Many Roads Led to Trump, but Look to the Swing States

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Rust Belt Economic Decline

On the night of November 9, 2016, a new political quiz emerged.  It’s both revealing and simple, consisting of a single question:  “why did Trump win?”  Common responses include racism, economic anxiety, misogyny, progressive overreach, the prevalence of self-contained “bubbles” on the left and right, and Russian interference.   Whatever your preferred answer is, it tells a lot about what you think is today’s most significant social issue.

Most moderates would agree that “all of the above probably played some role, to greater or lesser degrees.”  This is correct and should be the foundation for further analysis, but it’s also a bit of a bland truism.  It bears passing mention here as, sadly, it is not always a widely-held notion among ideologues.  This is demonstrated by the shrill and polemical character of many explanatory pieces, like this ludicrously self-assured piece by Mr. Monomania, Ta-Nehisi Coates.  So the correct follow-up is:  okay, all the above factors may have played some role, but is there one that’s weightier than the others?  I admit I’m most partial to economic anxiety.  Here’s why and what it says about folks like me.

Unlike the agitprop of Mr. Coates, I admit my explanation has its weaknesses .   The most glaring is that people with an income of $50,000 were more  likely to vote for Clinton.    There isn’t any way to entirely explain this fact away.  It clearly does suggest that the relationship between having a low income at the time of the election and voting for Trump is at best muddied.

However, there is also much more to the data than just that point.  As was observed elsewhere, Trump’s victory hinged on a very small number of votes.  According to this analysis in the Washington Post, the “election was effectively decided by 107,000 people” in the states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.  These three states also voted very decisively for Obama in 2008 and again in 2012 .    The decisive swing-state of Ohio, which likewise voted Obama in 2008 and 2012, went Trump in 2016.  Given that the traditionally Republican states voted along party-lines as always (90% of Republicans voted Trump), the kingmakers were in fact the voters in these swing-areas.

What do these states have in common?  Are they particular hotbeds of racist activity in ways they were not in 2008 and 2012?  That strains credulity.  Ockham’s razor tells us the simplest answer based on these states’ commonality:  that the Rust Belt has been hit especially hard by globalization and the loss of manufacturing jobs.  Trump’s message of bringing back manufacturing jobs, though likely a con and a fantasy, had particular resonance with these voters as evidenced by this key switch in allegiance in 2016.  Obama’s vice-president Joe Biden certainly thought that this issue was of prime importance and blamed the Democrats defeat on it. 

Other factors are also worth considering to explain Clinton’s support among those earning less than $50,000.  Clinton voters were also much younger, including for the 18-29 demographic (55-37) and the 30-44 group (50-42).  This is significant as younger people are more likely to have a lower income, but still enjoy prospects for future income growth.

None of this is to say that other factors didn’t play a role.  White identity politics assuredly motivated some Americans to support the man whom Pat Buchanan called “the Great White Hope”  and the message of voting Trump to prevent the appointment of progressive Supreme Court justices was also a common refrain during the campaign.  However, based on where the election was actually decided, these explanations ultimately lack the explanatory power of Bill Clinton’s 1992 observation “it’s the economy, stupid.”  After all, not only did these same swing states vote Obama in 2008 and 2012, but Trump also captured more Latino voters than Romney did in 2012.

What does it say about you if you believe that economics was the key factor behind Trump’s election?  It may mean that you think that it is economic inequality that is giving rise to our most serious challenges.  It probably means that you’re critical of Republican’s simultaneous worship of big business and offshoring on the one hand, while offering little of substance to those left behind.  It could potentially mean that you’re likewise critical of the Democrats’ neglect of economic concerns relative to the weight progressive causes receive.   Finally, there’s a good chance you feel both parties are adrift.

Trump’s exploitation of the economic issue was the key that allowed him to overthrow the Republican Party establishment (which did not appear to be giving the issue much importance) and then capture the Rust Belt swing votes necessary to defeat Clinton.  But sadly, Trump’s voters have been taken in by a conman driven by ego whose economic playbook seems to be the cribbed notes of a tired, Regan-era ideology.   Whether out of his desire to be accepted by the wealthiest elite or out of some other concern, he has also filled his cabinet with Goldman Sachs alum, a prime bête noir during his campaign and the very symbol of offshoring, shareholder value, and plutocratic disinterest in the working person.

The reality, of course, is that the complex nature of technological change and the global economy make promises of restoring the manufacturing prosperity of 1964 a wistful fantasy.  Though many have pinned their economic hopes on him, Rust Belt voters may have a while to wait before “the greatest jobs president that God ever created” delivers.

