Is life in America as horrible as Donald Trump painted during last night’s speech?
It all depends on whether you like Donald Trump. It always does with presidential campaign messages.
If politicians tell us things are great — and we like them — then we think things are great, despite, in some cases, what the deposit of our unemployment check in the bank account might tell us.
If they tell us things are bad, then we’ll ignore personal experience and nod our heads.
That’s why presidential campaigns are so much selling soap and prescriptions. With the right message, you can create whatever reality you want, no matter what reality actually is. A TV commercial can make you think you have toe fungus or restless leg syndrome that only a pill can cure. With a little blue pill, you can end up naked in a bathtub on a mountain-top meadow with another person naked in another bathtub next to you. With the right message, everyone wants a bathtub with a view.
“Morning in America” is probably the second-most-popular presidential campaign ad ever, next to Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” ad, which painted a grim picture.
I don’t tire of ever watching Morning in America because it’s such a great lesson for politicians. Despair doesn’t usually work.
Here, let’s hold hands and watch:
This is a classic case of putting lipstick on a pig. The economy was a disaster, but Americans crave hope.
Check what provided hope back then from the bullet points of the ad vs. the same benchmark today.
1) Then: “Today, more men and women will go to work than at any time in our country’s history”
Now: According to employment data released this month, about 144,175,000 will go to work today (ignore the fact it’s Friday and nobody actually seems to go to work on Friday in the summer). That’s more than at any time in our country’s history, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Of course, the statistic, while truthful, lacks the obvious context that the population is growing and that people are working harder for less. But the political ads aren’t about context.
2) Then: “With interest rates at half the record highs of 1980.”
Now: June’s 30-year fixed rate averaged 3.57 percent, a little less than four years ago and not quite half what they were eight years ago.
The average 30-year fixed mortgage in 1980 was 14.21 percent. In November 1984, it was 13.64 percent. So Reagan’s ad was misleading. But it doesn’t really matter in the big scheme of things. It’s all about telling people what they already wanted to believe.
3) Then: “Nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes. More than at any time in the past four years.”
Now: According to a news release yesterday from the National Association of Realtors, there were 15,260 sales of of existing homes per day.
A third of those buying homes in June were first-time buyers. I couldn’t get the historical home sales (they make you pay for it), but it’s not a figure that’s higher than the last four years. But four years ago, 11,972 homes were selling per day.
One note: The Realtors report monthly sales based on an annual number of total sales and calls it a “rate.”
4) Then: “This afternoon, 6,500 young men and women will be married.”
Now: Assuming weddings are spaced out equally over 365 days, 5,863 couples will be married this afternoon.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that the marriage rate in the U.S. has been declining for years. It’s a matter of debate whether this is a legitimate benchmark for the state of the nation, but clearly it played to President Reagan’s audience that insisted then — and insists now — that it is.
5) Then: “… and with inflation at half of what it was just four years ago.”
Now: The inflation rate is currently 1%. Not quite half of what it was four years ago.
Reagan’s ad was wrong about the inflation rate. The rate had dropped to almost a third. In 1980, the inflation rate was 12.5 percent. By Election Day 1984, it stood at “just” 4.1%. Of course, these are different times when inflation — at least to some degree — is good.
6) Then: “… they can look forward with confidence to the future.”
Now: The June Consumer Confidence survey was up 5.6 points in June to 98. Four years ago, it stood at 73.7 percent
Of course, this is an entirely subjective statistic. Nobody needs anyone’s permission to be confident or not confident so consumers can always look forward to the future with confidence. Whether they do is a matter of many variables, including whether they they’re told things are good or things are bad.
We know this to be true because of the emotional nature of recessions, in which emotion about a perception of the economy can push a country into recession. That’s why economist Alfred Kahn referred to them as “bananas” rather than “recessions.”
The University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index shows a different picture — a drop in confidence.
Funny thing about historical drops in consumer confidence. They tend to occur leading up to elections.
7) Then: “Our country is stronger, and prouder, and better.”
Now: It depends whom you talk to.
Reagan’s ad so warmed America that several people and institutions have tried to copy it with varying results.
Marco Rubio tried a new riff on Morning in America during his failed presidential run, but he did so turning to the gloomier side of the same benchmarks.
Rubio’s campaign was a dud. And it didn’t help when it was learned his soap salespeople used footage from Canada.
Even struggling car companies sought salvation in the emotion of the ad. Chrysler did during the Super Bowl in 2012.
Months later, Clint Eastwood would appear at the Republican National Convention, talking to an empty chair, and telling a different story.
“We all rallied around what was right and acted as one,” Eastwood said in the Chrysler commercial. “Because that’s what we do.”
On TV, you can create any reality, even if it’s not real.