Why Donald Trump Took Credit For Apple’s Texas Plant
Donald Trump learned to take credit for things he didn’t do as president by a media establishment that falsely attributes authoritarian economic influence to the presidency.
One of the distinct features of the Trump presidency is its collision with long-held pretenses, particularly when it comes to the executive’s influence over job creation and the national economy. A telling example was on display last month when Trump visited Austin to tour the re-opening of an Apple manufacturing plant with Apple CEO Tim Cook. Afterward, Trump took to Twitter to claim personal credit for the plant, attributing it to his campaign to return jobs to the United States.
“Today I opened a major Apple Manufacturing plant in Texas that will bring high paying jobs back to America. Today Nancy Pelosi closed Congress because she doesn’t care about American Workers!” — @realdonaldtrump
Adding to the thick ledger documenting Trump’s tortured relationship with the truth, tech and political journalists were quick to fact-check the president’s claim noting the plant was opened in 2013 and was not representative of jobs returning from overseas.
Yet, it is entirely understandable why Trump would make such a grandiose claim as someone whose core competency is maximizing gains within the incentive structures provided by news and entertainment media.
For generations, national political reporters have had little incentive to abandon or complicate a narrative that has long attributed outsized economic influence to the president. To stoke and retain audiences who may only be tenuously informed or interested in politics, attributing economic performance to the president is consumable if grossly simplistic and omissive of the millions of businesses that realistically run the economy, including Apple.
This entrenched premise on which to cover the presidency has allowed presidents to absurdly take sole credit for job creation and blame for unemployment. But it’s never enabled presidents to take the credit so explicitly. Instead, presidents have extolled the efficacy of their own policies from the floor of many a manufacturing plant through the deployment of heavy imagery and soaring but tactful rhetoric. The difference this time is that Donald Trump is president and he is not an implicit character. As he’s done on various issues from immigration to U.S.-Saudi relations, he’s stripped away long-held pretenses and is taking direct credit — I opened a major Apple manufacturing plant — for something his predecessors have done implicitly and with little scrutiny.
What we’re accustomed to as consumers of American politics is a funhouse mirror version of the president’s influence over the economy that parallels kayfabe, a concept central to professional wrestling in which Trump himself has dabbled. Kayfabe is the unspoken agreement between audiences, wrestlers and commentators to emotionally invest in a grotesquely exaggerated and often clearly fake and high-stakes spectacle. The raucous crowd, the trash-talking wrestlers, the gawking commentators are all in on advancing what they internally know is an alternate reality but are to never acknowledge. Kayfabe explains why Trump’s base still support him even though a great many are smart enough to know a border wall is unlikely to be built and that coal’s days are numbered.
Both Trump and political journalists demand emotional investment from the public in national politics for different reasons. For Trump, it’s a deep-seeded desire for public approval and re-election. For the press, it’s to both inform but also to engage and often outrage the public in order to expose them to ads. One powerful way to capture the public’s investment is by artificially raising the political stakes by tracing the immensity of the nation’s economic activity to one person in one office which the press have done for decades and which Trump has taken to a new level. Of course, this has unintended consequences!
First, it distorts conversations around economic issues. A president that comically overstates his own influence is rightfully countered by journalists’ instinct to hold claims to account. But Trump’s distinctly sanctimonious hyperbole let alone his fierce antagonism of the media has given rise to an emerging genre of editorial that has overcorrected by offering an equally distorted portrait of the economy in order to indirectly rebut Trump’s economic argument to the public. These overcorrections implicitly acknowledge that economic performance is detached from the president — inequality transcends presidents — but they do not break kayfabe by entirely detaching economic trends from presidents because “the economy” is a central premise to engaging audiences around presidential politics, and if you’re cynical enough, because this allows the press to argue it’s holding the president accountable by keeping him on the hook for a potential economic downturn that wouldn’t be attributable to presidential policy.
Second, and the more alarming consequences of misattributing economic influence to the president is that it further stokes authoritarian impulses within the presidency. The monarchial autonomy that the executive has acquired on trade, immigration, energy production, military intervention and insurance markets, to name a few, is at best treated as a fleeting afterthought including by many seized by the assault on democracy.
Donald Trump’s claim to Apple’s manufacturing plant is a natural byproduct of the nonchalance with which presidential candidates are asked about how they will “create” jobs like artisans in a woodshop, or how they will “run” and “manage” the economy when they “come to power”. Cult expectations beget a cult president and at worst interpret the officeholder as a kind of Dear Leader whose muscular strength will pull the steel levers of the nation toward glorious prosperity. In this sense, it isn’t a surprise that a man who spent much of his life earning his wealth by artificially raising expectations to sell himself as a builder and terrific doer-of-all-the-things got elected within a political-media establishment that has sold to the public a similarly deistic image of the presidency.
That Donald Trump has prospered within an environment that is more responsive to the emotional investment of the moment and is less interested in the complexity of “the economy” shouldn’t be construed to dismiss the challenges the country faces.
But when President Truman said that the buck stops with the president, what he meant was that the decisions that do come to his desk are for him to decide not that all of the decisions be made by him. A self-congratulatory president who takes responsibility for things he didn’t do is not new. That Trump has done so in the way only he has and will continue to going into 2020 is worthy of greater reflection by anyone concerned with preserving the American hallmark of divided power.