s better than Obama’s first term, when the same index rose 40%.
Here’s the other problem with Trump’s pitch: Not as many voters own stocks as he seems to believe.
“Everyone thinks, ‘Stocks, oh, it’s rich people,’ ” the president said in Arizona. “Everybody owns stocks.”
Except they don’t.
According to the Federal Reserve, about 53% of American households own stocks, mostly in mutual funds held by retirement accounts like an employer-sponsored 401(k). But 401(k) balances are often modest; half of all accounts hold $65,000 or less.
The vast majority of stocks are owned by the richest 10% of Americans.
Those numbers reveal a serious public policy problem: Most Americans aren’t saving nearly enough for retirement.
Biden has offered a proposal to make individual retirement accounts more widely available and encourage lower-income workers to contribute more. Trump, for all his talk about 401(k)s, hasn’t addressed the problem.
But the biggest problem with Trump’s argument is that he’s asking voters to overlook the pandemic, forget the public good and think mostly about their investments.
It’s a model of political behavior that reduces voting to an exercise of narrow self-interest.
The president appears to believe that’s how most voters think. In a television interview last month, he predicted that even liberals in Beverly Hills, California, will vote for him to protect their wealth.
“They’re greedy people,” he said. “So they will talk one way, but they’re going to vote another way.”
I think he’s wrong on that count, too. Polling from 2016 and other elections shows that ideology, religion, education and geography are all greater influences on the way people vote than wealth.
Wealthy liberals tend to vote Democratic; low-income conservatives tend to vote Republican.
But not in Trump’s view of the world. At last week’s presidential debate in Nashville, Tennessee, the president was asked, as his closing argument, to describe how he would reunify a divided country.
His answer was solely about dollars and cents — and Biden.
“Success is going to bring us together. We are on the road to success,” he said. “If he gets in … your 401(k)s will go to hell.”
It’s not much of an argument.