Why has Trump come so far?

I want to quickly list all the explanations for Trump’s campaign that I know of or can think up, whether or not I believe them. The hope is that it might be useful to see them all in one place. Maybe the Trump phenomenon is overdetermined, and more than one of the causes listed below is responsible. Not all of them can be, however, because several of them contradict one another.

  1. There are always fringe elements in American politics, but over the past few decades, the political establishment unilaterally disarmed against them. The political middleman, seen as a corrupt figure, was reduced in rank, and many of his tools were taken from him: pork-barrel spending, big-money campaign donations, conventions where candidates could be decided in smoke-filled back rooms. As a result, the political parties are now incapable of exercising discipline. It was easy for Trump to hijack the Republicans, and the Democrats should consider themselves lucky that Sanders is an honorable man. (This is Jonathan Rauch’s explanation, in a recent Atlantic article.)
  2. Twitter and other internet media have removed the benign censorship with which newspapers and magazines once insulated the public. Twenty years ago, Trump would only have been able to reach people by means of articles that fact-checked his lies and registered disapproval of his xenophobia and his racist dog-whistling. Now he can reach people directly. Truth and social norms have become optional, and the contagion of toxic words can spread more quickly.
  3. The internet has accelerated the shift to “secondary orality” begun by television. In a post-literate media environment, politics has a new texture:

    The viewer may not catch all the details of a candidate’s health-care plan, but he has a much more definite sense of her as a personality, and his response to her is therefore likely to be more full of emotion… The closeness makes it hard to negotiate differences of opinion… In a culture of secondary orality, we may be less likely to spend time with ideas we disagree with. Self-doubt, therefore, becomes less likely. In fact, doubt of any kind is rarer… Forced to choose between conflicting stories on television, the viewer falls back on hunches, or on what he believed before he started watching… He thinks in terms of situations and story lines rather than abstractions.

    Trump’s supporters may still read his messages and read about him, but outside of the elite, most people in America no longer perceive the world in a skeptical, detail-rich, fact-centered way.

