The 25-Year Tide That Gave Us Trump
Many columns and articles have ably traced the rise of Donald Trump. This one from Tom Edsall is particularly outstanding, and Charles Murray’s book, “Coming Apart,” is loaded with data essential to understanding the phenomenon. This epistle today will try to translate Trump’s rise into something more direct and linear.
Trump’s popularity is a direct result of a tsunami of economic and cultural globalism that has flooded the shores of America over the last 25 years. The overwhelming pace of this change has upended both the country and the relationship that working-class voters have with both political parties, but especially the GOP.
As with most movements, a single event turns into a catalyst. In this case, a supertanker full of gasoline has crashed into a smoldering country. Today, we are witnessing an eruption in three stages. I’ll discuss each.
The Impact of Economic Globalism. In Edsall’s terrific column, he cites the government’s own numbers showing the United States has lost seven million manufacturing jobs since 1979 as the population has ballooned by 96 million. Surely not all 96 million people have entered the labor force, but the 89 million difference between those numbers is stunning nonetheless.
There is no question the U.S. commitment to free trade has contributed to a loss of manufacturing jobs. Don’t just believe the data. Hop in your car and take a drive, not on the Interstate, but on our highways and on secondary and farm-to-market roads through the Mid-Atlantic states, the Rust Belt, and, especially, the Deep South. You’ll see bricked-up, locked-down cinder block buildings that did not just serve as textile mills and manufacturing plants but represented jobs, stability, and the industriousness of millions of Americans.
Chemistry has replaced cotton, and technology has displaced textiles. Case in point: my wife’s family used to run a small furniture manufacturing plant in Alabama. The business, once the largest manufacturer of cedar furniture in the United States, closed because it could not remain profitable in the face of cheaper Chinese imports supported by pegged currency. So in Walker County, Alabama, where Murphy Furniture Company once employed hundreds but is now shuttered, Trump won 55 percent of the vote. That is no coincidence.
The surge in foreign imports, driven by the North American Free Trade Agreement and by China’s admission to the World Trade Organization, has unquestionably hurt job availability and wage growth for the American middle class. The jobs that were supposed to replace them have not come into being or have been replaced by automation or with upper-middle-class jobs in engineering, chemistry, biotechnology or skilled service-sector jobs. A “cut and sew” textile worker can’t easily transition to a biopharmaceutical plant. These lower-skilled workers did not just lose their jobs — they lost their dignity.
These were the policies fought for and advocated by the political and cultural elites of both parties. In the minds of voters, those elites are squarely to blame. Trump holds up a mirror to this and says he’s going to stop it. And that is just one reason they are drawn to him.
The Impact of Cultural Globalism. The changes in American culture over the last 25 years have been sweeping. Murray chronicles the breakdown in traditional American values, citing seismic shifts not just in attitude but also in behavior relating to industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. Murray’s thesis is that these changes, in combination with economic and educational shifts, have challenged the basis of traditional American civic life. We’ve become more like the advanced welfare states of Europe, driving a “coming apart” of the American community.
Some say Trump’s life manifests few of these values. Maybe he’s worked hard, but his bankruptcies and shady deals don’t say much for honesty. He’s on his third marriage, and both Corinthians would probably agree he’s not a particularly religious man. But these observations, while true, miss the point.
Trump is not about Trump; Trump is a vessel for economic and social angst. By attacking “political correctness,” Trump’s campaign is a safe harbor for traditional societal views on marriage, family, religion and work – whether he lives up to those ideals or not. The backlash against “being more like Europe” is manifest in Trump and his messaging. “Make America Great Again” might as well say, “Stop being like Europe.” Trump is against open borders. He is against gun control. He is for religious freedom. He is against the threat from radical jihadists that Europe has handled all too delicately, and to its detriment. The fact that he is an iconic American cultural figure carrying this message, a true economic and social elite from within the belly of the beast, makes the message all the more appealing.
When these voters turn on their televisions, the stories and images paint a picture of political, economic and cultural elites who respect none of these values. They don’t want to keep up with the Kardashians. Sports heroes dope and cheat and assault women. Political scandals are a dime a dozen. The governor and former attorney general of New York resigns in a disgraceful prostitution scandal. His reward isn’t jail — it’s a paying gig as co-host of a national television show.
