In the latest variation on his usual wide-ranging and freestyle approach to speech-making, Donald Trump recently held a 2020 presidential campaign rally in El Paso, Texas. There, he covered many of his standard topics — but also threw in an unusual historical digression. To a cheering crowd, as CNN reported, Trump suddenly reached back in history to the year 1888, to discuss the American economy.
As often happens, however, Trump’ command of the facts around his chosen topic was fuzzy.
“Check it out, 1888. Have the press check it out. They’ll say, ‘Donald Trump said 1888,'” Trump said at the rally, quoted on Twitter by Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale.
What did Trump cite as special about the year 1888? According to Trump, that year was a prime example of a time when America’s economy was thriving — thanks largely, according to Trump, to tariffs, per an excerpt of the speech posted on Twitter by Vox reporter Aaron Rupar.
“If you look back at our country, when we were very rich, when we had no debt, when we had no problems economically,” Trump said. “You take a look. 1888! The great tariff debate. You know what the debate was about? Our country had so much money, they had to debate what the hell to do with all the money!”
Indeed, tariffs were the central issue in the 1888 presidential election — won in the Electoral College, per 270toWin.com — by pro-tariff candidate Benjamin Harrison, a Republican. But like Trump in 2016, Harrison lost the popular vote to a Democrat, incumbent Grover Cleveland, who favored lowering tariffs.
Tariffs are taxes on imported goods that are paid not by the exporter but by the buyer. In other words, a United States tariff on imports is a tax paid by Americans. But the purpose of tariffs is to increase purchases of domestic products, not to raise revenue, according to the Tax Policy Center think tank.
The amount of revenues raised by the tariffs is generally “a drop in the fiscal bucket” of overall federal revenues, according to CNBC.
Trump’s reference to 1888 as a year when the U.S. had “no problems economically” was also questionable, because that year came in the middle of what historians call “The Long Depression,” a severe economic crisis in the United States that extended from 1873 to 1896, according to History Today.
“It was a slump caused by a build of debt, the arrival of new technologies, and a massive continental power that was flooding the world with cheap goods — the U.S. then like China today,” the History Today site explained.
Trump’s claim that the United States in 1888 had “no debt” is also dubious. According to U.S. Treasury Department data, the outstanding public debt for the fiscal year ending July 1, 1888, was nearly $1.7 billion.