Donald Trump

OK, let’s get one thing out of the way first. The term neoliberalism has become a reverse straw man for some on the right or centre, criticising those on the left. Yes, neoliberalism — a useful concept for a historical period and movement, and covering far more than abstract liberal economics — has become an overused term, often incorrectly invoked.

But I haven’t seen it much invoked in talking of Trump’s victory and appeal in the rust belt states. Even if it has, it’s irrelevant to the argument as to whether Trump’s appeal was around questions of trade, employment and industry, or whether that is something of an illusion.

M’colleague Keane (and others) make several arguments in an attempt to refute the argument that Trump’s appeal has to do with economics. None of them strike me as persuasive. Let’s go through them one by one:

1) The US economic is recovering, so why would people be worried about it?

This is a classic case of mistaking the map for the territory. Yes, the stats show that the economy is recovering, but two facts are important: firstly, it’s a recovery that is missing a lot of new full-time, well-paying jobs, which is what most people look to a recovery for; second, it’s uneven, concentrated in the coastal metropolitan centres, and missing much of the midwest and rust belt, from which plant and offices are continuing to depart, and where Trump staged his audacious upset wins. Thirdly, there is a degree of misattribution going on: Republican state governments have been withdrawing services for years, which many then see as private sector impoverishment.

2) Clinton got a higher vote among the very low income than did Trump.

Yes, she did. She got 52% from those earning 0-$9000 per annum. But she’s a Democrat; she should be getting 60% and up, from people who are largely welfare dependent. Trump polled in the mid-40s, which is a huge number for a Republican.

Trump wins in the next income bracket up, and beyond, which many have taken as prosperous. But let’s look at the bottom end of that bracket — $50,000. Such people may not be on the poverty line, but many are squeezed, by distinctly American costs: college tuition loans added to everyday costs, healthcare “deductibles” — the amount, up to $15,000, you have to pay before healthcare plans kick in — running a car long miles because of a lack of public transport. Families also have to look to college costs for their kids. And so on. The condition of an American middle-class family is quite unlike that of an Australian family. (For a picture of this see the Brookings Institute’s report on the struggling lower-middle class).

The argument that African-American workers earn lower wages than whites, and that whites therefore can’t have concerns about wages, strikes me as absurd. People aren’t comparing their life chances that way — they’re comparing what they perceive as diminished purchasing power, rising fixed costs, and, in key areas, reduced employment. That was the appeal of Reagan in 1980, as inflation ate into standard of living, and it’s the appeal of Trump now, as wages fail to rise.

3) Concerns about illegal immigration are motivated by race, not economics

It’s undoubtably true that there is a section of Trump supporters who are nativists, and opposed to immigration on explicitly cultural grounds. But they were always there on the right. We’re talking about the people drawn from non-voting, or across from the Democrats.

Sure, among many of the Trump fanatics, there is an obsession with “building the wall”. But I haven’t seen that as an obsession in the wider reaches of Trump supporters — and for voters in general, immigration is a much less important issue than much of the media makes it out to be.

Thus specific stats bear out the story that I’ve been seeing on the road, and which aren’t borne out in the general stats — that recovery is uneven, non-existent in many parts of the country, and the appeal of Trump is that “he can sort things out because he’s a businessman”, a phrase I’ve heard a hundred times, in innumerable variations. I don’t see any proof that the 50%+ of whites who voted for Trump are focused on race — nor the 25% of Latinos, nor the 15% of African-Americans.

The “race” case is made for Trump voters, for many reasons — but one purpose it serves is to displace the widespread enthusiasm for protectionism and economic nationalism that has suddenly appeared. Can’t be done. Plain truth is, that’s what most people want now. The one thing people are rejecting across the world is free-market economics. No wonder free-marketeers would prefer any other explanation for Trump’s support — especially one that demeans Trump’s supporters. There was ample xenophobia and racism on display in the political free market of the Republican primaries. But the only nationalist-protectionist on offer was Trump, and that’s why he prevailed.

Oh, and look at that! The whole argument was made without the dreaded “neoliberal” word. It’s almost as if the case was so simple and obvious that it made a man President.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey