Thursday, February 25, 2016

Why Trump's Supporters Aren't Going Away, and Why There's a Paradigm Shift Coming for Both Major Parties

I'm old enough to remember Pat Buchanan's fiery speech at the Republican National Convention in 1992. Buchanan, like Trump, was a nationalist and a xenophobe. He also warned against the then-emerging trend of using international trade deals to ship American jobs overseas, and he saw how those and other policies -- but especially economic globalization -- were going to benefit the elites at the expense of the working class. To his credit, he even sounded the alarm regarding the blowback from military adventurism.

Buchanan never gained any traction for his presidential campaign. Now, two decades later, Donald Trump has picked up the populist banner and is a roaring success. The difference? As Michael Brendan Dougherty of The Week recently wrote, "Buchanan said that it was because the returns are in on the policies he criticized 20 years ago."

There's been much criticism of Trump's followers, some of it justified. But looking deeper, we can hear the cries of poorly educated working-class people who feel hopeless and desperate. Their addiction rates are up; their suicide rates are up. They see talking heads inside the Beltway praising an economic recovery that's left them behind. Their incomes haven't gone up, but their cost of living has. They know that the unemployment numbers don't reflect the massive number of underemployed or those who have given up looking for work. They're working two and three jobs just to stay afloat because employers are suppressing wages and benefits, even as corporate profits hit all-time highs. They see the plants closing where they and their families have worked for generations, all because some wealthy executive decided he could save a little money by shipping his manufacturing overseas. In short, these people don't see a future that cares about their interests. They feel hopeless and forgotten.

I understand why. I visited my hometown in 2014 for the first time in a decade. I remember the family hardware store, the movie theater, lots of little thriving mom-and-pop shops. It was a busy little town when I was growing up. Now there are mostly empty storefronts. The gas stations and a McDonald's on the edge of town seemed like the only places that were doing any business. Small-town America is turning into a series of ghost towns.

I worked inside the Beltway for a year, at a political policy magazine, alongside a bunch of hardcore wonks. They had no clue what life was like for ordinary people out in the heartland. None whatsoever. They even looked at me, to a certain extent, as a country bumpkin, having grown up surrounded by corn fields in rural Michigan. In short, those inside the Beltway scoff at the uneducated rubes out in flyover country. Those condescending people make up the political establishment in D.C., and they're the reason the GOP has lost control of its own party. Working-class Americans are sick of being ignored. They're sick of the elites in their ivory towers who pander to them every four years but then take money from powerful corporate and special interests and repay those interests with policies that further gut the working class. The jig is up.

Now, is Trump the answer to their problems? Of course not. But he knows how to tap into their anger, fear, and sense of hopelessness and alienation. It doesn't matter that he's a billionaire who sends his own manufacturing overseas and could buy politicians to gain favor. It doesn't matter if he speaks in the vaguest generalities about his policy positions. He's an avatar that his followers can pin all their hopes on. They're desperate for someone to listen to them, and now they feel like someone in power is finally doing just that. If you're Trump, you can exploit their patriotism and find scapegoats for them to focus their anger on, and you create an unstoppable political force. Criticize Trump or his followers, and they just double down, because they see you as part of the problem -- part of the system that's been eviscerating them for two decades.

Pat Buchanan was also a social conservative, and we've seen the evangelical wing of the GOP take up many of his causes. But even those policies aren't getting a great deal of traction in this election cycle. The left-right paradigm is breaking down. People don't want to hear about liberal versus conservative. They don't want to hear about how the benefits of capitalism are going to trickle down to them. They don't even care so much about social issues, which is why Trump can be socially liberal and it doesn't matter to his followers. To them, this is about survival, about "taking their country back" so they can feel as if they have some sense of control over their own lives and destinies again.

Right or wrong, they see a country being taken over by ideas, beliefs, and people who are alien to them and their way of thinking. They see a society that expresses concern over government violence toward minorities in the Black Lives Matter movement, but when a group of fed-up ranchers stage a protest to bring attention to their own grievances, the Trump supporters suddenly don't see anyone expressing concern anymore -- instead, they see the people who supported BLM wishing that the same heavy-handed state would storm in and mow down the ranchers.

They feel singled out. Their hegemony is slipping away.

So what do we do about it? Ignoring these people, laughing at them, or insulting and dismissing them has given us Trump. And even if he doesn't win the election, the concerns of his followers aren't going away. If it's not Trump, someone else will take up their banner.