Nazis, Antifa and Our Mutual Fears

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President Trump’s incompetent and mealy-mouthed equivocations of Nazi and Antifa violence in Charlotesville have furthered the already substantial American political divide.  While many Americans were alarmed to see Nazi thugs excused by the President of the United States, other Americans were relieved to see Antifa condemned, which they view as a significant threat to democracy and freedom.  In this view, Trump’s response is explained not so much by racism or widespread support for the KKK, as by a fear of what Antifa is believed to stand for.

There is first considerable convergence among the respectable left and right.  Nazis, Klansmen and other actual white supremacist organizations are the avowed enemy of society and harbour ideas that are destructive to human decency and to the fabric of society.  It is understood that our current peaceful and prosperous international order (by historical terms) emerged precisely from the crushing defeat of such a movement.  That movement, whose aspirations are indelibly burned into our collective conscious in the hideous images of the concentration camps, can never again be allowed to approach power and influence.  In that sense, the need to “keep the lid on” right-wing extremism is justified given its historic crimes and potential for destruction, as well as the fact that many of its current members continue to use the symbols and language of fascism.

However, there is a key difference between the left and right.  For many on the left, white supremacist organizations remain a continued threat to democracy, freedom and equality.  Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League must be constantly vigilant to monitor society for hate.  The current structures of American society today are thought among many progressives to consistently reinforce white supremacy, and help foster unequal economic outcomes between white and black Americans.

For many on the centre-right, however, white supremacists, while disdained, have also been something of a bogeyman in recent decades.  In this view, the actual numbers of modern Nazi party or other race-oriented white supremacist organizations have continued to see their numbers decline and their ability to influence policy in their favour has seemed virtually non-existent. Notwithstanding the lurid wishful-thinking of many social studies departments, the evidence that societal structures remain racist seems unconvincing, considering for example how Asian Americans have the highest average income or why people of so many races still want to move to the USA.

However, when actual, bona fide Nazis marched this summer in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us!” and the President of the United States of America did not immediately and unequivocally denounce them, many people rightly found it alarming.  For many on the left Trump’s attempts to mollify right-wing extremists confirmed their fears that there truly are many Americans who support Klansmen, Nazis or a white supremacist society.

Without question, white supremacist groups have seemed emboldened to speak out under Trump.   Much of Trump’s rhetoric on immigration is seen as dog-whistling to large swaths of the population who want to “make America white again.”

However, the evidence that there are large swaths of the US population supporting Nazis or the KKK a white supremacist society is at best spotty given the past thirty years of US political history.  That thesis is also unsupported by the voter support given to Barrack Obama.   The question of institutional racism is a more complicated one, and certainly the swath of police violence against law abiding African Americans suggests this is still a very significant problem.

However, I believe Trump’s tactic to condemn Antifa in the same breath as Nazis reflects not so much dog-whistling to a massive, racist base as a deeper unease on the right at what they think the Antifa stands for.

The divide in the political spectrum again causes mutual incomprehension here.  To most people on the respectable left, Antifa are viewed as criminal troublemakers who use the occasion of protesting to further their own anarchist agenda of violence and vandalism.  Their presence is generally not welcome, as it foreshadows the degeneration of peaceful protest into tear gas, batons, and smashed chain store windows.  However, Antifa is ultimately a small and inconsequential group whose threat pales in comparison to that of white supremacists.

For many on the right, including respectable conservatives who despise Nazis, they see something quite different.  They observe how Antifa uses the lexicon of progressives (“Anti-Hate!”) and how Antifa has targeted a variety of conservative speakers at universities, not only Nazis.  In short, they see in Antifa their fear of progressive capture of intellectual space, particularly at universities, and the perceived willingness among progressives to use intimidation or violence to enforce it.  Those who view Antifa in this way are almost certainly many of the same people who, in Ross Douthat’s words, feared giving progressives the political power to match their cultural ascendency, and thus voted Trump to avoid a Clinton presidency and her attendant Supreme Court choices.   For these folks, Antia may represent a similar if not greater threat to democracy than that of white supremacist organizations.

If one believes there is a method to Trump’s madness, this is likely it:  Trump was reassuring a base that is not so much racist as it is afraid of progressive ascendancy.  Of course, Trump is singularly unskilled at making coherent arguments and distinctions and his response served only to deepen the political and cultural divide.

Unfortunately, the tenor of the conversation and the quality of the current generation of US political leaders is likely to only lead us further down the abyss.