The Reagan Test and Donald Trump
In 1980, which is now — Jesus — 40 years ago, Ronald Reagan asked a question of the American people: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Reagan asked this question because he was running for president against Jimmy Carter, and it was in his interest to make the election a referendum on the incumbent. And while it would be inaccurate to say the question won Reagan the White House, it is accurate to say the question was a particularly useful framing device for Reagan: It took the election campaign and set it on personal terms for every voter, in a way they could easily quantify and apply to their own lives.
Now it’s 2020, and Donald Trump is president and running for re-election, and aside from any over-arching political issues with, or my own personal opinion of, the man, I think it will be interesting and useful to apply Reagan’s question to my own personal life: am I, in fact, better off today than I was four years ago?
Well, let’s see.
My income has been stable for the last four years, thanks mainly to contracts signed more than four years ago. Like the economy at large (until the coronavirus struck, at least), my generally robust economic condition was a continuation of Obama-era practices and strategies, rather than new conditions. Likewise my investments have done fine: more or less on the same path as they were four years prior, minus of course that significant divot earlier in the year. The government has propped up the stock market during the current economic blowout, and there will probably be a reckoning for that, but that’ll be later, not today. I hope Future Scalzi has figured that one out. For Present Scalzi, it’s fine.
Four years ago I paid higher income taxes. In my real-world experience this doesn’t mean I’m better off; the marginal utility to me of the money that no longer goes to taxes is relatively small, and meanwhile the national deficit has skyrocketed, which will almost certainly have significant economic and quality of life issues later on. But that’s another economic problem for future Scalzi, I guess. Today Scalzi is no worse off because of the tax cuts.
Oh, and my local internet provider finally upgraded my internet speeds.
So, those are the positives! Now, let’s see about everything else, involving me on a more or less personal level:
Four years ago, I could leave my house without wearing a mask (I mean, I guess I could leave the house without one, if I was an asshole who didn’t care about the health and safety of others as well as myself, but I’m not, so I wear a mask).
Four years ago I could go to a restaurant or see a movie or go to a party or get on a plane without worrying about possibly contracting a disease that could put me on a respirator, kill me or give me serious, chronic, long-term health issues.
Four years ago I didn’t worry about sending my kid to school.
Four years ago I didn’t have family and friends who had to choose between exposing themselves to a disease that could kill or seriously debilitate them, or being able to pay rent or buy medications.
Four years ago I had a federal government that actually had a well-thought out plan for dealing with highly-infectious, potentially pandemic-level diseases like the one we’re currently living through.
Four years ago I could trust the information from the CDC (and NOAA, while we’re at it) to represent the best available scientific information, not the information that was deemed the least damaging to the president, according to political apparatchiks installed into those organizations by the White House.
Four years ago I didn’t have a president who lied about the severity of a pandemic to the public while privately acknowledging that severity.
Four years ago tens of thousands of people more than there should have been weren’t dead, and even more sick, of a disease that they might have avoided if accurate information and a well-formulated plan had been offered at the federal level. These numbers include people I know and care about.
Four years ago there were far more countries I could travel to with an American passport than ones I could not, including the one directly north of us.
Four years ago, I could go to conventions and have book tours to promote my work and to make connections with business associates.
Four years ago I could get nearly any kind of soda I wanted in an aluminum can.
Four years ago there were no shortages of basic home necessities.
Four years ago I did not have a president who championed white supremacy and conspiracy theories over science and the well-being of all Americans.
Four years ago I didn’t worry whether my vote, or the votes of family members and friends, would be counted fairly and accurately.
Four years ago my health insurance cost less and covered more.
Four years ago I didn’t think about whether my mail would be sent or arrive in a timely manner.
Four years ago I had a president who hadn’t insulted the work and sacrifice of service members, who include both friends and family members.
Four years ago I didn’t worry whether my access to the services and function of the federal government, in an emergency or at all other times, would be contingent upon whether the president had decided someone in my state state was his friend or his foe, or had flattered him enough that he felt inclined to do the job that he was in fact required to do, by law and by the Constitution.
So, no. I’m not better off today than I was four years ago. I am in fact rather worse off: I have a little bit more money, at the expense of an actual, functioning country and society. This is not a good exchange. I will vote accordingly.
Who is better off today than they were four years ago? The ultra-rich, grifters and white supremacists (there are no small overlaps amongst those circles), although since the latter group also highly correlates with people who don’t wear masks in public, possibly not even them for long.
Now, the card that Reagan was palming 40 years ago was that not everything that was bad then was the fault of the president; likewise, not everything that is bad today is the fault of Trump. He is not responsible for COVID-19, for example. What he is responsible for is his and his administration’s response to it, and the effects that response has had on the lives of the American people. Likewise his and his adminstration’s choices at various junctures over the last four years, when it had the choice to make people’s lives better, and didn’t, unless they were ultra-rich, grifters, or white supremacists. That’s more than enough, in this case, for Trump to have made things worse than they were, four years ago.
So, again, no. Trump fails the Reagan Test for me. For that among so many other reasons, he doesn’t deserve a second term. I am well aware that there are millions of people who are worse off than I am after four years, who will still be voting for Trump. I would suggest they have not honestly answered for themselves the question Reagan asked Americans forty years ago. Perhaps they should, before they cast their vote.