Yesterday, I argued that “both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders owe at least some of the support they’ve received in recent primaries to their criticisms of U.S. trade deals and their effects on American workers.”
I then went on to discuss capitalism and trade in relation to Sanders’s campaign. I didn’t write much about Trump, aside from referring to his “right-wing economic nationalism.”
But that’s not enough, at least in the sense of trying to understand the support Trump has been getting, especially from white working-class Americans.
That’s why Thomas Frank’s [ht: sw] recent column is so important. He rejects the idea that Trump’s support and campaign can be explained and then dismissed in terms of racism. Oh, there’s plenty of racism (and anti-political correctness) there. But there’s also a lot of trade anxiety.
As Frank explains,
Trade is an issue that polarizes Americans by socio-economic status. To the professional class, which encompasses the vast majority of our media figures, economists, Washington officials and Democratic powerbrokers, what they call “free trade” is something so obviously good and noble it doesn’t require explanation or inquiry or even thought. Republican and Democratic leaders alike agree on this, and no amount of facts can move them from their Econ 101 dream. . .
Now, let us stop and smell the perversity. Left parties the world over were founded to advance the fortunes of working people. But our left party in America – one of our two monopoly parties – chose long ago to turn its back on these people’s concerns, making itself instead into the tribune of the enlightened professional class, a “creative class” that makes innovative things like derivative securities and smartphone apps. The working people that the party used to care about, Democrats figured, had nowhere else to go, in the famous Clinton-era expression. The party just didn’t need to listen to them any longer. . .
Ill-considered trade deals and generous bank bailouts and guaranteed profits for insurance companies but no recovery for average people, ever – these policies have taken their toll. As Trump says, “we have rebuilt China and yet our country is falling apart. Our infrastructure is falling apart … Our airports are, like, Third World.”
Trump’s words articulate the populist backlash against liberalism that has been building slowly for decades and may very well occupy the White House itself, whereupon the entire world will be required to take seriously its demented ideas.
Yet still we cannot bring ourselves to look the thing in the eyes. We cannot admit that we liberals bear some of the blame for its emergence, for the frustration of the working-class millions, for their blighted cities and their downward spiraling lives. So much easier to scold them for their twisted racist souls, to close our eyes to the obvious reality of which Trumpism is just a crude and ugly expression: that neoliberalism has well and truly failed.
Yes, Trump’s answer to the problems experienced by the American working-class is right-wing economic nationalism, a way that pits the workers of the United States against workers in other countries.
But we also have to understand both that American workers (not just white, but also black, Latino, and others) have been left behind by contemporary capitalism, including its alphabet soup of trade deals, and that the failures of the economic and political elites have created the space for Trump’s popularity during the current campaign.