Mystic, Connecticut is one of those beautiful New England fishing villages, all wooden clapboards and two-storey homes. US flags fly from at least half of them. Cars slow down 10 yards from zebra crossings, as young mothers push outsized strollers to organised playdates.
The Mystic river flows into the Atlantic here, and most riverside homes have their own boats, tied up to family piers. People here are ridiculously helpful. Mystic doesn’t do surly. Pumpkins are everywhere, and the colours are gorgeous, but it’s getting cold.
Today, despite the Atlantic wind, Mystic feels more like John Updike’s fascinating suburban canvas than Sebastian Junger’s chilling New England fishing port. But the place is constantly trying to shake of the darkness of Denis Lehane’s Mystic River for the more upbeat Julie Roberts performances in Mystic Pizza.
This sunny afternoon lunch at the Old Oyster Bar is definitely more Roberts than Lehane. Beside me a well-heeled man – maybe late 50s, penny-loafers, greying temples, rimless glasses – hears the Irish accent and strikes up, in that way friendly Americans do to other whites. He’s from Hyannis and knows the Kennedys. Who doesn’t, but it would be churlish not to go with the flow.
We speak of America under JFK, the tragedy of Bobby’s murder and the new Kennedy – Joe – now flying the Kennedy flag. It’s all middle-of-the-road liberal stuff, until Donald Trump is mentioned. This is the day the president of the United States has referred publicly to the porn star he is accused of paying hush money to as “Horseface”.
My mate immediately stands squarely behind Trump with the Clinton campaign phrase: “It’s the economy, stupid.” No one cares about all the other stuff, he laughs.
(I’m thinking of the other stuff: the Russian interferences, press harassment, immigration bans, the Wall, “Mexicans are rapists”, the tax returns, the racism, the language, mocking disabled people.)
As I leave, he looks over and states simply: “No one cares, man, as long as the economic engine is purring.”
And the engine is humming. Not only has the end of the world predicted by many when Trump came to power not occurred, but the economy has continued along its Obama-era trend, with annualised GDP growth even jumping to 4.2 per cent in the second quarter of this year.
The Trump economy is outperforming the Obama administration’s forecasts of growth of 2.4 per cent and 2.3 per cent in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Jobs are being created. According to BLS statistics, 2.2 million jobs were added to the US economy in 2017, with a further 1.9 million in the first nine months of this year.
The unemployment rate hit 3.7 per cent in September. This is the lowest rate recorded since 1969, when the US was sending lads to the moon and tens of thousands troops to Vietnam.
And it is not just whites: unemployment among African-Americans and Hispanics has hit an all-time low too, while the underemployment rate – the amount of people who say they want to work extra hours but can’t get them – has fallen from 9.2 per cent when Trump took office to 7.5 per cent now.
There is an obvious associated feelgood factor, with Gallup polling from September indicating that a near-record high 64 per cent of Americans believe now is a good time to find a quality job.
However, in many respects this reflects the continuation of a trend established during the later Obama years. Indeed, while the Trump economy has seen average monthly job rises of 182,000 in 2017 and 208,000 so far in 2018, this is down from a height of 250,000 under Obama in 2014.
However, in 2014 the US recovery was in full swing. We are now at the late stage of the cycle, but the place is still vibrant.
While the unemployment rate is extremely low, it’s important to bear in mind that it declined 5.3 percentage points (from a height of 10 per cent to 4.7 per cent) over the course of Obama’s presidency. But the Republicans won’t concede that.
It’s important to see any positives of the Trump economy against the reality that the Republican tax cut has set the federal budget deficit on course to soar past $1 trillion in 2019.
The deficit-to-GDP ratio has already risen from 3.1 per cent to 3.4 per cent under Trump’s watch. Meanwhile, the early evidence suggests that corporations have passed little of the savings on to workers, and the bosses have trousered most of the gains.
The other thing to notice is that when they are in opposition, Republicans are fiscal hawks – threatening to close down government and the like – but once they get into power they spend like drunken sailors. It’s been this way since Reagan.
So while Republicans often like to portray themselves as deficit hawks, obsessive about balancing the books of government, as few as 22 per cent believed the Trump tax cuts would serve to increase the deficit. How is this possible?
This compares with 46 per cent of independents and 69 per cent of Democrats. Going a step further into self-delusion, 37 per cent of Republicans felt that the tax laws lining the pockets of corporate America would actually reduce the deficit.
But this is what you notice when you visit here. One side creates its own narrative, embellishing where necessary, and sticks to it with scant care for the truth.
In a September Quinnipac poll, 70 per cent of American voters felt the nation’s economy was “excellent” or “good,” matching the all-time high rating for the economy, while some 28 per cent say the economy is “not so good” or “poor.”
Tellingly, support for the president’s handling of the economy is split along partisan lines, with 92 per cent of Republicans giving the economy an “excellent/good” rating compared with just 52 per cent of Democrats.
Similarly, Pew Research taking stock a decade on from the financial crisis reveals the extent to which views on the economy have become polarised along party lines.
When asked three years ago, just 22 per cent of Republicans felt the economic system was more secure than before the crisis. Yet now, under Trump, that figure has jumped to 70 per cent. When it comes to personal finances, Republicans are again suddenly more optimistic and their Democratic peers more pessimistic. Nearly eight out of 10 Republicans expect their financial situation to improve some or a lot over the next year, compared with just one in 6 Democrats.
While a majority of Republicans believe Trump deserves all of the credit for the US economy’s current good fortunes, Democrats are clearly more likely to thank his predecessor.
As I caught the afternoon Amtrak back to Manhattan from Mystic, the divisions in America, evident in one pleasant conversation over New England chowder, suggests to me that anyone who sees the mid-term elections as a home run for one side or the other – or even a plebiscite on Donald Trump himself – might want to lay off their bets.