Why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders? Once again, it’s the U.S. economy, stupid
I don’t know if the media narrative has changed in the past week or if I’m just seeing a wider variety of headlines than I used to, but the old conventional wisdom “Trump supporters: 100 percent bigoted white folks” is now being supplemented by “Trump supporters: downwardly mobile Americans being left behind by the New Economy and scared witless over it.”
Last week, Thomas Frank (of “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” fame and a regular at Cambridge-based journal The Baffler) wrote an article in The Guardian pointing out that, while most media coverage of the Trump phenomenon focuses on his horribly bigoted sound bites, if you listen to his speeches in their entirety you’ll mostly hear talk of economic matters:
Last week, I decided to watch several hours of Trump speeches for myself. I saw the man ramble and boast and threaten and even seem to gloat when protesters were ejected from the arenas in which he spoke. I was disgusted by these things, as I have been disgusted by Trump for 20 years. But I also noticed something surprising. In each of the speeches I watched, Trump spent a good part of his time talking about an entirely legitimate issue, one that could even be called left wing.
Yes, Donald Trump talked about trade. In fact, to judge by how much time he spent talking about it, trade may be his single biggest concern – not white supremacy. Not even his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border, the issue that first won him political fame. He did it again during the debate March 3: Asked about his political excommunication by Mitt Romney, he chose to pivot and talk about … trade.
It seems to obsess him: the destructive free-trade deals our leaders have made, the many companies that have moved their production facilities to other lands, the phone calls he will make to those companies’ CEOs in order to threaten them with steep tariffs unless they move back to the US.
Trump embellished this vision with another favorite left wing idea: under his leadership, the government would “start competitive bidding in the drug industry.” (“We don’t competitively bid!” he marveled – another true fact, a legendary boondoggle brought to you by the George W Bush administration.) Trump extended the critique to the military-industrial complex, describing how the government is forced to buy lousy but expensive airplanes thanks to the power of industry lobbyists.
Not that Trump’s half-baked or quarter-baked ideas would actually do anything to solve the economic problems of the working and lower-middle classes, but at least Trump, unlike most Republicans (and most Democrats, with the notable exception of Bernie Sanders) admits there’s a problem.
I’ve complained for years now that the GOP is long overdue for a restructuring, or rethinking of what the party as a whole stands for: Abandon the extreme socio-religious conservatism and return to its alleged old-school standards of “small government, personal freedom and fiscal responsibility.” But seeing Sanders’ rise in popularity makes me realize that the Democrats are due for a restructuring, too. When I was a kid, the difference between the two parties (at least in theory) could be summarized as: Republicans are the party of big business, and Democrats the party of the middle and working classes. But now, instead, the Democrats are the party of big business, and Republicans the party of extreme social or religious conservatism. Nobody in either party speaks for the poor and downwardly mobile – which is why Sanders is getting such support from Democrats while Trump sweeps up Republicans.
I don’t agree with Sanders’ proposal of free four-year college degrees for all, because I think the end result would be simply to make college degrees the new high school diplomas: a minimum educational credential that’s not remotely enough to qualify one for a decent job, merely an entrance ticket to the next level of schooling required for a shot at a decent job and a decent life. At the same time, though, I completely understand why Sanders’ proposal is so popular, especially among college students and graduates still weighed down by enormous (and bankruptcy-proof) student loan debt. Right now, the American job status quo can be summarized as “You must have a college degree if you want any shot at a decent life.” And for poor or middle-class kids – anyone whose parents can’t or won’t pay for that degree, in other words – that status quo means “If you want a decent job when you grow up, you must start your adult life weighed down under a hefty student debt load.”
Neither Sanders nor Trump are likely to fix the problems facing downwardly mobile Americans – but at least those two admit such problems exist, rather than gaslighting or handwaving those problems away.
Jennifer Abel began her career in print media three minutes before the Internet killed the industry. After starting at a small Connecticut daily she moved to the Hartford Advocate, an alt-weekly where her journalistic coups included infiltrating a furries convention and working on a phone sex line (which fired her six hours later). Since then she’s written for, or been reprinted in, dozens of print and Web outlets, including Playboy, The Guardian, Salon, AlterNet, Mashable, The Daily Dot and pretty much every website with the words “cannabis” or “legalize it” in the title. A version of this column appeared first on the blog Ravings of a Feral Genius.