Ten things I know about Trump

Abandoned in Cleveland. Photo by Theodore Ferringer/flickr, C-BY-2.0.

I’ve read too much on the American election and on Trump’s win, and I wanted to pull it together to make sense of it. Having read too much, I’ve now written too much, so my plan is to split this into a couple of posts on the blog and then put the whole thing together as one longer post on Medium. It’s the kind of surprise that will keep happening in a world where people are expected to be both enthusiastic consumers and low-paid but grateful workers. You can only fill that gap by loading people with debt, but that’s a one-time card that’s already been played.

1. Neoliberalism just died

When both the candidates for the US Presidency are forced to disavow TTIP, the mooted transatlantic trade agreement between the US and the EU, you know the game is up. TTIP has any number of faults, most of which are seen by corporations as features rather than bugs (the binding private tribunals that allow corporations to bypass legal processes, the requirement that markets are opened up to competition even where they don’t currently exist, the ratchet that privileges corporates above political authorities, etc), and it’s been clear for as long as it has been proposed that it’s a last desperate attempt to keep the neoliberal roadshow rolling.

In fact, what we know is that candidates who have been associated with neoliberal policies, and with associated austerity measures, tend these days to lose out to candidates who haven’t. This is not just true in the US. It’s also true in Spain and Greece, and in the UK’s Brexit referendum. Among all the handwringing about the Democrats’ political strategy, running a woman associated so closely with the current broken economic model was probably an elementary mistake.

2. Long run theories of change explain this best

The long-run theories have more persuasive power to me than the shorter-run ones. Any number of commentators, from radical writers such as Wolfgang Streeck to mainstream social democrats like John Kay, have linked the current political crisis to the long economic cycle that runs back to the 1970s, when the post-war settlement between capital and labour was pulled apart by capital, desperate to inflate their returns. We know that story pretty well: squeezed incomes, privatisation and financialisation to create new markets, the export of risk and debt to communities and to individuals.

But others take it back further. Sara Robinson connected it back to the 80-year cycle of Strauss and Howe. On that model, this is the end of the cycle that started with the New Deal in the mid-30s.

Or you can take a longer view, and look at Peter Turchin’s secular cycles model, in which elite competition erupts after real wages are squeezed. Turchin, who started as an evolutionary biologist, models social change. In a paper written a few years ago, he concluded that the United States was as close to civil war as it had been in the Antebellum.

Taking a long view, of course, doesn’t make it feel less of a crisis when you’re in the middle of it. In a fine piece which I’ll come back to here, Dougald Hine observed that,

It turns out you can spend the best part of a decade talking “collapsonomics”, writing about the dark shapes ahead and the unravelling of the world as we have known it, and still let yourself get lulled into believing the status quo will hold a little longer.

3. Crises are invisible before they erupt

Dougald Hine’s piece is one of the more striking pieces about the election. He is a Brit now living in Sweden, and a founder of the Dark Mountain Project, and maybe that triple distance provides some perspective. He connected the election result to the data of Cate and Deaton on the epidemic of early deaths that has afflicted America’s low income men. The numbers compare with the deaths from AIDS — but with far less noise or anger, or campaigning — and also with the pattern of deaths in Russia after the social and economic collapse of the Soviet Union.

Among middle-aged white Americans, it is those who left education earliest who are doing most of the dying. They are dying of suicides and overdoses, alcohol poisoning and liver disease… In March, after Super Tuesday, the Washington Post plotted the death data against the primary results. In eight out of nine states, they found a correlation: the counties where death rates for middle-aged whites were the highest were the counties where the vote for Trump was the strongest.

Trump’s election numbers don’t correlate with unemployment numbers, but the do correlate with prospects. Jed Kolko on FiveThirtyEight looked at them through the county level data for economic risk, based on the level of threat to jobs from automation (I’ll leave to one side the reliability of such forecasts for the moment; what matters for this purpose is the relative numbers.) As Kolko notes,

Economic anxiety is about the future, not just the present. Trump beat Clinton in counties where more jobs are at risk because of technology or globalization.

The vote switches in the four states were spectacular. On the LSE blog, Michael McQuarrie noted the scale of the swings.

Take Macomb County and Oakland County in Michigan. Macomb County is mostly white and has a median household income of around $53,000. It is not particularly poor, but also not affluent… It voted for Obama twice (+9 in 2008, +4 in 2012). Trump won Macomb by nine points… In contrast, we have neighboring Oakland County, which is considerably more affluent (median income of $66,000), has a university, and has more of a New Economy, advanced manufacturing economic base. It is more diverse as well… Oakland was +8 Democrat in 2012 and +8 in 2016.

We also know that the white working class broke decisively for Trump late on. R. W. Johnson recorded at the London Review of Books that,

The Fox News polls show the gathering landslide among white men with only high school education. With two weeks to go they favoured Trump by 48 to 32 (+16), with one week to go by 53 to 32 (+21) and on election day by 61 to 20, a crushing 41-point margin which swung the Rust Belt states to Trump.

