“Hope I’m Wrong” Prophecies for Trump’s America, Pt. 1: The suicide epidemic

There’s been a lot of analysis already on some of the first order effects of probable Trump Administration policies and actions: muzzling of the press, people losing their healthcare coverage, potentially decreased animosity with Russia and increased animosity with China, etc.

What I want to focus on are potential second-order effects of Trump’s likely policies and actions, and other less obvious, but still probable (or at least plausible) consequences. Here, we’ll look at how Trump’s attitude toward unfavorable data, and his supporters’ attitude toward him could interact to produce potentially tragic consequences.

First, Trump’s administration gave a clear indication on Day 1 that it will not tolerate government agencies sharing information that does not imply Trump’s success and popularity. After the National Park Service retweeted aerial photos of Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, and Trump’s inauguration in 2017 (which could not help but highlight the smaller attendance of the latter), the NPS was ordered to stop tweeting immediately, even though this could disrupt emergency contingency procedures for some of the National Parks. Within the first five days of his administration, Trump also ordered media blackouts at the EPA and USDA.

In a year or so, it will probably not seem that odd if the Trump administration decides to either a) stop the Bureau of Labor and Statistics from publishing unemployment figures or jobs reports if they aren’t showing the job creation Trump promised; b) alter data in the reports to show what the Administration wants the public to believe; or c) allow the BLS to continue publishing its data, but try to discredit the Bureau on Twitter, perhaps with a tweet like “Very dishonest report from BLS. Actually we created 1 million jobs just in the last month. Time for BLS to stop lying to Americans!”

Now whichever of these three actions the Administration takes is almost immaterial to our analysis. The point is that serious journalists and economists will call BS, but many Trump supporters will believe that unemployment is indeed falling, and that millions of new jobs are being created because, not only is the President saying it’s true, it’s also being repeated by Breitbart, and maybe even Fox News.

And here’s where things start to get tragic. There are some places in the US where persistent joblessness has been a fact of life for several decades, and will continue to be, regardless of who is President. These are places that have been left behind by globalization, places that neoliberal capitalism has failed. This map below gives us some indication of where those places are:

Source: Louis Ferlenger, Alternet

The red dots represent places where the unemployment rate has been at least two points higher than the national average for at least twenty years, orange for 10–19 years, and yellow for 5–9 years. These are places that lag behind, even when the rest of the country is doing well.

The are several concentrations of these “dead zones,” most notably in the South, stretching from Mississippi over to the Carolinas. There’s another cluster of dead zones in the Rust Belt, with its epicenter in Michigan. Another swath of dead zones stretches along the border between Texas and Mexico, and yet another winds up through California’s Central Valley. Finally, there are a number of dead zones along the West Coast in communities that were formerly reliant on fishing, but whose coasts have been unsustainably overfished.

It is almost impossible to avoid remarking that many of these employment dead zones (where, recall, unemployment has remained persistently higher than the national average though all the ups and downs of the past two decades) are in areas with lots of Trump supporters. Even the red dots on the above map that are in blue states, tend to be in red counties. Compare for example, the 2016 electoral map of Oregon with the unemployment map of the state for November 2016:

Source: Bureau of Labor and Statistics
Source: New York Times

So now, let’s weave the two strands of our analysis together: 1) Trump supporters are the ones who are most likely to believe either exaggerated claims about the number of jobs being created or false claims about the direction of the unemployment rate. 2) There are lots of Trump supporters in the areas where unemployment is likely to remain high, regardless of what happens in the rest of the country.

Let’s now descend from this 30,000 foot view and try to consider the psychological impact this will have on Trump voters in these employment dead zones. Imagine that you’ve been unemployed, or at least underemployed, for several years now. You’ve seen jobs in your community disappear much faster than new ones have reappeared. Since you live in a culturally conservative area, you probably have some sense that your inability to find a steady job at least partially reflects some individual failure on your part, but at least for the last 8 years, you could also blame President Obama. You voted for Donald Trump because he promised to bring jobs back to America, and now, several years into his presidency, you believe that it’s happening. The President is claiming — and the news sources you trust are reporting — that millions of new jobs are being created every month, and the economy is booming.

But the problem is YOU still can’t find a job. It was bad enough to be jobless before, but now, in addition to the financial hardships, there’s also an increasingly heavy emotional burden: it’s embarrassing to be unemployed when the unemployment rate is so low and when it sounds like everyone else is having an easy time finding a job.

If you are a conservative male (which is likely, given that you are a Trump supporter), this situation becomes more unbearable still, as you probably have a sense that your worth is tied up in your ability to earn money and to be a breadwinner for your family. In other words, you are starting to feel worthless, and you no longer have anyone to blame but yourself. Trump keeps creating jobs, but you still can’t get one.

Perhaps you’ve already resorted to opioids or something else to help numb the pain. But perhaps it all becomes too unbearable, and you decide this life isn’t worth living.

This is a grim portrait, I realize. It gets slightly grimmer, but we at least will retreat to our 30,000 foot view for the remainder. A little reported fact is that suicide rates in the US have been steadily increasing for the last 25 years:

It has most likely been underreported because it has been a gradual increase, and thus only noticeable with the passage of time.

Any spike in the suicide rate would be troubling. If the suicide rate was 1 per every 100,000 deaths, and suddenly it spiked to 2, that would be alarming, but the spike would be occurring from a very low baseline, and thus, the overall rate would remain low. But if there is a suicide epidemic in the coming years, as I hope there won’t be, but for reasons explicated above, fear there might, it will be starting from an already high baseline.

You begin to see why I’ve titled these “Hope I’m Wrong” prophecies. And sadly, there’s more to come. Stay tuned…