Have Trump’s working-class whites really embraced ‘class warfare’?

Trump rally in New Hampshire
Trump supporters at rally in Nashua, New Hampshire, December 28, 2015. Photo: Marc Nozell

For liberals, one of the lessons of the Trump campaign is that they and the Democratic Party have to start paying more attention to the economic pain of America’s white working class, which Trump has turned to his advantage in such a startling way.

These people without a college education are the ones left behind by the Obama recovery, left behind by the modern global, high-tech economy in general, and the Democratic Party, which used to speak for this class, doesn’t any longer and this has to change, according to the new liberal consensus.

I don’t doubt the economic pain of people who have no job security, whose salaries and benefits have steadily declined, and whose prospects for the future look no better. What I do doubt, though, is that Trump’s economic pitch – to bring back the good old days of American factory work – is up there among the main reasons why he’s getting such huge support from these people.

I doubt it because blue-collar America didn’t just start declining now; it started in the 1980s, and even a little before. Where have these working-class whites been all this time with their demands to reverse free trade?

These Trump voters are Republicans and right-leaning Independents; why have they been supporting pro-free-trade, pro-1%, anti-union, anti-safety-net Republicans for decades? Why did they, and why do they still, worship Reagan, who broke the mold on this economic policy, and who did more to screw American workers, not to mention the American poor, than any other president?

GOP’s old name for Trump’s economics

Before Trump, the Republicans had a term for the complaint that workers were getting hammered and Wall Street was the enemy: “class warfare.” Only Democrats preached class warfare, and the white working class wasn’t having it – if they voted, they voted Republican.

So why have they suddenly woken up? Why, for the first time since they left the Democrats and flocked to Reagan in 1980 (if they hadn’t left as part of Nixon’s “silent majority” in 1968, or as part of his 1972 landslide over the Bernie Sanders of the day, George McGovern) are they talking like proletarians?

Because the new, working-class economics that Trump is serving them comes packaged in the good old Republican wrapping that they always grab for – hatred of Washington, politicians, the media, the Democrats, Obama, the Clintons, immigrants, Muslims, as well as blacks, women and gays who aren’t grateful for all their advantages.

Plus, many if not most of them really like Trump’s style, which is also new. Many respect his wealth, seeing it as proof of his ability and believing he’ll use it to get them a better break. Many also see his beautiful women and his exciting life, and hero-worship him.

Take away Trump’s Republican political and social themes, take away his personality, his billions and his celebrity and make him a Democrat running against free trade and for bringing back factory jobs to America – would working-class whites be interested? I don’t think so.

Sander NY rally
Sanders at rally in Manhattan, September 18, 2015. Photo: Michael Vadon

I know, Bernie Sanders also appealed to working-class whites with the same basic approach to trade and jobs. But I’m convinced that many of these people didn’t know he was a holdover from the late-‘60s New Left, and that once they found out – as they most certainly would have in a general election – they would have fled in droves to the Republicans, to the Libertarians or stayed home.

By and large, America’s working-class, high-school-educated whites are not proletarians, or anyway that is not an important part of their identity. No, they’re nationalists. And nationalists need enemies. That’s what the Republicans have given them, it sure as hell is what Trump has given them, and this is the decisive reason they love Trump.

Protectionist economics? That’s icing on the cake.

I have to wonder if these voters even believe it, if they believe there’s something a president can do to get their jobs back from overseas, to rebuild the factories and revive industrial unions and guarantee their employment, good wages and benefits, regular raises and the rest of what was once on offer in blue-collar America. It’s gone. It’s been dying in pieces for almost 40 years. The technological revolution and globalization killed it off; how do you reverse that combined force?

Anybody who tells Americans with no more than a high school diploma that there’s a way to get them into the middle class – other than by upgrading their education – is lying through his teeth. Leave that to Trump; Democrats don’t have to imitate him.

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For further reading:

Shhh, don’t tell Donald: Trump is not the first Republican to champion white working class, MarketWatch

Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump. Here’s why, The Guardian

Head of the class, New Yorker

New data: Why white working class voters back Trump, Newsweek

What Democrats still don’t get about George McGovern, New Republic

 

 

 

 

Sanders’ foreign policy worries me less than Clinton’s, but irks me so much more

Sanders-Clinton debate.
Sanders and Clinton debate on MSNBC, February 4, 2016.

The Western left in general is wrong about America, wrong about the world, and wrong about the morality of their politics.

On foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, I lean closer to Bernie Sanders’ hands-off instincts than to Hillary Clinton’s interventionist ones. Americans do not have the will to fight another Iraqi or Afghan war in Syria, or Libya, or Yemen or anyplace else around here, and I don’t blame them. These wars tend to be futile, bloody, and cause more harm than good. And because Americans so clearly do not want to get stuck in another long-term Mideast war, it becomes very dangerous for U.S. leaders, like Hillary, to think they can intervene “surgically” and safely, that they can drop a few bombs, get rid of the bad guys and go home, mission accomplished. If that’s all you’re willing to do – and that is all America is willing to do – it’s generally safer all around to do nothing. So Sanders’ foreign policy worries me less than Hillary’s.