  4. Globalization has exposed American workers to competition with foreigners with much lower wages, and NAFTA and other free trade deals of the last few decades have accelerated the damage. The working class feel that America’s political elite has betrayed them, fattening their own bottom lines by offshoring industries that will now never return, and workers are embracing Trump because they no longer believe either the pro-business nostrums of establishment Republicans or the nanny-state reassurances of the Democrats. Government successfully nurtured industry in countries like South Korea in the twentieth century. Trump’s manner is appalling, but maybe free trade isn’t the panacea that orthodox economists think it is.
  5. Increasing automation of the workplace has raised the productivity of manufacturing in America, and American factories simply need fewer workers now. The working class, unable to understand or accept their displacement, blame foreign competition, which they were going to have to face anyway. Trump is channeling an incoherent rage over an inevitable economic misfortune, and the workers themselves would be harmed if a President Trump were to kibosh existing and future free-trade deals.
  6. Workers blame the political elite for exposing them to foreign competition and for failing to take care of them as automation caused their jobs to evaporate. But they probably also understand that electing someone who promises to nuke free trade will bring economic misery to everyone in the country, even themselves. They’re willing to bear the cost in order to have the pleasure of punishing the political elite.
  7. White workers have lost jobs and wages to globalization and automation for decades, but they used to have the consolation of being able to look down on blacks. Nowadays, though, suburban whites have rates of drug abuse, to name one dysfunction, that used to be blamed on urban black “culture.” Since 2009, the President has been black, and perhaps inspired by him, a new protest movement has exposed, and is threatening to remove, the routine racism of much policing, which helped to cause many blacks to feel like second-class citizens. A white rage, over a loss of relative social status, has crystallized around Trump, who flirts with a white-supremacist message.
  8. Since the 19th century, capitalists have divided workers by fomenting racism and ethnic hatred. In the early 20th century, unions proved uniquely capable of convincing workers that cross-race solidarity could protect their wages. But unions have been discredited in the popular imagination, and now there are no institutions in workers’ lives that can make that argument cogently.
  9. Trump supporters are actually a little better off than the average American wage-earner, and the Trump phenomenon shouldn’t be blamed on the white working class but on the white petty bourgeoisie—the class just above the working class, notoriously vigilant about not slipping back into it. They may have racist and xenophobic bias, but their real enemy is the grand bourgeoisie, the class above them, and in particular the liberal element in it, who they see as having made a political alliance with people of color, at their expense. They feel, for example, that when grand bourgeois liberals give away seats in college to affirmative action students, it’s the children of the white petty bourgeoisie who get displaced.
  10. There has always been racism in America, and there have often been economic difficulties. Rage is erupting now because Trump has sown and tended it, ever since his campaign to deny that Obama was born in America. He has worked steadily to make mainstream kinds of speech that would have been heavily stigmatized as recently as a decade ago.
  11. At least since 1968, when Richard Nixon proclaimed himself the candidate of the “silent majority,” the Republican establishment has aroused enthusiasm for itself on the far right with hateful messages, including racist ones. In the 1988 campaign, for example, George H. W. Bush’s team smeared Dukakis with an ad featuring the black felon Willie Horton, who committed rape while on furlough. In 2004, the campaign of George W. Bush riled up supporters by playing on fears of gay marriage. The establishment tapped these fears and angers but never really satisfied them once in office, and now the demon has got away from the sorcerer.
  12. Waves of immigration have provoked nativist backlashes in America before, notably during the 1840s and the 1930s. For the past few decades, many European nations have had to cope with nativist, rightwing parties—led by Nigel Farage in Great Britain, the LePens in France, and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands—and America has been lucky in not being saddled with one sooner. Perhaps the luck will hold: Trump shows little signs of being able to institutionalize his xenophobia. But perhaps it won’t: even if Trump loses in November, he might decide not to leave the political stage.
  13. As a bullying, charismatic, media-savvy billionaire, Trump is attacking a chink in democracy’s armor previously exploited, in Italy, by Silvio Berlusconi. If Berlusconi’s career is a yardstick, it would be a mistake for the political elite to underestimate Trump. Though dismissed and scorned as a clown, Berlusconi was a damaging force in Italian politics for decades.

Three more, 2:30pm:

  1. As manufacturing jobs have given way to service jobs, men in the working class have become less likely to have jobs that are categorically different, in pay and in kind, from those of women. Add to this decline the prospect of a woman President, and a number of men may be feeling less powerful than they once did. With his disparaging remarks about rival candidate Carly Fiorina and news host Megyn Kelly, Trump has shown himself to be a misogynist. Perhaps hatred and fear of women are driving his campaign.
  2. Misogyny is a perennial force in American politics; there’s no need to hunt for a recent historical trigger. Trump has cultivated an image of himself as a misogynist for years and continues to do so, and as with race, he has helped to foment the rage that is supporting him.
  3. The internet has accelerated the political balkanization of American life. Social media companies know that most people find cross-cutting conversations (that is, conversations with people who hold a different political opinion) unpleasant, and they make it easy for users to dodge them. As a result, supporters of Trump may not be challenged about his falsehoods, and most of his detractors may be expressing their disapproval of him, rather pointlessly, to each other.

Free trade, jobs, rage, and policy

After a week of missteps, the Republican National Convention concluded on Thursday night with a speech by Donald Trump that was strong and persuasive. Unusually, for Trump, most of the statements in the speech were actually true. Trump’s character is so flawed that his election would, I think, be devastating; the success of his speech therefore terrifies me.

In this post, I want to revise an earlier post of mine, in which I tried to explain Trump’s appeal and how hard it is for an upper-class liberal to reply to it. I agreed, in that post, with the widespread notion that Trump is channeling the rage of the working class, and the class just above it, about the migration of American jobs to other parts of the world. Like others, I suggested that the rage may be justified even if Trump’s proposals offer no real solution. I wrote that Trump seems to be offering to restore workers’ dignity by arranging for the nation’s borders to do what a union’s picket line used to do—keep out competition that would erode labor’s earning power. At the end of my post, I mentioned, as a caveat to my own argument, that Trump’s proposal wouldn’t work, because a trade war would in fact destroy American jobs, and that American manufacturing, somewhat puzzlingly, is “at an all-time high, if measured in dollars rather than jobs.”

