Where did Trump come from? Is the rise of Trump a fluke, a problem unique to America, born of American reality TV culture, combining 20th century American xenophobia with the worst aspects of 21st century social media into an ominous new post-truth world? Are American Trump voters uniquely racist and stupid and self-sabotaging? Or is Trump part of a broader global trend in politics, where voters throughout the industrialized world are revolting against the established political, economic and social order?
There was a great lecture (from before the election) by Mark Blyth, Brown University professor of international political economy, about global Trumpism where he discusses how the same factors that are playing out in America are also happening in lots of other Western democracies, driven by populism (both right-wing and left-wing), racism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism. For example, various European countries have seen a significant rise in votes for populist parties (on the right and left) and a decline in center-left “mainstream” parties. One particularly powerful example was the unexpected success of the Brexit vote for the UK to leave the European Union; despite the pleas of the political establishment and most members of the media, a small majority of UK voters decided to leave the EU even though it was widely described as an economically damaging, self-sabotaging, xenophobia-driven, unthinkable decision. Sound familiar?
Blyth explores the economic factors and argues that Trump’s victory should not be seen as an isolated, local “America-only” event; instead, Trump’s victory is part of a broader trend where the post-World War II neoliberal global order is breaking down. What will replace it? No one knows. But it’s worth listening to Mark Blyth for perspectives on how we ended up with Trump, and how to understand the broader political and economic forces that made Trump possible.
Here are a few of Mark Blyth’s key points on what “global Trumpism” means and how it happened:
Ever since World War II, the governments and financial institutions of “the West” (U.S., UK, Europe) have focused their national economic policy on two broad targets—from 1945 to 1975, broadly speaking, the goal was to achieve “full employment.” This is part of why the 1950s-60s are looked back upon as a kind of Golden Age for the middle class, especially for people who worked in manufacturing at union jobs with good wages and benefits. And broadly speaking, this policy was successful! But full employment led to inflation—and by 1975, inflation had gotten so bad that creditor classes within these countries (investors, banks, wealthy people) started to revolt, and put in politicians like Reagan and Thatcher who focused on strong anti-inflation policies, and who changed the way that everyday people thought about the economy by appealing to voters’ interests as consumers (“low-priced products from China are good! High-paid union labor is bad!”) instead of their interests as workers or union members. All of this was good for creditors and consumers, even if it was bad for borrowers and workers. That’s where we’ve been ever since 1975: central banks have fought inflation, interest rates have been low, labor unions have been weak-to-nonexistent, and life has gotten better for creditors and worse for debtors.
As a result, most Americans are in debt, most Americans’ wages have not increased above inflation, and most of the gains of the past 30 years of America’s economic growth have gone to the top 1% of income earners. (And the same trends are true for other Western democracies.)
Meanwhile, during that time, the center-left parties (Clinton’s New Democrats, Tony Blair’s New Labour, and Germany’s Social Democratic Party) have moved away from their traditional working-class base and have become more comfortable hob-nobbing with bankers and tech CEOs and other corporate interests. So where are working class voters supposed to go? This is where left-wing populists like Bernie Sanders and right-wing nationalists like Trump are filling the void in the political marketplace.
Blyth points out the famous Elephant Chart by economist Branko Milanovic, which shows the change in real income between 1988 and 2008 for all people in the world: basically, during the past 30 years, everyone in the world has seen a real increase in their income…except for the Western world’s middle class.
This is why so many former factory workers in the Midwest are upset about globalization: they haven’t seen their lives get better from it; if anything, globalization has made their lives worse. So when Trump promises to “bring jobs back” and raise taxes on companies that export products to the U.S., that message resonates in the Rust Belt states in a way that “the wife of the guy who passed NAFTA” just never would.
