Trump didn’t sell out his supporters. In fact, his presidency saw something extraordinary, even if it was all but invisible from the country’s globalized cities: the first egalitarian boom since well back in the twentieth century. In 2019, the last non-Covid year, he presided over an average 3.7 percent unemployment rate and 4.7 percent wage growth among the lowest quartile of earners. All income brackets increased their take. That had happened in the last three Obama years, too. The difference is that in the Obama part of the boom the income of the top decile rose by 20 percent, with tiny gains for other groups. In the Trump economy, the distribution was different. Net worth of the top 10 percent rose only marginally, while that of all other groups vaulted ahead. In 2019, the share of overall earnings going to the bottom 90 percent of earners rose for the first time in a decade.
The reasons for Trump’s success are not yet clear. They may well have involved his unorthodox policy choices: above all, limiting immigration. Whatever the reason, this equalization must be why Trump’s economic approval was over 50 percent at election time, even as his personal scores remained low. We can assume that the great demographic surprise of the election—Trump’s uptick among Black and Latino men—owed more to this wage progress than to Lil Wayne’s endorsement, or to Trump’s musing aloud that he had done more for Blacks in America than any president since Abraham Lincoln.
Uncomfortable though it may be for many Americans to admit, Trump got extremely unlucky. It was not his election that was a fluke but his removal. Had the coronavirus not struck the country late last winter, Trump would almost certainly have been reelected. His political problem was not that he mishandled the virus, though he certainly blundered, boasted, and prevaricated. Covid-19 inflicted historic levels of suffering on the United States, but that didn’t make the country an outlier. In the week after Election Day, Americans were dying at a lower daily rate than people in Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and most other European countries. Spaniards were dying at three times the American rate, Belgians at six times.
Some of Trump’s choices were sound (such as his prompt decision to restrict air travel from China, carried out, as he was correct to recall, in the face of Democratic and press accusations of xenophobia). Some of his poor choices were constrained by the situation on the ground: the outright discouragement of mask use by his surgeon general, Jerome Adams, may have been due to the fact that the United States was incapable of manufacturing them, leading to shortages among medical professionals. Private-sector progress toward a vaccine was significant, and certainly aided by the Trump administration’s promise to purchase hundreds of millions of doses.