A few weeks later, I un-published my blog post, because it seemed to me that my caveats carried more weight than the post they were attached to. It also seemed to me that in the post I had underestimated the importance of dog-whistled racism to Trump’s appeal. But I’ve now republished that post, with a half-disavowal, and I’m adding this one, because I think it’s worth continuing to try to figure out what’s going on—even if all I really manage to do in this post is think out loud.

From the top, then: Trump’s RNC speech contains two appeals. The first is to fear of violence. As most members of America’s beleaguered fact-based community already know, Trump is exaggerating the dangers posed by civil unrest and terrorism. No policy could guarantee complete safety from either threat, but both are being handled relatively well by ordinary policing. Could they be handled better? Sure. But with the exception of 11 September 2001, terrorism-related deaths of American citizens seem to have been lower this century than they were in the 1990s, and the outcomes of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan hardly suggest that a more militant approach would improve matters. Trump’s fear-mongering has a racist color here, frightening and worth paying full attention to. His demagoguery on this point seems fairly straightforward, however, at least to those willing to see it, and for the rest of this blog post, I want to focus on his second appeal.

That appeal takes the form of a promise to restore earning power to Americans in the working class and the class just above it. Trump claims that he, unlike Clinton, cares about American jobs rather than American money-making, and that he will bring back to America jobs that have been lost through free-trade agreements to foreign manufacturers. He calls Clinton a “puppet” of big business and the moneyed elite, and for his RNC speech, someone on his speechwriting team had the canny idea of reviving a term deployed by Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression: he called American workers “the forgotten men and women of our country.” This is a remarkable reversal of the historical alliance of the Republican party with business and finance, but then, it probably doesn’t make sense to think of Trump as a Republican. He took over the Republican party the way a parasite might take over its host. He’s a new breed, and he won’t be defeatable by old methods.

In my earlier post, I tried, at the risk of seeming more sympathetic to Trump’s message than I’m entirely comfortable with, to explain why Trump’s message might resonate with people who feel shut out from the prosperity of the last couple of decades. The opportunities for class resentment and misunderstanding here are rich. The meritocratic ethos of America’s elite is galling if you happen to be living beneath it. The gall, to be specific, is in the extra little fillip of hegemony that makes the lives of the rich not only superior in luxury but also, at least seemingly, superior in virtue. Organic milk may be too expensive for your budget, but conventional milk, you’re told, is cruel to cows. You may not be able to afford an apartment close enough to your job to allow you to bike to it, but you nonetheless have to hear that bike lanes are saving the world from climate change. It’s irksome to hear injunctions to save the world if you’re having a hard time just surviving in it. (I write this, please understand, as a vegetarian who buys organic milk and bikes daily. And yes, I know that bikes alone won’t save the world from climate change.) Political correctness begins to seem like another of the elite’s purchases—another display of the ability of the rich to afford nicer things, one of those things being a nicer soul. And there’s a niggling suspicion, in the person who can’t afford the nicer things, that the financiers, lawyers, executives, and consultants who can afford them have drawn much of their wealth, in the last few decades, from offshoring—from the separation of the design, management, and marketing of products from the actual making of them, which has been in many cases shipped abroad.

Trump is saying to his audience, You’re right to be angry; you’re right to feel that it’s unfair; they betrayed you. “America has lost nearly-one third of its manufacturing jobs since 1997,” he said, last Thursday night in Cleveland—a statement that a fact-checker at the Washington Post confirmed with the words, “This is true.” As the Post reported in 2013, America had 17 million manufacturing jobs in the 1990s, and two decades later only had 11.7 million. Though Trump doesn’t mention it, manufacturing jobs seem to pay better than others, making their loss particularly hard.

