So Long, Country We Knew
Trump’s Win Was About Culture. Understand This.
The media have way overstated the economic frustration of Trump’s voters. Their anger was cultural. If you get this wrong, you’ll get everything else wrong.
Dire predictions that a Trump victory would send the market into a nosedive have proved premature. Quite the opposite, stocks have gone through the roof. The only question is why anyone should be surprised. Donald Trump may be the best thing that ever happened to Wall Street.
The belief of Forgotten America that Trump was somehow a champion of Main Street against Wall Street was as foolish as it was illusory. On this issue, at least, Trump cannot be accused of dissembling. He vowed not to raise tax rates on the 1 percent—which included himself—and he appears ready to keep his promise. Consequently, the tax burden will fall inequitably on the very middle-class and blue-collar faithful who voted for him, making them poorer and less equal than they already were.
Moreover, Trump’s Republican allies in Congress will now be able to promote various pet projects such as the flat tax, a regressive levy in which both the struggling and the well-to-do will have the opportunity of paying taxes at the same rate, affording an equality of sorts. And a successful GOP campaign against government regulation may well remove the remaining safeguards against financial manipulation by banks, speculators, and hedge funds, bringing back the good old days that gave us George W. Bush’s Great Recession.
As for advancing the cause of workers, Republican lawmakers are already targeting recent federal actions to grant added pay for overtime, mobilizing to undermine minimum-wage laws, and taking aim at job safety protections under the guise of removing regulatory rules that impede corporate competition. This may be the culmination of almost 40 years of union-busting, starting under Ronald Reagan, that has systematically vitiated the strength of organized labor. A Republican administration has its sights set on the National Labor Relations Board, one of the few government bodies that still offers a fair hearing in labor disputes.
The coal miners looking to Trump as a savior who’d restore their jobs had best look again. The coal industry is dying with little chance of being revived. As has been well reported, its demise came not at the hands of Washington but was wrought by competition from cheaper sources of fuel: gas, oil, shale, and renewable energy—not the least of which generates the wind and solar engines that power the agri-business of their fellow GOP voters in the Midwest, who also profit from, dare we say it, farm subsidies. The last hope of coal country is to keep exporting to its best customer, China, which would evaporate if Trump ever initiated the trade war he threatens with Beijing.
Blue-collar voters in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, aggrieved at Washington’s perceived neglect, voted to reject a “third-term” for President Obama by putting Trump in the White House. They seem to have misremembered that Obama bailed out the auto industry at significant political cost—most directly from the free-market Republicans they voted for. In doing so, Obama saved a potential 340,000 jobs in Michigan, more than 200,000 in Ohio, almost 50,000 in Pennsylvania, and close to 45,000 in Wisconsin.
He also added 640,000 jobs to a revived American auto industry. This does not count the tens of thousands of jobs that would have been lost by parts suppliers throughout the not-so-rusting belt of the Midwest. (It might be noted that the government earned back $70 billion of the $80 billion it lent to the industry.) Without Obama’s bailout, Midwestern workers would have been vulnerable to even further job loss by foreign competition. Donald Trump, who derided the bailout as a pro-Obama conspiracy, neglected to mention that many auto jobs that left the Rust Belt went not south of the border but to the American South where foreign automakers saw production opportunities in a region in which right-to-work and anti-labor laws allowed them Made-in-the-USA privileges. The Rust Belt aggrieved had to look no further than the Old Confederacy to find where their jobs had gone. As often happens in a fluid national economy, one group of Americans profited at the expense of another. It is doubtful that most, if any, were illegal immigrants. And this is how Midwestern workers punished the Democrats for “overlooking” them.
Much has been made of Donald Trump’s overtures to his blue-collar constituency.
To be sure, he will probably try to protect Medicare and Social Security (although the lure of privatizing is still a gleam in some Republican eyes) since he knows on which side of federal benefits his base’s interests are buttered. Similarly, he will probably try to foster a job stimulus package in the form of infrastructure, a policy that was bitterly opposed by the Republicans when it was introduced by President Obama. And in a lapse of generosity, he has indicated that he won’t completely gut the Affordable Care Act, maintaining such features as guaranteeing insurance for people with pre-existing conditions.
