Thomas Frank is the author of several books, most recently Listen, Liberal, and the classic What’s the Matter with Kansas? He’s been a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and for Harper’s Magazine, where he wrote about “Four More Years” for Trump, and a contributor to The New York Times and The Nation. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: You describe Donald Trump as deeply unpopular and as someone who has no clue how to govern. Now Robert Mueller is tightening the noose, the US Attorney in Manhattan has seized Michael Cohen’s files, and Stormy Daniels is going to be hard to stop. And yet you think this president could be reelected, that there a clear path for Trump to win in 2020.
Thomas Frank: That’s right, but first I have a couple of assumptions that you have to grant me. The first is that he doesn’t get impeached and removed from office. I think there’s good reason to believe that that won’t happen. Then he has to avoid a disastrous war. If you give me those, yes, I think he has a really good chance of getting reelected.
JW: What is his path?
TF: It’s really simple. Unemployment is extremely low right now. The economy is booming. He could succeed the way Bill Clinton did. People have trouble remembering what Clinton actually did as president, but they do remember it was good times. There was universal prosperity. As a result, Clinton was massively popular towards the end of his administration. It wasn’t because of NAFTA or the balanced budget or bank deregulation. Those were not particularly popular things. It was because the economy was booming. I’m not just referring to the stock market. As we all know, there was a classic stock-market bubble in the late 1990s—the NASDAQ bubble with tech stocks. But something else happened in the late 1990s: Wages grew for the first and only time since the 1970s. Real wages for average workers grew, when adjusted for inflation. In the country that you and I grew up in, Jon, that used to be common. That happened every year. Nowadays, it never happens. The Bill Clinton late 1990s was the one period when it in fact took place.
JW: But why would wages go up in the Trump era? We don’t have strong unions, and the Republicans won’t raise the minimum wage.
TF: Wages will go up by themselves if unemployment gets low enough and stays low enough for long enough. If the economy runs hot, if it runs at maximum capacity for a couple years, wages will start to grow—because employers will be bidding for labor, bidding for workers. And here’s the thing: We’re almost there right now. There are lots of signs out there that wages are starting to grow. Unemployment has been low for quite a while. In one county in Wisconsin, unemployment is so low and the job market is so tight that employers are hiring people straight out of prison. Walmart has actually raised its starting wage—which is an incredible thing.