Donald Trump, The Scorched-Earth Candidate Who is Realigning American Politics

Pundits have depicted his popularity as the death of the Republican Party and possibly a realignment of the American political order. Seeing the gravity of the situation earlier than most, Rolling Stone suggested last year that Trump’s brand of dog-whistle blood-lust represents “the collapse of the U.S. as a global superpower.”

Americans horrified by the rise of Trump look for reassurance in polls showing how unpopular the billionaire property magnate is among all registered voters. They might also breath easier because of a poll showing Trump’s “net favourability” dead last among all of this season’s candidates.

This salve doesn’t address the problem and won’t prevent a Trump-like occupation of the White House – if not in 2017 then sometime in the foreseeable future – unless these voters see Trump’s ascendancy not as some spasm of irrationality but as an ideological revolution for a wide swathe of working, middle-class voters.

This is a significant voting bloc. For the sake of clarity, let’s define this group as those who use at least half of their paycheques to feed themselves (and their children) and keep a roof over their heads.

After more than three decades, the kind of working class voters who are now enamored with Trump have reached three key conclusions:

  • Supply-side, or “trickle-down”, economics doesn’t advance their interests.

  • Their prospects are even bleaker now that rapid advances in robotics, big data, and artificial intelligence ensure that many of them will be scrubbing floors, serving french fries, or unemployed unless they learn to code.

  • Jesus Christ isn’t coming to their rescue any time soon. This explains the perpetual second-place status of God squad darling Ted Cruz.

Clinton has traded many favours, but she has fewer glaring contradictions than Trump

While many Republicans wring their hands over how their coalition of laissez-faire tax-cut fetishists, populists, and Christian fundamentalists could have split apart, they might instead give thanks for how long this odd combination held together.

For working, middle-class Americans feeling left out in the wilderness by “establishment” Republicans, the destination should be the Democratic Party, which has historically stood for unions, regulation of industry, and protection of social benefits.

The zeal for this journey, however, is undercut by several factors. Labour unions? They barely exist anymore in the U.S. Democrats share as much responsibility as Republicans for the deregulation that paved the way to the subprime mortgages that sparked the financial crisis of 2008. And social benefits? Not much has changed on that front since Social Security in the 1930s and Medicare in the 1960s. There are some subsidies available as part of the health care overhaul established by Barack Obama, also known as Obamacare, but the program runs on a for-profit basis by American insurance companies, the biggest beneficiaries of this initiative.

That leaves us with mistrust towards Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton as a key factor in Trump’s popularity among America’s working middle-income earners. It remains to be seen how much blame for the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attacks that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens can be attributed to Clinton, who was Secretary of State at the time. There’s also the email scandal, which, to date, hasn’t turned up anything more than a disagreement over what should be considered classified in a post-9/11 world.

Much of the mistrust of Clinton stems from the former first lady’s friendly ties to Wall Street, where brokers hiding toxic assets in otherwise sensible investment instruments sparked the 2008 crisis and sent the U.S. economy into a tailspin. Many thrown out of a job as financial markets seized up remain in the same position. Meanwhile, those supported by trust funds or capital gains on their investment portfolios – income that’s taxed at a lower rate than the levy on regular wages – live as though nothing happened in 2008 because the markets have largely recovered.

As a central figure in Democratic Party politics for decades, Clinton has traded many favours, but she has fewer glaring contradictions than Trump, who hires cheap foreign labour and manufactures his products in China. Watching Trump bow his head while sitting in a church pew should make all but those with the strongest stomachs wretch.

many middle-income Americans appear to have accepted that the establishments of both parties have snuffed out the American dream

It would be easy to blame the Democrats’ failure to bring Trump’s supporters into the fold on the Republican PR machine, which – aided and abetted by Fox News – has systematically weaponized the words “liberal,” “feminist,” “gay,” “black,” “Hispanic,” “foreigner,” and “government.” But this explanation doesn’t take into account the extent to which technological changes are turning the U.S. into a “gig economy,” where key elements of the American dream, such as home ownership and socioeconomic upward mobility, are out of reach. The belief that these things are always a possibility, always just around the corner, had maintained working middle-class voter support for Republicans.

They’ve wised up, but only to a certain extent because Trump, who characterizes a $1 million-loan from his dad in 1968 as “small”, won’t change anything for them.

The Democratic Party simply isn’t drawing enough voters who feel insecure about free trade initiatives, particularly in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the technological changes that make people redundant. The option of Bernie Sanders, who’s proposing to mount a more serious challenge to the status quo, isn’t helping because these voters see the party machinery throwing support behind Clinton.

By rejecting the Republican Party’s traditional prescriptions, and by cheering Trump’s hatred of foreigners and hostility towards free trade instead of the Democratic Party’s options, many middle-income Americans appear to have accepted that the establishments of both parties have snuffed out the American dream.

Trump’s supporters are willing to scorch the earth to clear away what remains of that faith. They prefer to see what sprouts when the smoke clears.

More about the author

About the author

Robert has been a journalist and editor in Beijing and Toronto for publications including The Globe and Mail, Bloomberg News, and Financial Times. 

Follow Robert on Twitter.

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