The person that has shaped my political and economic views more than anyone else over the past year is Mark Blyth, a professor of political economy at Brown University. He has written a lot about austerity, but he has also written about the trend toward Trump-like characters throughout the world. The more I read his work and listen to his lectures, the more convinced I am that he is absolutely correct.
A while ago, I wrote an article arguing that populism was primarily driven by culture, not economics. To be sure, I think this is true for certain demographic groups. There are many Trump supporters who are openly racist and homophobic – think of David Duke, for example, or the Trump supporter shouting “Jew-S-A” at the press. There are also a number of wealthy people – like many in my neighborhood in Atlanta – who could care less about minority rights as long as Trump lowers taxes. I guess in a sense they are voting on economic grounds, but these people are hardly the poor, disenchanted auto workers that one thinks of when imagining Trump rallies. Frankly, I have no sympathy or respect for these views because they are selfish and speak to a fundamental lack of empathy among American civil society. However, culture and racism alone are insufficient to explain the rise of Trump and others like him. Where did all these racists come from? How is it that Wisconsin was perfectly tolerant in 2012 but then, over the next four years, morphed into a Klan stronghold? The answer is it didn’t. People in Wisconsin didn’t suddenly start hating minorities, they just lost faith in the Democratic Party’s ability to restore their jobs.
As Blyth points out, this shift toward populism is a global trend. In the U.K. we have UKIP and the Brexit. France’s socialist president, Francois Holland, has a 4% approval rating while Marine le Pen’s National Front is on the rise. Even in Germany, the infamously stable and moderate grand coalition of the SPD and CDU is being threatened by the far-right AfD, and the SPD (Germany’s rough equivalent to the American Democratic Party) only got 13% of the votes in its home state of Baden-Württemberg. That’s analogous to the Democrats getting 13% of the vote in California. Clearly, the center-left is in trouble, and racism alone simply can’t explain this. Economics, however, can.
Indeed, if one looks at exit polling in the United States, it becomes abundantly clear that there was no surge of “shy Trump voters.” The reason Trump won, then, is that many in the Democratic coalition simply didn’t believe that Clinton and the Democratic elite cared about them. Frankly, these same dynamics are why Sanders attracted so much support this year: He spoke to people from depressed manufacturing backgrounds that felt their party had left them behind. Once Sanders lost, many of his supporters either migrated to the Trump camp or didn’t vote at all. These people aren’t Republicans in the traditional sense of the word – they don’t support intervention abroad, they don’t like Wall Street, and they couldn’t care less about America’s debt level. Instead, they are frustrated that wages have stagnated, that the top 1% earns unjustifiably large amounts while they haven’t seen a minimum wage raise in years. They are annoyed that banks get bailed out while they remain unemployed, and they are disenchanted by liberal elites in DC, NYC, and Boston ignoring their struggles.
Paradoxically, it is exactly because many Trump supporters hold this view that I think Trump will crash and burn. His policy positions simply make no sense, and he won’t be able to actually help these disenchanted voters that he has promised to represent. If one actually looks at many of his economic policies and political advisors, it becomes very apparent that most of his platform isn’t populist at all. He wants to roll back Dodd-Frank and deregulate Wall Street, lower taxes on the wealthy, and, because he is effectively allied with Paul Ryan, eliminate welfare. Obviously, some of Trump’s proposals are very populist: He supports massive infrastructure spending and a more restrained foreign policy. Nevertheless, given his complete lack of experience, it’s not clear that he won’t just be played by Republican elites to serve the very 1% he is supposedly going to target.
Unless the Democrats can reshape their message or change their base, though, it’s not clear that they capitalize on Trump’s near certain failure. Neither party seems to comprehend the reason voters feel the way they do, and, frankly, I think that while the Trump-supporting part of society will be disappointed by Trump, they would have probably been disappointed by Clinton as well. Until our parties become more representative and our society less polarized, we are in for a very depressing next few years. I sincerely hope that I am wrong, and I wish Trump the best of luck running the country because, as much as it pains me to say it, Trump represents my country now. But until these deeper societal and economic divides are healed, I’m very pessimistic about the future.