But, like so many of his forays into compassion, on closer examination, the cure is worse than the disease. As critics have pointed out, while insurers may be required to accept consumers with pre-existing conditions, they don’t have to sell insurance to anyone at all. Insurance companies may be required to keep the baby, but they don’t have to sell you the bathtub that holds it. Those who purchase health care through the exchanges will be worse off than before.
One of the great issues for conservatives during the Obama years was balancing the budget. Government spending has gotten so out of hand, the refrain goes, that the federal deficit will grow until we are bankrupt, mortgaging the future to the runaway spending of a profligate Washington. But how will Donald Trump pay for a ballyhooed infrastructure, a ballooning military program and maintaining the social safety net while cutting taxes on the 1 percent? Most discretionary social programs have already been cut to the bone. The others are mandated. If we tax less and spend more, the only alternative is to borrow more, sending our national debt soaring by quantum leaps, a prospect that makes the current imbalance seem puny. This could well generate a domino effect that would reverberate through GOP-leaning state legislatures. The result would be fewer municipal services at greater cost, punishing many of the very people who voted for Trump.
This does not even begin to address such issues as global warming whose effects, GOP dismissals notwithstanding, may have a serious impact on flooding, droughts, storms, heat waves, and assorted ecological disasters that can make life precarious for millions of Americans, much less those who dwell on the rest of the planet. In fact, the bogus dystopia that Trump envisioned could well become a reality under his tenure.
As for Trump’s immigration policy, his declared intention to round up 3 million illegal alien criminals may not provide jobs for many American workers but it could be a boon for such entrepreneurs as the Crips and the Bloods (with a little help from the Mafia) who may now be rid of competition from the Latin Kings in the drug trade. This might not keep any more narcotics off the streets but it could well restore the business to its domestic players. The deported Latino criminals—assuming there are 3 million such predators stalking red-state America—would then be free to wreak havoc in their native lands, thereby prompting a further exodus of desperate victims willing to take their chances with Trump’s wall.
The conventional wisdom explaining Trump’s victory is that the Democrats arrogantly embraced the politics of cultural identity while ignoring the economic frustrations of a disgruntled white majority that deserted them for someone who appealed to their justified grievances. It was the economy. But was it?
As we look more carefully at the voting results a different pattern emerges: In effect, the election was a contest between two coalitions reflecting not an equality gap but a cultural one. The first, and much ballyhooed, was the Democratic alliance of the upwardly mobile, the college educated, the urban, together with ethnic and social minorities who had often been on the fringes of American society. But there was a second coalition as well: the religious right, composed of Protestant evangelicals and conservative Catholics who felt their confessional principles were under assault by a state that had tilted far too secular; millions of NRA members who felt assailed by government intrusions on what they took to be their Second Amendment rights; political conservatives and right-wing ideologues who were affronted by the liberal policies of the Democrats; the affluent who had never left the Republican ranks and were appalled by the idea of sharing their earnings with the unworthy; and, yes, the disaffected left-behind rural whites who formed only a segment of this cohort, albeit an impassioned one.
In fact, this alliance was not primarily economic—although painting it so was politically potent—but cultural. Many of its members were affluent, quite a few well off. They had little problem with technology and globalization, much less well-placed lobbying, from which many benefited. Their grievance was that they were being left behind not economically but socially. As Donald Trump astutely pointed out in cultivating them: “This is your last chance.” His brilliant appeal to “make America great again,” was, for most, not a call for economic redistribution or job opportunity but for social relevance. His message was nothing less than to literally Take America Back to an imagined past that was as longed for as it was illusory, a past where their values were ascendant and where the others knew their place.
Make no mistake, this election was not primarily about the economy. For Trump’s adherents, it was about nothing less than saving the soul of the nation. Their quarrel with government was not that they were doing badly but that “the others” were making inroads, catching up, and, if unchecked, they would somehow surpass the Real Americans. The impulses of Trump’s legions were not racial, but tribal. What was “elite” about their foes was not their finances but their fluidity, their openness to change, which conservatives saw as a challenge not to their pocketbooks but a threat to their belief system.
Which is why the passions of this election had the force of a religious war and Donald Trump was seen as a savior. It explains why so many people voted for him, well aware of his deficiencies and how unfit he was for the White House. In religious terms, a tool of divine deliverance may be flawed, but it must still be wielded. Trump was such a scourge. We will see how he does the Lord’s work.