During an interview, President Donald Trump took credit for inventing the phrase “priming the pump” a “couple of days ago,” even thought it’s been around since the 19th century. Trump even previously used the phrase in interviews several times.
In an interview with The Economist, Trump asked its editors if they had heard of the phrase. Here’s how the exchange went:
The Economist: But beyond that it’s OK if the tax plan increases the deficit?
President Trump: It is OK, because it won’t increase it for long. You may have two years where you’ll…you understand the expression “prime the pump”?
The Economist: Yes.
President Trump: We have to prime the pump.
The Economist: It’s very Keynesian.
President Trump: We’re the highest-taxed nation in the world. Have you heard that expression before, for this particular type of an event?
The Economist: Priming the pump?
President Trump: Yeah, have you heard it?
The Economist: Yes.
President Trump: Have you heard that expression used before? Because I haven’t heard it. I mean, I just…I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good. It’s what you have to do.
The people who run the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s Twitter page, who have often made fun of Trump’s way with words, were quick to point out that “priming the pump” dates back to the early 19th century.
In fact, Tom Nuttall, one of the Economist editors who interviewed Trump, wrote on Twitter that he would have been “fired on the spot” if he had never heard of the phrase before.
Even if Trump didn’t know the history of the phrase, he couldn’t have possibly just come up with it a “couple of days ago.” He has used it numerous times in the past. When he used it in a March New York Times Magazine interview, he again asked the interviewer if he’d heard of it. Trump said in March:
We’re also going to prime the pump. You know what I mean by ‘prime the pump’? In order to get this [economy] going, and going big league, and having the jobs coming in and the taxes that will be cut very substantially and the regulations that’ll be going, we’re going to have to prime the pump to some extent. In other words: Spend money to make a lot more money in the future. And that’ll happen.
Trump even used it in his December interview with Time Magazine for their 2016 Person of the Year feature. “Well, sometimes you have to prime the pump,” Trump told Time. “So sometimes in order to get jobs going and the country going, because, look, we’re at 1% growth.”
According to the dictionary, the phrase has been used to describe “government investment expenditures designed to induce a self-sustaining expansion of economic activity” since 1933, during the Great Depression. It’s just another way to describe a government stimulus. The phrase was so widely known during the Great Depression that it was used in a 1933 cartoon.
As Investopedia notes, “pump priming” is usually used during a recession. The words in the phrase itself refer to the act of priming a pump with water to make it function properly. In other words, small amounts of government money is the “water” needed to pump up the economy.
As The Economist points out, it is related to the Keynesian economic theory, named for John Maynard Keynes. Keynes believed that government intervention can help to lift the economy. “This is based on the cyclic nature of money within an economy, in which one person’s spending directly relates to another person’s earnings, and that increase in earnings leads to a subsequent increase in spending,” Investopedia notes.
However, the real question is – does the U.S. economy really need to be “primed” at this point, as Trump suggests? As The New York Times notes, the most recent jobs report from the Department of Labor shows that the unemployment rate stands at 4.4 percent, the lowest level in over a decade. Employers added 211,000 jobs in April.