Mark Blyth poses the example of a hypothetical man named Gary who lives in Gary, Indiana, who is emblematic of a typical Midwestern white working-class Trump voter. In 1989, Gary had 10 years in the union at age 30 and was a line supervisor making $30 an hour (real dollars, adjusted for inflation). In 1993, after a few years of losing factory jobs to Southern states, the U.S. passed NAFTA and his town lost a lot of jobs. The town took a huge economic hit. Tax base declines, schools get worse. Gary wound up getting a job in a call center for $15 an hour. 5 years later, the call center moved from Indiana to India. Now at age 58, Gary works for $11.67 per hour at Walmart.
As Blyth describes in his lecture, speaking from the point of view of “Gary:” “The only person who actually seems to articulate anything that Gary gives a shit about is Trump. And Gary knows that Trump’s a buffoon, he knows he’s a reality TV star. But Gary has seen politician after politician every four years saying ‘vote for me, better jobs! vote for me, more security!’ and Gary’s life has gotten crappier and crappier. So he has no reason whatsoever to believe a word that they say. So he has a liar on one side, and a bullshit artist on the other. Which one gives you more possibilities?”
Yes, Trump’s a racist and a misogynist. Yes, he’s horrible. Yes, lots of people voted for him out of racist or sexist hostility and wanting to raise a middle finger at Muslims and black people and Mexican immigrants.
However: a sizable portion of Trump’s vote—just like Brexit and just like the rise of other populist parties in the UK and Europe—was more of a despairing protest vote, a way to send a message to the political establishment and mainstream media: we don’t like what you’re doing, this system you’ve built is not working for us, we don’t like the way you talk down to us, and we’re gonna throw a brick through your window.
By all means, condemn Trump’s racism and sexism. Resist his retrograde agenda every step of the way. But liberals need to be open to the possibility that Trump won not just because of racism and sexism (those voters weren’t turning out for the Democrats anyway), but because—especially in a few key Upper Midwest states—Trump was offering a message of aggressive economic populism that the Democrats were not delivering, that was embraced by just enough voters in just the right states (who otherwise might have voted for the Democrat) to give him a victory.
Trump didn’t just happen in America; the political forces he represents are happening all over the Western democratic world. Other countries like Greece and Spain have elected left-wing “Trumpists” but America didn’t have one of those choices on the ballot in November.
If the only lesson that liberals take away from this election is: “48% of America’s voters are irredeemably racist and sexist,” they’re not really understanding the nature of Trump’s appeal within this broader context of “global Trumpism.” And they’ll lose to him again in 2020.
Mark Blyth is oddly optimistic about America in the age of Trumpism, especially compared to Europe. He says that America has an advantage over Europe because Europe is bound by the Euro currency, which Blyth says is a “disaster” because individual countries within the Eurozone (such as Greece vs. Germany) have different conflicting political agendas that cannot be addressed by monetary policy. Trump might turn out to be a flash in the pan, a Black Swan event brought on by a one-time bizarre confluence of events and a bad matchup with the Democratic nominee.
Trump might even have some positive effects, in Blyth’s view, because the U.S. would benefit from a more isolationist foreign policy with fewer costly, unending military interventions in other countries. As Blyth says in this discussion on the 2016 election results, if Europe is left to pay more for their own national defense and find their own accommodation with Russia, without relying on American military power, that would not be a bad thing for the U.S. Blyth is skeptical that Trump will actually enact any of his trade protectionist promises, since U.S. voters won’t want to see higher prices for their iPhones (imported from China). It’s possible that Trump’s presidency will be less frighteningly radical than many liberals have feared.
Aside from Trump’s immediate outrages, the broader challenge for America, and the world, is that the neoliberal political order of the past 30 years in the Western democracies is breaking down. We’ve elected a president who campaigned as a populist, but who’s likely going to govern as a traditional Reagan-style “trickle-down economics” Republican. Those Upper Midwest swing voters who voted based on economic populism and “bringing jobs back” are not remotely going to get the populist politics that Trump promised; so the question is, can the Democrats deliver a real populist alternative instead? Will the American Left be defeated by Trumpism, or can they co-opt Trump’s appeal to the middle-class and working-class, and create a new politics that truly speaks to the concerns of the people who have been left behind by globalization and our new era of wealth inequality?
Follow Mark Blyth on Twitter: @MkBlyth