Is the Unemployment Rate Real, or What?

Throughout the campaign, Donald Trump called the unemployment rate “phony.” The White House is singing a different tune now that it’s hit a 16-year low during his presidency.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The Trump administration is touting the new jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Indeed there is tout-worthy material. Although the pace of job creation has slowed, the unemployment rate is now at its lowest point since March 2001. Rather remarkably, it is lower now than in any single month in the quarter-century between 1971 and 1998.

This morning, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway tweeted, in celebration:

It’s reasonable to think many Americans care more about their financial situation than about the Russia investigation. But Conway is promoting a statistic that her boss has famously trashed for the last five years. Since 2012, Trump has referred to the official unemployment rate as "a complete fraud" (2012), "false numbers" (2013), "a totally phony number" (2014), "the biggest joke there is in this country" (2015), "put in for presidents and for politicians so that they look good to the people" (2016)  and, three months before the election, “one of the biggest hoaxes in modern politics.”

And it’s not just Conway’s tweet. This February, after years of lambasting the jobs numbers, Trump received his first report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It was quite strong. Asked whether the positive news had persuaded Trump of the reports’ legitimacy, press secretary Sean Spicer put it this way: “I talked to the president prior to this, and he said to quote him very clearly: 'They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.’” (The Bureau of Labor Statistics has not changed its methodology since the most recent election.) Spicer laughed at his own comment—the "joke" being that the president is not deeply interested in the veracity of the report apart from whether or not it makes him look good.

On the one hand, who doesn’t tune out bad news and flock to favorable information? The White House does not have a monopoly on cognitive dissonance in America. But Trump is obsessed with the concept of “phony” data, which tends to serve as a synonym for disadvantageous information. He has liberally applied his favorite epithet, "fake news," not only to serious investigations, such as the ongoing Russia situation, but also to the very existence of negative views of his presidency. "Any negative polls are fake news" he tweeted on February 6.

The human consequences of flip-flopping on the hoaxiness of the monthly jobs report are not grave. But Trump’s denial of unwelcome information is a worrisome sign. Despite the tumultuous news cycle of the last few months, the United States has yet to face a major emergency under Trump. Even as the ship has been rocky, the seas have been smooth. But in the event of a crisis, Americans need to trust their president is telling the truth—and can recognize it when he sees it.