Job creation is not Trump’s get-out-of-jail-free card

There’s an upside to the coronavirus, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Thursday on Fox Business, and it’s jobs.

“Every American’s heart has to go out to the victims of the coronavirus,” he began, “so I don’t want to talk about a victory lap about a very unfortunate, very malignant disease.” But, Ross continued, inconsistent supply from factories in affected areas is a “risk factor that people need to take into account” and one which could “help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America, some to U.S., probably some to Mexico as well.”

Ross may well be right, though public health experts took a dim view of his remark. Regardless, it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s something ghoulish and unseemly in framing a conversation about an epidemic which has infected around 8,000 people in China and killed 170 in terms of how it might bolster our economy. The “victory lap” disclaimer almost makes it worse — who said anything about a victory lap?

This consequentialist attention to jobs in circumstances where jobs are beside the point is not unique to Ross. President Trump has a bad case of the same myopia. “While we’re proudly creating jobs and killing terrorists, congressional Democrats are consumed with partisan rage and obsessed with a deranged witch hunt hoax,” he said at a rally in Iowa Thursday night. “You know, we’re having probably the best years that we’ve ever had in the history of our country, and I just got impeached. Can you believe these people?”

He made this complaint — clearly a fixture of the stump speech in its present iteration — two nights earlier at a campaign stop in New Jersey. There, jobs were also presented as evidence of the Republican Party’s growing appeal to minority voters. “We’re winning, winning, winning like never before,” Trump said, with “a very different party, a much stronger party, a much more inclusive party.” The GOP is “respected again,” he went on, linking this to the fact that “since the election, we have created seven million new jobs,” with record-low unemployment rates for black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans.

Trump isn’t wrong about the jobs numbers. They are good, though not quite as incredible as he claims. But there’s little reason to think jobs will be enough to produce the “inclusive party” he envisions.

The president particularly likes to claim popularity among African Americans, and it’s true he lost their vote by a smaller margin than the two previous Republican nominees. It’s also true that the two previous Republican nominees were running against the first black president; that black voters backed Democrats by a higher margin in 2018 than in 2016, after two years of Trump and his economy; and that 83 percent of black Americans believe Trump is personally racist and has made race relations in America worse during his tenure.

Only 22 percent of African Americans say their personal financial situation has improved under Trump — but even if that number were far higher, would it really produce a historic shift in black voting habits? Do jobs outweigh anything? Do they outweigh birtherism and “shithole countries” and “very fine people on both sides” and the Central Park Five and all the other things the president has said and done in his long public career which cast severe doubt on his claim to be “the least racist person you’ve ever encountered”?

The same inappropriate attention to jobs shows up in Trump’s foreign policy, too, where the president insists on close relations with Saudi Arabia — despite its assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the monstrous, Saudi-led intervention in Yemen’s civil war — on the grounds that U.S. arms sales to Riyadh can create American jobs. Even if Trump’s fish story jobs numbers were accurate, they’d still be irrelevant. Jobs aren’t the point here. The point is to stop arming a brutal theocracy and enabling its war crimes against innocent people.

Jobs matter, obviously. Jobs are good. Trump’s ideas about how one creates jobs are often less than good, and he tends to take more credit for job creation than he (or any president) deserves. Still, in and of itself, his interest in jobs is a positive thing.

But jobs aren’t everything. In some contexts, like war crimes, murder, racism, acts worthy of impeachment, or epidemic illness, job creation doesn’t matter much at all.

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