It’s Donald Trump’s favorite word. He used it 14 times in the second presidential debate, and chances are good he’ll use it during the final debate on Wednesday.
Hillary Clinton? Disaster. Obamacare? Disaster. Urban crime, the state of the military, the flow of immigrants across the border? Disaster, disaster, disaster.
It’s tempting to think this is just the way that Trump talks ― that he likes hyperbole and that, notwithstanding his Wharton School business education, he lacks the semantic imagination to come up with different, more precise terminology.
But Trump may actually think this way. Or he may think this kind of talk is the best way to build his political brand.
If the country really is on the precipice of apocalypse, after all, and if Hillary Clinton really is likely to push it over the edge, then voting for Trump becomes not just a choice, but a moral calling. And overlooking Trump’s many shortcomings, from his treatment of women to his attitude about nuclear weapons, becomes a lot easier.
Thing is, America isn’t a disaster. Plenty is going wrong in the country, of course. But plenty is going right, too, as a quick survey of the statistical landscape shows:
Unemployment is down to 5 percent, and since the depths of the Great Recession in 2009, the private sector has been generating jobs every month except one. The recovery has been slower than improvements from other economic downturns, but that’s always the case with recessions (or depressions) that follow financial crises. In terms of employment and growth, the U.S. has actually done as well, if not better, than the rest of the developed world.
Inequality remains a problem. As the economy has gained strength, the wealthy have done far better than the middle class and poor ― in part because so many of the new jobs don’t pay very well.
But this fall’s annual census report suggests even that worrisome trend may be turning around. According to the report, median household income rose by more than 5 percent from 2014 to 2015 ― the largest single-year increase that the Census Bureau had ever recorded. Poverty also fell. Together, they suggest that, finally, the poor and middle class are getting their fair share of growth.
Incomes aren’t back up to where they were before the recession. Poverty hasn’t fallen back to where it was, either. And there are plenty of communities in true economic distress. But overall, the country is doing better than it was a few years ago.
And more improvement may be on the way. Last week, a new Labor Department report suggested that job quitting is at its second-highest level since the Great Depression. Quitting is a sign of economic health, since it suggests workers are comfortable they can find better jobs or wait a while before getting a new one.
The proportion of Americans with health insurance is at its highest level ever, and the available data suggest that, overall, people now have better access to medical care and more protection from crushing medical bills. All of this is a direct consequence of the Affordable Care Act. The law that Trump despises has made coverage available to millions who previously could not afford it, or who insurers refused because of pre-existing conditions.
At the same time, the cost of medical care ― in other words, what the country as a whole spends ― is rising at historically low rates. Eventually, that filters down to most Americans as some combination of lower premiums, lower taxes, and bigger paychecks. The health care law may or may not have played a role in this; it depends who you ask. Either way, though, Americans overall are saving money as a result.
“Overall” is an important word there, since some people are paying more, through either premiums or out-of-pocket costs. And the Obamacare marketplaces are struggling in some parts of the country, as insurers are jacking up premiums or fleeing because they can’t attract enough healthy people to cover their costs.
But these are the kinds of problems that come with all ambitious initiatives. Fixing them wouldn't be difficult, although liberals and conservatives have very different ideas about how to proceed.
This is one of Trump’s favorite topics. He talks about crime, particularly crime in cities, as if anybody walking out the door was in danger of getting shot. The truth is exactly the opposite. Violent crime has fallen dramatically since the early 1990s. Property crime has too.
In just the last few months, violent crime in some American cities has increased. Exactly why that’s happening, or how long the trend will last, is unclear. But the experts who follow crime say Trump is still way off.
“He is incorrect,” James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, told the fact-checking organization Politifact this summer. “There are some spikes in homicide and shootings in certain cities, yet other cities continue to experience low rates. As a nation, we are far better off than anytime for the past several decades. Crime rates are low, and there is no consistent and reliable indication that things are getting worse.”
Energy and Climate
Trump frequently describes President Barack Obama’s energy policies as a disaster, and warns that Clinton would bring more of the same. But the U.S. now produces more oil and natural gas than any country in the world, thanks to production that has risen pretty steadily through Obama’s presidency. Crude prices are at or near 10-year lows, which is why gasoline is still so cheap at the pumps (an average of $2.47 a gallon.)
Cheap oil is a mixed blessing. It gives consumers more incentive to drive and less incentive to seek out fuel-efficient cars, spewing more carbon into the atmosphere and therefore hastening climate change. But renewable energy sources like solar and wind are growing rapidly, and will greatly contribute toward allowing the U.S. to meet the international climate goals set in Paris last year.
The growth of both natural gas and the renewable sector has corresponded with a decline in the use of coal. And when Trump says Obama’s energy policies have been a disaster, he’s thinking about ― and speaking to ― parts of the country where employment in the coal industry has been falling.
But those employment levels have been declining since the Reagan era, thanks to technological improvements that allowed companies to extract coal with fewer workers. And insofar as environmental regulations have curtailed coal use further, they’ve done so by reducing emissions that literally saved thousands of lives ― again, not what most people would describe as a disaster
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The list goes on. Teen births are way down. The smoking rate is at a historic low. The undocumented population is at a relatively high level, according to the Pew Research Center, but ― thanks in part to broader economic trends ― it actually peaked in 2007, at 12 million, and has stabilized at about a million less since then.
Within any of these statistics, it’s easy to find real problems, and large numbers of people who are still struggling. There are even some real disasters.
But an accurate portrayal of America at the end of the Obama years would be far more nuanced than the one Trump provides. The only real question is whether Trump is too ignorant to know better ― or whether he just doesn’t care if he’s right.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.