Catherine Rampell: Republicans’ closing argument: Be afraid, be very afraid

(Susan Walsh | AP Photo) President Donald Trump talks about immigration and border security from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018.

Immigrants are coming for your children and lake houses. Socialists are coming for your Medicare (huh?). Black football players are coming for your flag. And now the Democrats are coming for your 401(k).

Republicans' closing argument: Be afraid, be very afraid.

The GOP has had unified control of government for nearly two years now. Yet, somehow, Republicans' promised return to morning in America, that end of "American carnage," still hasn't arrived, according to both their own standard-bearer and their terrifying campaign ads.

It’s funny, in a way. Unemployment is historically low. Consumer confidence is buoyant. There actually is a compelling, positive story to tell about the state of the country — or at least, the state of the economy — today. Whether President Trump can legitimately claim credit for recent economic trends is a nonissue; we know he has no problem taking credit for things he inherited, including his personal wealth. So at the very least, he could be emphasizing those economic milestones.

Sometimes Republican leaders and strategists complain that the party, and particularly the president, have done so little economic cheerleading. And White House advisers overtly do try to nudge Trump toward highlighting the strong economy.

On Wednesday, for instance, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow "interviewed" his boss at a White House event. Kudlow opened his softball questions with: "So Mr. President, nobody wants to talk about the economy anymore, so let's talk about the economy."

Trump partly obliged, offering the expected lies and hyperbole. He claimed his tax cut is the "biggest that we've ever done" (it's not) and that the stock market has risen "close to 50 percent" since the last election (it hasn't). But before he could even formulate those fibs, he couldn't help but first offer some of his standard fearmongering — about that scary caravan of penniless asylum seekers, who are still some 1,000 miles away from the U.S. border.

Even on occasions when he has stayed on task in touting economic and financial market metrics, he still typically frames the message not exactly as an achievement but as a warning.

"If you want your Stocks to go down, I strongly suggest voting Democrat," he tweeted Tuesday. He said this after the stock market had just suffered a rout apparently triggered not by midterm news but by reports of a coming escalation in his trade wars.

Maybe this tweet was simply about establishing a fall guy for when — not if — the business cycle turns. (He has been setting up the Federal Reserve as a possible scapegoat, too.) But it's also quite thematically similar to the political message he offers on other, non-financial issues: Stay fearful.

Or put another way: Nice little 401(k) you’ve got there. Be a shame if something happened to it.

Regardless of what Kudlow, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., or others are advising, Trump has good reason to pivot away from plugging his supposed economic successes, and instead return to pumping up public anxiety.

First is that inflation-adjusted wage growth is still relatively tepid. Singing the praises of the economy even as paychecks stagnate may backfire, at least if voters think the party is ignoring their frustration. Plus, of course the main policy achievement Republicans would have to name-check when hyping their economic record would be their deficit-ballooning, plutocratic tax cut, which remains unpopular.

But more significantly, Trump has figured out that fear is much more politically useful, and motivating, than festivity, especially among his base.

When Trump accepted his party's presidential nomination in 2016, he declared that the system was broken, and darkly promised that he alone could fix it. If today he declares that he has already fixed everything, then what motive do his voters have to go to the polls?

Policy wonks and pundits often point out that Trump does not appear terribly interested in correctly identifying policy problems. He’s even less interested in actually solving them. But his disinterest in notching policy achievements — by passing immigration reform, say, or repealing Obamacare, or persuading China to actually do whatever it is he’s trying to get them to do — may actually help rather than hurt him.

He needs the barbarians to be at the gates; the "deep state" undermining his agenda; the "enemy of the people" victimizing him and his Forgotten Men. If he ever definitively declares victory over the forces he has told his loyal foot soldiers to fear, the war is over, and they'll lay down their arms.

Trump's core voters are political doomsday preppers; he needs them to keep prepping.

Catherine Rampell

Catherine Rampell’s email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.