The final nail in the coffin is the angst over radical Islam. This is not just a national security issue. Voters have been told not to say the words they believe describe what they see and feel. They see men beheading Christians. They watch innocents being murdered on the streets of San Bernardino, Calif., and Paris. They visit the memorial to the victims of 9/11.
They feel pain. They are threatened. They see evil. The president of our nation tells them not to speak its name.
The economic aspects of this wave have been building most certainly over the last 25 years — and the cultural aspects have been bubbling up, arguably, as Murray contends, since the 1960s. So why now? What is the trigger that has unleashed this “coming apart” so violently onto the political scene?
The Great Recession and the 2008 Wall Street Bailout. Voters perceived the response of those in power to the Great Recession to be the very essence of everything wrong with our political system — clear proof the system is irrevocably broken.
The economy collapses. A government response is needed. What happens?
The big banks, auto companies, and creatures of Wall Street who caused the collapse get “bailed out.” Republicans and Democrats both supported it. Save a precious few, almost no one was held accountable. The wealthy seemed insulated from collapse. It looked like business as usual.
But voters didn’t see a bailout for middle-class America. According to the Institute for Policy Research, “more than eight million Americans lost their jobs, nearly four million homes were foreclosed each year, and 2.5 million businesses were shuttered” during the Great Recession.
Those foreclosed homes were not likely to be in the Hamptons, on the Main Line, or in Georgetown. Middle-class America got crushed. Families lost homes. Workers lost jobs. Housing equity and retirement savings were wiped out, making things like college impossible to borrow for or pay for.
An anvil had been dropped on the head of middle-class America, and it was easy to connect the dots to understand who did it. The big guys blew up the economy, stuck their hands out to Washington, and got bailed out. The little guys lost their jobs and their houses and got nothing.
The belief was and is that the political, cultural and financial elite in America sold the country down the river. They’ve profited from economic globalization, downsizing and outsourcing jobs to Mexico and China. They’ve lectured and hectored us in print and on television and social media about the triviality of our views on traditional societal norms and institutions. Struggling Americans saw the laws they passed in response to the Great Recession as feckless talking points that did nothing to help. Other laws, like the bailout and Obamacare, seemed to help the upscale and downscale, while doing nothing to improve middle America’s economic outlook or, in the case of Obamacare and the subsequent rise in health insurance rates, straining its resources even further.
The prevailing view was that when the anvil came down, the elites used their money, power and influence to raid the U.S. Treasury to protect their wealth. Middle-class Americans got nothing. Worse, they lost overnight what they had fought and worked to build for generations. They worked hard, played by the rules, and got screwed.
And now, they have something to say about it.
It began in 2008 when George Bush and John McCain were soundly rejected in favor of Hope and Change. When Hope and Change did not come, their voices were heard in the midterms of 2010 and 2014. Americans turned to the Republican Party to protect and defend their economic and cultural interests.
But still, nothing changed. Then the prevailing view among these voters was that Republicans, and “establishment” Republicans in particular, failed that calling. Today, those voters don’t want another Bush, another venture capitalist like Mitt Romney, or another creature of Washington like McCain to represent them.
They want an outsider — someone strong enough to take on the system, someone who will not fix it or reform it but break it. Someone who will drop an anvil on the system’s head the way one was dropped on theirs.
This is very complicated and yet incredibly simple. It is surreal but real. I saw this coming, as I wrote in my October blog. And whether Trump wins or loses, the movement he has inspired is not going away any time soon.
The economic pressures will remain. The cultural forces are still at work in our society. It is not just the Republican Party that is in trouble. As Murray says, “the American experiment” is at risk. There are two paths we can take: become more like Europe, or reach back and fight for the things that, as Trump ironically says, made America great.
That fight is now front and center before us in the Republican primary. It will be brutal, as you would expect in a fight for the future of a great nation. It will pervade not only this election but also our politics and culture for many years to come.
Bruce Haynes is a founding partner of Purple Strategies, with offices in Washington, Chicago and Boston. He writes a Blog at RamblingManBlog.com and can be reached via RamblingManBlog@gmail.com or @BrucePurple on Twitter.