But it irks me so much more. This week Sanders said of the Hillary-Trump exchange of accusations over foreign policy:

I think frankly they both make a point. I think that her support for the war in Iraq was not just an aberration. I think that her willingness to push President Obama to overthrow [Libya’s Muammar] Qadhafi and lead to the kind of instability we’re seeing now in Libya, not inconsistent with her views on Syria, where she wants a no-fly zone. … Bush’s era, Clinton’s era has caused us incalculable harm.

Sanders implied Hillary was no better than Trump on foreign policy, and explicitly lumped her policies together with those of the George W. Bush administration. The comparison to Trump is beyond ridiculous, while the Hillary-W. equation is just crude, especially since she’s publicly regretted her support for the Iraq War over and over.

But beyond distorting Clinton’s policies, Sanders’ remark shows the kind of automatic rejection of any use of American military power abroad, and the self-righteousness that goes with it, that plagues the Sanders campaign and the Western left in general. They’re wrong about America, wrong about the world, and wrong about the morality of their politics – again, in an irksome way.

Cold War is over

America has changed since the end of the Cold War. It doesn’t support leaders like Augusto Pinochet against those like Salvador Allende anymore, it doesn’t kill masses of Vietnamese fighting for their independence because it wants to lick the Commies. America’s enemies are no longer people like Ho Chi Minh or Mohammed Mossadegh, popular left-wing figures trying to throw off foreign domination.

No, since the Cold War ended, America’s enemies have been people like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qadhafi and Bashar Assad. Leaders whom the locals, or most of them anyway, experience as monsters. So America’s involvements in Syria, Libya and yes, Iraq, have been on a whole different, much higher moral level than the policy of supporting fascists against Communists and socialists that the U.S. pursued during the Cold War. But the Western left doesn’t recognize this.

For months I’ve been debating Sanders supporters on Facebook, most recently about foreign policy, and the most common view of Hillary is that she’s simply a war-monger. Few of them seem to see any respectable argument for fighting the Middle East’s monsters, few are ready to say that Hillary’s approach, while mistaken, is honorable – no, it’s rotten, not to say evil. She can’t be motivated by any desire to save innocent people, it’s just power, glory, American triumphalism (some also mention oil and arms sales), she’s no better than the worst Muslim-hating GOP hawk.

I have a hard time getting these people to acknowledge that as terrible as the Iraq war has turned out, ousting Saddam was a historic achievement, as was the Kurdish autonomous zone in the north. I get the same resistance when I suggest that no matter how bad the situation in Libya has gotten, helping get rid of Qadhafi before he could take his revenge on his opponents  was not an immoral act, certainly not at the time. It’s the same story in the debate over Hillary’s support for a no-fly zone in Syria. And these are obviously not fringe views in the Sanders camp – they’re endorsed by the candidate himself.

Not good vs. evil

I don’t see what is so morally superior about watching passively while the likes of Saddam, Qadhafi and Assad slaughter hundreds of thousands of people. I agree that for America to intervene militarily to stop them is probably a bad idea – but it should not automatically be ruled out, which is the instinct of the left. American military power is not always futile; for instance, it got Saddam out of Kuwait in the first Iraq war and cut him down to size, another historic achievement. (Even though the postwar sanctions were a humanitarian catastrophe, American power at its worst.)

American military intervention in places where people are under attack by genocidal dictators is not immoral. It may well be a bad decision, even a reckless one, but evil it’s not. Immoral is when you’re fighting on the side of the bad guys against the good guys. America used to do that a lot; it doesn’t anymore.

Unlike what the Western left in general and the Sanders campaign in particular thinks, the foreign policy challenges facing America are no longer  about good vs. evil, like they were in Vietnam and Latin America; they’re about the lesser evil vs. the greater one, like in Iraq, Libya and Syria. I prefer Sanders’ choices to Hillary’s. But they’re nothing to cheer about, and Hillary’s are nothing to boo. The left should learn a little humility, especially in the face of the Middle East’s tragedies.

Finally, America taking sharp left on economics

trump rally
Trump rally in Fountain Hills, Arizona, March 19, 2016. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Protectionism, raising minimum wage, raising taxes on rich – this, by popular demand, is economic platform of GOP’s new leader.   

It’s ironic: America has been moving left on social issues in recent years because there are more minorities and “millennials” in the population, yet the country is finally, in this election campaign, moving left on economic issues as well because of white, generally middle-aged Middle Americans – mainly those who support the fascistic Donald Trump.

