I won’t vote for Donald Trump. I wrote about that several weeks ago.
In my more candid moments I question why people would support a man who led the blatantly racist birther movement against Obama. I say that those who support Trump are racist by association.
However, when I am less candid and a little more thoughtful, I can’t paint all Trump supporters as racist. Trump tapped into a deep vein of discontent, especially among older white men who have seen their dreams shattered.
Recently The New York Times published an article about the Carrier Air Conditioner Company closing its Indianapolis, IN plant in order to move its production to Mexico. Immediately, one could argue that this move was due to free trade, but it is more complex than that.
Economists on both sides of the political spectrum will generally agree that free trade has an overall positive effect. First, it forces companies to be more efficient. Second, it reduces the cost of consumer items, which is why we can purchase computers for under $400 or cell phones relatively cheaply. It gives people who don’t earn a lot of money access to a moderately middle class lifestyle.
However, free trade does not come without some economic costs too. Closing factories throws people out of their jobs. That’s what happened to the Carrier employees.
Still, there were other forces at work to displace them. Globalization has obliterated national borders when it comes to finance. Technology has made it possible to place company workers in low wage countries for a few dollars a week while overseeing the operation from afar.
Think about this. If one graduated from college with an accounting degree 30 years ago, that person had a good job and would likely see increased income over time. However, as the principals of accounting are the same from country to country regardless of currency, what prevents a large corporation from sending parts of its accounting operation to a low cost country such as Vietnam? They can send the same data to Vietnam as easily as they can to corporate headquarters.
Solid jobs can evaporate quickly. The Carrier article pointed that out.
Work is more than about making money. Work gives people an identity. When we state our occupations, we implicitly make a statement about our economic class. People will also make assumptions of who we are. Work also helps people to achieve their dreams. They live a lifestyle commensurate with their incomes. Ideally they can put aside some money for their future. Those dreams don’t have to be oversized. People would like to have money saved to send their children to college. They set aside money for retirement. And as we live in the United States, work also undergirds their healthcare, typically obtained through their employer.
Losing their jobs, especially when a company relocates its business or technology changes, a person’s entire life paradigm changes . Identity is gone. Hope for their child’s college education evaporates. Retirement plans vanish. Health insurance, although they can keep their insurance with COBRA, is very expensive when you’re not working. How will one stay healthy?
Is it any wonder, then, that Trump appeals to people who want to get rid of immigrants. I don’t say that his supporters are anti-immigrant because of race, but are anti-immigrant because they fear they will lose their jobs to lower wage workers. Immigrants are their economic competitors. Keeping them out keeps out their competition.
His message appeals to people who have long felt that their dreams today are very dim compared to the dreams they had when they began their work careers decades ago. Those who recently arrived in the workforce have seen their parents’ dreams diminished or they see that there is no real way to get ahead because the deck is stacked against them due to trade deals, globalization, and technology. Their dreams, which should be vivid and bright, are fuzzy and vague.
We can’t overlook that America has changed dramatically since the 1960s, especially for older white men. Back then there was an implicit promise that if one studied hard, worked hard, and played by the rules, one could have a good life as defined by a home, a couple of weeks vacation annually, and confidence that your children will be economically better off. One imagined that turning 60 meant looking forward to a comfortable retirement.
That’s all changed. People seem to work harder now without noticeably getting financially ahead. Vacations have become a luxury. Children may be in their late 20s or early 30s and they’re still living at home. The 401k is not enough to provide for a comfortable retirement.
Over the years implicit assumptions about authority and power were eroded by affirmative action. Promotions were no longer a certainty once companies had to ensure that women and people of color have the same chance as white men. Basically, older white men have arrived today at the end of their working careers without the implicit promise of white male privilege present when they were young.
The Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann described this metaphorically in his book Cadences of Home Preaching Among Exiles as similar to the experience the Jews suffered during their exile in the sixth century BCE. Multiple losses have accumulated to the point where frustrations have exploded. Though not everyone who has suffered these losses support Trump, he has become a lightening rod for them.
I’m not trying to rationalize away the violence and the toxic rhetoric associated with Trump’s campaign. I am also not trying to justify Trump’s positions and incendiary language. I condemn them. However, what we’re seeing is molten unfused anger as the losses many people have felt over the decades have not been addressed adequately by the political or economic leadership in this country. Rather than benefiting the common good, we see 1% of the people enriching themselves and in the process able to isolate themselves from the struggles the 99% have. Thus, they follow a demagogue who ironically uses his wealth to claim he is unsullied.
People are lashing out because for them hope evaporated awhile ago.