An economist might reply that jobs are not the same as profits, and that manufacturing is actually doing okay if you count the dollars. Like almost everything else, the real value added by American manufacturing crashed during the Great Recession (2007–2009), but since then it has mostly recovered. Why so few jobs, if the dollars are still coming in? As the Post noted in 2013, “the price of robots relative to the cost of human labor has fallen 40 to 50 percent since 1990, and that trend is expected to continue.” In other words (and this is more or less the official story, according to American manufacturing’s boosters), maybe American manufacturing has gone high-tech and now relies more on mechanization than it used to. Maybe the nature of American manufacturing has changed, nudged by competition with low-wage countries like China, and maybe American manufacturers now simply need fewer workers than previously. After all, classic economic theory predicts that free trade is always in a country’s interest, despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary.

But in a 2015 report titled “The Myth of America’s Manufacturing Renaissance,” the nonpartisan Information Technology Innovation Foundation (ITIF) reported that in fact free trade hasn’t had the beneficial effect on America’s manufacturing sector that classic theory would predict. “U.S. manufacturing lost 11 times more manufacturing jobs in the 2000s than in the 1990s despite similar rates of manufacturing productivity growth in both decades,” the report’s authors write. The acceleration suggests that the loss of jobs can’t be entirely explained by robots. According to another common explanation for job loss in manufacturing, it’s natural, as a nation’s economy matures, for its service sector to grow as its manufacturing sector shrinks. Maybe so, writes the ITIF, but “Consumption of manufactured goods as a share of U.S. GDP, when measured in inflation-adjusted terms, is the same today as it was 40 years ago.” If we’re still paying as much we used to for manufactured goods, that suggests that the economy itself hasn’t altered in a fundamental way; we’re just making fewer manufactured goods than we used to, compared to our trading partners. Just to make sure that their news is perfectly depressing, the ITIF also explains that though there has been a small rebound in manufacturing in the past few years, it has probably been caused by people finally getting around to making purchases that they postponed during the Great Recession. The rebound won’t last.

It’s worth spelling out that the ITIF report doesn’t disprove the official, boosterish narrative about the inevitability of job loss as productivity rises. Or course that’s happening, the report admits. (Though, woe to the politician who tells the people. The disappearance of your job is a sign of American manufacturing’s progress and rising efficiency is probably not something that it is in the interest of any politician in a democracy to say.) It’s just that something else is happening, too, on which a cheerful face cannot be painted.

What is it? It’s probably beyond the capacity of a literary critic moonlighting as a political blogger to give an answer. My suspicion, based on little more than reading the morning paper over the years, would be that in their rush to save money by offshoring, America’s corporate managers inadvertently dispersed centers of expertise, including supply chains, that had long anchored particular manufacturing sectors in the United States—thereby destroying what the Harvard Business Review calls “industrial commons.” No manufacturer can be self-sufficient, especially not a high-tech one; making complicated things well requires a community of other skilled makers. If the only source for needed parts is in Japan, an American automaker may feel obliged to shutter an American factory.

What is to be done? Trump’s proposal to scrap free-trade agreements is unlikely to bring any centers of manufacturing excellence back home. In fact, as the New York Times has reported, Obama actually tried a Trump-style tariff in 2009, slapping a 25 to 35 percent tariff on Chinese tires to protect American tire-makers. Three years later, Obama claimed that he had saved a thousand American jobs, but in the meantime, Americans had spent more than $1 billion more on tires than they otherwise would have, and a retaliatory tariff from China cost America another $1 billion in lost chicken sales. The Los Angeles Times adds, moreover, that as the market adjusted to the tariff, “shipments from South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia doubled in value, more than offsetting the decline in Chinese-made tires,” and that while sales of American-made tires did rise after the tariff, employment in American tire-making “continued a long and steady decline.” Not quite a win-win outcome.

If the American government were to try to nurture a particular industry, in an attempt to restore a manufacturing nexus, the effort might risk being condemned as a subsidy by one of the free-trade organizations that America belongs to. (Industry-specific subsidies are sometimes allowed, but only in developing nations.) And then there’s the danger of betting on the wrong horse; cf. Solyndra.