I don't think there are any easy answers. I do think, however, that embracing an economic system that takes the concerns of the poor and middle class into consideration would provide a solid foundation for building a better system going forward. That doesn't mean just more welfare and food stamps, although those who need public assistance should be able to get it and should not be shamed for it. Those are Band-Aids. What it means is doing things like rebuilding our manufacturing base, offering living wages, and providing good benefits. Stop looking at human beings as no more than costs to be minimized so that corporate executives can placate their shareholders with a few more dollars in profits. Working people should never have to feel anxious about whether they can feed their families, what they'll do if they have a major medical expense, or what happens if their jobs get shipped off to be done cheaper by someone in China.

To that end, we need business leaders who balance the needs of all their stakeholders -- not just shareholders, but also their employees, their customers, their suppliers, and the communities they exist in. B Corps are doing a good job setting this trend in motion, but we have a long way to go. When the CEO-to-employee compensation ratio has widened from 20:1 in 1965 to nearly 300:1 in 2013, and when executive pay has gone up nearly 1,000% since 1978 while worker pay has increased by around 11%, it's clear that there's a massive problem.

We also need to examine both the quality and cost of our education. Education, of course, breeds tolerance, and it gives people the tools they need to better themselves. But if young people are leaving college buried in debt because the cost of higher education is spiraling out of control, while all they can find after graduation is a job that barely pays enough to cover rent and food, they've been stymied before they even get a chance. And our current system won't even allow student-loan debt to be dismissed in bankruptcy, whose entire purpose is supposed to be to give overburdened people a fresh start. It's telling that we always have enough money to fight wars, and our system won't think twice about bailing out the same megabanks that nearly destroyed our economy -- but helping ordinary people manage rising costs on shrinking wages is just unthinkable.

Again, this is why Donald Trump is so popular.

So as I said, we can scoff and shake our heads, or we can address the very real anxieties these people have. It's our choice.

Why Trump's supporters don't see the appeal of Bernie Sanders, and his plan for education and healthcare that's affordable and accessible to everyone, is something I'm at a loss to explain. The same goes for the Green Party. Maybe the raw us-versus-them emotions that Trump exploits are too powerful to overcome. (Sanders has made a point of saying that we're all in this together, and I truly believe that. Divisiveness will get us nowhere.) Maybe people are still so conditioned by decades of capitalist propaganda that they see so-called socialism as an un-American threat, even if those so-called socialist policies would benefit them.

What I do know is that the Democrats are eventually going to face a similar reckoning in their party. The Democratic establishment is forcing Hillary Clinton on its voters, despite her high negatives, despite her hawkishness, despite her deep ties to corporate America. When she talks about incrementalism, when she says the policies Sanders wants to enact are impossible to achieve, you can be sure that that's her way of saying she's going to take care of her corporate benefactors first, and that means protecting the establishment status quo. It's not that what Sanders wants to achieve can't be done. (When has the American spirit ever taken "it can't be done" for an answer?) It's that Clinton is too politically compromised to be able to enact policies that would dramatically alter the system we have in place. 

That, in a nutshell, is why the optimism of Barack Obama's "Yes We Can" campaign has given way to a defeatist "No We Can't" campaign eight years later. Sanders offers voters a more appealing alternative, and it backs Clinton and the establishment into a corner -- they have nothing to refute him with, other than to say "it can't be done." And that's also why a Clinton presidency is guaranteed to give us more of the same: more wars, more surveillance, more compromised civil liberties, more trade deals that further gut the American working class, more money for the 1% and less for everyone else. Nothing will change.

Republican voters have rejected that. They've told their party establishment that they've had enough. They're tired of having their out-of-touch party elites worry more about their corporate donors than about ordinary working people. They're tired of being bought off with empty promises every four years. 

Trump has tapped into that frustration on the right. Sanders is doing it on the left. Even Mitt Romney -- rightly seen as an out-of-touch elite in 2012 -- now claims to understand that we're "just mad as hell" across the board. So the Democratic National Committee may well succeed in shutting down Sanders this time -- just as the Republican National Committee managed to squelch Ron Paul's campaign in 2012 -- but if it's not Sanders who brings his issues to the fore, it will just be someone else in the next election cycle. It could be Elizabeth Warren. Whoever it is, Democrats can rest assured that voter anger and frustration with the status quo is not going to go away.

They can do something about it now, or they can watch the masses with their torches and pitchforks wrest control of the party away from them.

The ball is in their court.

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