And it is worth noting that although the “Rust belt strategy” now looks brilliant, even inevitable, in peeling solid Democrat states away from the Democrats, it didn’t seem like that at the time. A year previously, also on the LSE blog, Michael McQuarrie had explained why it wouldn’t work. Among the few people to take it seriously as a strategy were the left-leaning Democrats Michael Moore and Thomas Frank, who happen to live in the area.

4. Class is slippery

The data seems to suggest that it wasn’t the white working class that swung it for Trump (at least in the way the Europeans would understand the term), but the group immediately above them, the skilled and semi-skilled workers whose incomes and status have been dragged down. (This is the same group, broadly, that delivered the 1979 election to Thatcher). I think the single best post on this was by Joan C. Williams at Harvard Business Review.

Progressives have lavished attention on the poor for over a century…. Means-tested programs that help the poor but exclude the middle may keep costs and tax rates lower, but they are a recipe for class conflict. Example: 28.3% of poor families receive child-care subsidies, which are largely nonexistent for the middle class. So my sister-in-law worked full-time for Head Start, providing free child care for poor women while earning so little that she almost couldn’t pay for her own.

Obamacare, similarly, may have broadened the next of healthcare, but only, it seems, by imposing more cost on the next group up.

There’s a bigger point here though. As Branko Milanovic has observed, in his famous “elephant diagram”, the effect of economic change globally over the past thirty years has been to depress wages of much of the workers of the richer world. It’s not just about the bottom decile or quintile: there’s wage pressure across the bottom 60% of the wage spectrum, as Benedict Dellot noted at the RSA blog.

Source: The American Prospect, via the Ecpnomics for Public Policy blog.

In turn that means that the income differential between the unskilled and partly-skilled or skilled worker gets flattened, which means that there’s more resentment about measures designed to help the poorest. The notion of the ‘welfare queen’ may have been largely an invention of the Reagan Republicans, but that notion of the undeserving poor (and the threadbare worker) gains currency when the rewards for more skilled work vanish.

5. Place matters

Thomas Friedman made a decent amount of money from his claim about globalisation that “the world is flat,” but his earlier book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, was closer to the mark: the shiny world of tradable goods, and tradable labour, contrasted with older and deep-seated tradition. It turns out that the world isn’t so flat after all. This speaks to a sense of ‘solastalgia’, of nostalgia for a place you know well that is no longer familiar to you. Some of that unfamiliarity is about an economic landscape that has been obliterated, at least partly by trade deals such as NAFTA. And yes, the literature says that trade deals make people better off, although decreasingly so. And the literature is mostly silent on how the benefits get distributed. Certainly, one of the things that seems to have done for Hillary in the Rust Belt states was Bill’s role in pushing NAFTA through.

But there’s another point here as well; that place has been becoming more important in politics, not just in the US, but in the UK and France as well. As Jean Pisani-Ferry noted in Social Europe,

In many countries, where you live tends to be an accurate predictor of what or whom you are voting for… This voting geography is indicative of a deep economic, social, and educational divide… What is new is a growing correlation of spatial, social, and political polarization that is turning fellow citizens into near-strangers. As Enrico Moretti of the University of California at Berkeley emphasized in his book The New Geography of Jobs, the salience of this new divide is unmistakable: university graduates account for half of the total population in the most affluent US metropolitan areas, but are four times less numerous in worse-off areas.

This notion of the city versus the rest has become central to 21st century politics. The city is the home of a progressive “post-materialist” politics almost everywhere in the richer world, and this politics also has youth on its side.

Photo by Evan Guest on flickr. CC-BY-2.0

6. Race matters

Not everyone who voted for a Trump is a racist. But he certainly attracted a disproportionate share of the racist vote. In doing so, he’s also given permission to racists to re-emerge in public, with quite a lot of ugliness, just as they re-emerged in the UK after the Brexit vote. It’s impossible to think about the idea of “loss” without seeing a sense of cultural loss as well. Richard Inglehart and Pippa Norris write about a “cultural backlash” in a recent paper:

Less educated and older citizens, especially white men, who were once the privileged majority culture in Western societies, resent being told that traditional values are ‘politically incorrect’ if they have come to feel that they are being marginalized within their own countries. As cultures have shifted, a tipping point appears to have occurred.

I’m not condoning this, but we should acknowledge it. This slow erosion of white privilege in society (especially white male privilege) is one of the long shifts that’s going on in the rich world. As Michael Mark Cohen put it in a long article on Medium,

white racial resentment is one of the leading factors driving this election. And that this resentment — this sense of loss, or mourning on the white right, this sense of “being strangers in their own land,” is overdetermined, meaning that it has more than one cause.

In a more academic post at Verso, Akwugo Emejulu connects race and economics:

Whiteness is always inflected by class and gender. Trump’s election reasserts a recommitment to the economic order of white groups as well as white male supremacy. According to the CBS exit poll, overall, Trump won the support of white women, particularly those who are non-college educated.

