We begin with a sidebar on the fuss about the Russians and Trump. While Trump’s denials of fact are outrageous, it also seems we are getting distracted in the same way as with terrorists–worrying about foreigners while forgetting the real examples are domestic.
The real story about the election is still homegrown—the successful coup exercised by the FBI on behalf of Trump. All you have to do is read Comey’s letters—I emphasize both of them—to realize this was conscious policy. There was no democratic change of government; there was a coup organized by the federal police. It is a monumental failure of the media that the behavior of the FBI was never considered as suspect prior to the election, and even now we seem blind to the danger posed by an FBI willing to provide Trump with ongoing extra-legal support.
That being said, we return to the main story: Trump, the Democrats, and “Trump’s people”—the white ex-middle class.
There seems to be a piling-on of people eager to see this screwed-up election as a morality play:
– Democrats have deserted the working class. They didn’t deliver what they should have and have paid the price.
– Why have they done nothing to help middle America?
– Why has it taken Trump to discover what needs to be done?
The fact is that virtually any economist will support some version of the following:
– Most of the job loss in Trump’s heartland was technological. Further, with current progress in robotics and artificial intelligence, that trend is actually accelerating.
– While there is an urgent need to mitigate its effects, globalization as general trend is not simply reversible.
In this environment Hilary Clinton proposed retraining, incentives for employers, and support during transition.
Trump as well-oiled salesman and demagogue instead proposed salvation:
– The problems are just waiting to be solved. All it takes is removing the evil people who caused them, and we’ll be back where things were good.
– Those demons should be attacked for the evil they have done and are continuing to do.
– “We” are the true Americans, but the country is being taken over by “others” who will destroy it.
– Only Trump can deliver us.
That excited religious fervor to the point where people were ready for mob violence. In this picture Hilary Clinton’s proposals, however packaged, never represented anything more than impediments. Anything else Obama could have done—against a Republican Congress bent on blocking all social welfare spending (or any Democratic trade policy)—is in the same category. One thinks, for example, of the community college and the early childhood education initiatives from successive State of the Union speeches–those never even reached the floor in Congress. Mitch McConnell’s famous quote on cooperation was still operative: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” (a point of view currently called “gridlock.”)
The first conclusion to be drawn here is that very little could have been done about the core Trump voters in this election. But without the FBI the basic Democratic strategy would still have been successful. The FBI manipulations were if anything more significant than has been discussed, in that they affected both voting and non-voting behavior. There have been many analyses of voting behavior. I’ve seen no estimates of people who just didn’t vote, but one imagines at least the same–“two crooks, why bother?” (The prominence given to Clinton’s emails after the FBI announcement was actually quite incredible.) Since Clinton would have won decisively, it is just plain wrong to react to the election by bemoaning the failures of the Democratic party.
On the other hand, however, we can’t dismiss this election as an anomaly, since the dangers exposed by Trump are real and growing.
Despite the proliferating studies of “Trump’s people”, the white ex-middle class may not be as different from the rest of us as we are led to believe. Easterly’s recent article is worth reading on that point. What we do know is that they were whipped into hysteria by an intelligent, well-funded professional who knew exactly what he wanted to achieve. That is no isolated phenomenon.
Demagogues are an ever-present danger in democracy, and currently we are living in a great time for demagogues. Globalization, technology change, mixing of populations are well-established trends, and every one of them is getting worse. As just one example, the much-discussed “self-driving” cars and trucks apparently promise to shut down a major non-skilled job category long before most of us thought there was even a threat. It is no accident that there are Trump-like movements popping up everywhere.
All these changes put added weight behind the Democratic emphasis on education, health care, and a safety net. But it is also possible that we are moving into an era where there may not be enough good jobs for everyone. It’s not clear we have an answer for that, and probably we should be thinking about it. It may be a more than a matter of exceptions. Any group left behind is fodder for demagogues.
What makes matters worse is that Trump the politician was only a front-man. His populism, like the populism of the Tea Party, is just a nice face to put on the real aims of the Republican party. Any illusions about that have been dispelled by Trump’s cabinet and infrastructure program–we now all know the word “kleptocracy.”
The real sea change in US politics is the emergence of a small elite class that feels it has no common enterprise with the rest of the population. (One indication of the change is the old movie French Connection. Looking from today’s perspective it seems rather quaint that the evil European drug lords actually take the subway!) That class has funded a Republican party with only one objective—cut taxes for the rich. All social services are fair game—education, medical care, retirement, environment, even police (Who needs them? Let’s all have guns!). Trump and the Tea Party have been smashing successes (along with the classic divide and conquer of ethnic groups and social classes), so there will always be money–and media support–for the next populist front. A recent New York Time article traces the corresponding evolution of the anti-democratic strain in the Republican party.
It’s an open question how we are going to deal with all of that, but there had better be a program and we had better find a way to get all strands of the population to understand that there are no exceptions from what is going to happen otherwise. As in the past, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”