Economists like to complain that voters fail to understand that free trade is worth the costs. In fact, however, according to the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans still believe that free trade is on the whole a good thing, 51 percent to 39 percent (though Trump supporters consider free trade a bad thing, 67 percent to 27 percent). And Gallup finds that 58 percent of American adults consider foreign trade an opportunity, and only 34 percent consider it a threat.

To trade freely or not to trade freely . . . It seems to be hard to think outside of this particular box. Trump doesn’t. Sanders doesn’t, either, really: he voted against every free trade agreement that came through the Senate. Clinton voted for some free-trade agreements and against others, depending on her assessment of the protections afforded by each agreement to workers and the environment. That may sound too nuanced for this election cycle, but I have even worse news. I’ve spent a day and a half now puzzling over this blog post, and just now I googled for “Hillary Clinton industrial policy,” to see if she had gone on the record with any ideas. It turns out that there’s a fact sheet on her campaign site, corresponding to a speech she gave in December 2015, that proposes investing in America’s “industrial commons.” I swear I didn’t know this until I reached the paragraph you’re now reading. Her fact sheet is hopelessly nerdy, a bit verbose, and rather bland—not unlike this blog post. But Clinton got there ahead of me. Never let it be said that she doesn’t do her homework.

Why did Clinton’s poll numbers drop?

Hillary Clinton has slipped in the latest polls. A CBS/New York Times poll released today has her tied with Trump, 40 percent to 40 percent, and a Quinnipiac poll released yesterday has her losing to Trump in Florida, 39 percent to 42 percent. The consensus, in the commentariat, is that she has stumbled because of the controversy over her use of a private email server while secretary of state. On July 5, FBI director James Comey announced in a high-profile speech that his agency had finished its investigation, and he detailed its findings, some of which contradicted longstanding claims by Clinton. A number of news reports ascribe her lower popularity, accordingly, to the FBI’s report. “Mrs. Clinton’s shifting and inaccurate explanations of her email practices at the State Department appear to have resonated more deeply with the electorate,” writes the New York Times. The Washington Post notes that the polls were “all taken during or after Clinton’s roughest week of the general election, with FBI Director James Comey’s rebuke over her emails.” In New York Magazine, the link between the email scandal and the CBS/NYTimes poll is made explicit:

The timing of this poll probably had a lot to do with the results: It was taken beginning the very day the FBI findings on Clinton’s email usage were revealed, subsequently dominating the news the whole time these pollsters were in the field.

Well, maybe. Maybe the American electorate was really stunned to hear, after a steady drip of news about Clinton’s emails for over a year, that it was “extremely careless” of her to use a private email server but that the FBI wasn’t going to recommend filing any criminal charges. Maybe. But give the reptile brain a little credit, people. My suspicion is that for most people, at this point, the Clinton email controversy is just a holding place for their feelings about Hillary Clinton more broadly considered.

New York magazine gets the chronology wrong, inadvertently pointing to what may be the real story. Canvassers began asking questions for the CBS News/NYTimes poll not on July 5, the day of the FBI’s report, as New York claims, but on July 8. Polling continued until July 12. In other words, voters were sampled while the news cycle was dominated not by Clintons’ emails but by the death of five police officers in Dallas at a Black Lives Matter rally, at the hands of an aggrieved black veteran.

It’s been well documented for years now, thanks largely to the real-life experiment known as 9/11 and the George W. Bush administration, that, as one Scientific American article puts it, “When people feel safe and secure, they become more liberal; when they feel threatened, they become more conservative.” And what could be more scary to voters, especially white voters, than the events in Dallas? As the Times reported this morning, Trump plays on and his campaign is fueled by whites’ racial fears. It seems possible to me that the sudden drop in support for Clinton might be owed to a psychic retrenchment caused by fear. The good news, for Clinton supporters: It might therefore not be lasting. The bad news: It could and probably will happen again, mass shootings having become a regular feature of American life.

(The Quinnipiac poll, by the way, was conducted between June 30 and July 11, which overlaps with both the Clinton email news cycle and the Dallas shooting news cycle, so maybe the cause there is more mixed.)