But in contrast to the loss of place, this is also an “imagined” or a “constructed” loss. As with the Brexit vote, the areas that have the most hostility to migrants are those where they are least present.

In times of crisis, the trickster can find the hidden joke that allows the culture to pass into a new version of itself

7. The age of the trickster

Both Anthony Barnett and Andrew Sullivan called out Trump as a fascist in pieces written close to the election. They’re both good writers, and Barnett’s writing on Brexit has been exemplary. So I’m reluctant to disagree. But both Zygmunt Bauman and Dougald Hine preferred a different metaphor, that of the trickster or shape-shifter, explored in Lewis Hyde’s fine book. Credit where it’s due; the connection was also articulated by Corey Pein in The Baffler.

The trickster, in Hyde’s account, is a low status character within a culture, the mischievous messenger boy, who’s normally no more than a nuisance, but who takes on an altogether more important role in moments of deep cultural crisis.

As Hine writes,

when those who hold high status within the existing order of things are helpless, trickster can shift the axis, find the hidden joke that allows the culture to pass through into a new version of itself.

This whole area is worth far more consideration, but for the moment this idea also connects to Ned Resnikoff’s post on the idea of the ‘Phantasmagoria.’ Resnikoff argued that Trump had taken a leaf from Putin’s playbook (or more accurately that of the former Deputy Prime Minister Surkov), who

turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theater. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups… But the key thing was, that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing, which meant that no one was sure what was real or fake.

In the American context, then,

Trump and his advisers… have no interest in creating a new reality; instead, they’re calling into question the existence of any reality… But the Surkov strategy works especially well for Trump because of his roots in the world of reality television, another sphere where “reality” is defined largely by its self-conscious and blatant artifice… Everything is fiction, so voters can only choose the fiction that best suits their taste and aligns with their self-image.

8. American democracy is broken

It’s fashionable right now to suggest that we have political problems because we have too much democracy, but that’s not what happened in the recent elections. Actually, there’s not enough democracy: the Republicans have the Presidency and control of both Houses of Congress, on a minority vote for all three.

That’s partly down to the way that the power of the States is baked into the electoral system, so that, as Lawrence Lessig notes, a Presidential (and Senate) vote in a small state has much more weight than a vote in a large one. It’s also down to gerrymandering, voter suppression, and possibly hacking. The Supreme Court’s intervention on the Voting Rights Act may have been decisive. I say all this as a Brit with our own broken democracy.

But all institutions get trapped in their moment of birth. There’s something darkly apposite about an institution — the Electoral College — that was designed to protect the interests of the slave states delivering a majority to Trump.

9. Politics is fluid

This period between winning the Presidency and both Houses, and the Presidential transition in January, may be as good as it gets for the Republicans. Despite their apparent control, it is (as with the UK’s post-Brexit Conservatives) a fragile coalition. The platform that Trump won on — Main Street not Wall Street, with a loud chorus of dog-whistling — won’t long survive contact with the ambitions of more traditional Republicans.

And one of the curiosities of politics right now, on both sides of the Atlantic, is that progressive business leaders have no natural home. By progressive, I mean those who are signed up to diversity and sustainability objectives, the kind who have given North Carolina such a mauling over the “bathroom bill.” As a rule of thumb, the closer a business is to a broad base of consumers, the more progressive its public statements and commitments. Packaged goods businesses tend to be progressive, oil companies and investment banks, not so much. As Ian Christie pointed out to me in an email, these businesses were traditionally Republican, but certainly not now. There are effective coalitions that can be built around progressive objectives. But the Democrats need to snap the link with the neoliberal years to make that happen.

Photo by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0 Via Wikipedia.

10. Hope helps

Whatever your view of “Make America Great Again” as a political slogan, it conveys more hope than “I’m with her”. (I mean: really? Which expensive campaign strategist thought that was a good idea?) One of the things that Nesta noted in the wake of the British 2015 election, also decided by a ruthless and possibly unlawful concentration on swing seats, the Conservatives’ message was about the future. It conveyed hope in a way that Labour’s didn’t.

There’s a paradox here. As with the Brexit vote, the “hope” that was articulated by Trump was a backward looking hope. As Bill Fletcher Jr noted,

right-wing populism… is a movement that is always focused on a mythical past to which a particular country must return. In the case of the United States, right-wing populism seeks a return to the era of the “white republic,” and it is this that the Trump campaign was so successful in articulating.

But frankly, if social democrats can’t construct an optimistic or hopeful story about a better future it suggests they have lost touch with the history of change that their parties represent, lost in a miasma of polling numbers and focus groups. It’s not hard to construct this progressive version of the story. In her HBR post the academic Joan Williams wrote about the need to put “good jobs” at the heart of a progressive agenda, linked to a modern industrial policy, and educational investment (including community college programmes). To which we can probably add free educationand a better healthcare programme.

Originally published in two parts at thenextwavefutures.wordpress.com on November 20 and November 28, 2016.