These are the people who, ever since Reagan, exasperated the liberals by consistently acting against their economic self-interest and voting for a Republican Party that so clearly favored the rich and disdained the working class and poor. The reason they voted Republican was the social issues, the symbolic issues, the ones that involved their likes and dislikes, that pitted their culture against liberal, cosmopolitan culture. These are patriotic, traditional Americans, and the Republicans talked like their kind of people, while the Democrats talked like big-city college kids who didn’t know how to change a tire. On economics, these voters said they hated government and taxes, and the Republicans said they did, too, so it was a perfect match – even though the GOP-style economy left these people further and further behind while the rich kept getting more obscenely rich.

But this year the alliance between Middle America and Republican economics broke apart. It happened mainly because Trump jettisoned the GOP’s laissez faire dogma, and instead told Middle America’s inadequately educated whites, “I’ll save you. I’ll get your jobs back. I’ll stop all those businesses from leaving the U.S. and they’ll have to hire you, at good wages.” In other words, protectionism. Prohibitive taxes on foreign imports, and confiscatory taxes on U.S. businesses that dare defy the government. What Republicans call socialism, totalitarianism.

And the salt-of-the-earth white folks of the heartland loved it. Meanwhile, on the social and cultural issues, Trump threw them more raw meat than any serious presidential candidate ever had – the ugliest racism and nativism, the worst abusiveness, the most fuck-you brand of hell-raising – and between that and his economic wonder drug, he left the Republican free-market purists in the dust.

PROTECTIONISM IS AN idiotic idea in this day and age – among other awful effects, it would lose America billions of foreign customers for its exports, and thus cost more Americans their jobs than Third World competition ever did – but the important thing is that Trump, by making this idiotic claim so successfully, has separated Republican voters from Republican economic doctrine. Which is a great thing, because Reaganomics, which has held sway in America since the 1980s (the big exception being the passage – and success – of Obamacare), has helped expand the country’s pool of have-nots, strike fear into the middle class and give the upper class an abominably large share of the nation’s wealth.

Trump – purely by accident, because he doesn’t have an economic idea or principle in his head – has torn down the Republicans’ facade and allowed the party’s educational lower class to acknowledge, very loudly, that economic freedom isn’t working for them, and that they want somebody in charge – say, the next president – to give them economic security one way or the other.

As a result, Trump has had to keep moving left economically – now he’s changed his mind and come out in favor of raising the minimum wage, which is the sort of thing that would have gotten a Republican hanged as recently as last year. In another forced reversal, he’s even talking about raising taxes on the rich. Protectionism, minimum wage hikes, higher taxes on the wealthy – this, by popular demand, is the economic platform of the Republican Party’s new leader.

After this, after Trump’s exposure of the dissatisfaction in party ranks with laissez faire, is any Republican going to try to sell voters on Milton Friedman or the Laffer curve again? I don’t think so. That way has failed, first economically, now politically.

TRUE, IT’S NOT only Trump and his white Middle Americans who are moving the country left on economics; it’s also Bernie Sanders and his white Middle Americans, along with his millennials who believe in equality, and who also believe they shouldn’t have to pay so damn much to go to college. They’re right, of course, and hopefully their nudging of Hillary and the Democrats leftward (except on free trade, where they’re as wrong as Trump), will be a lasting thing. But by far the most significant development – the shredding of America’s economic Right – has come from the heart of the Republican electorate, driven forward by a sociopathic billionaire. If that’s not ironic, I don’t know what is.

This isn’t too good to be true, either: After Reagan, it was Bill Clinton who said “the era of big government is over” as the Democrats joined the Republicans in keeping taxes low, slashing welfare and in general burying the party’s New Deal legacy (until Obamacare). For 3½ decades, American economic policy has been moving one way, right. Now, from the force of reality and the advent of Trump and, to a lesser extent, Sanders, the pendulum is swinging back.

So, assuming that Hillary Clinton wins the November election, which I think is a very safe assumption, the 2016 election campaign should go down as a turning point for the better in American economic history. (And assuming that Trump gets wiped out electorally, which I think is a likelihood, this will have been a healthy year for American national life all around.)

I don’t know if Hillary and the Dems will make things better for average-income and poor Americans; if they don’t, the Repubs could come back to power later – but not with more of their economic bullshit. They can’t make life much easier for the rich or much harder for the poor and working class without turning America into something like a Third World country itself – and without chasing more and more voters away.

The Republicans are going to have to deliver the goods to their struggling supporters, because these people won’t listen to promises of trickle-down anymore. The GOP has no choice but to rejoin the Western world and accept that a mixed economy, one that includes reasonable taxes and reasonable government intervention, is necessary for a fair society.

Remember Nixon’s wage and price controls of 1971? There really was a time, and not so long ago, when even a Republican could have an idea like that. Such times appear to be coming around again.