As a candidate, Donald Trump pitched himself as a champion of the common man. He promised to bring back working-class jobs and return prosperity to “rust belt” communities that were decimated by globalization.
Nearly two years after his electoral victory, those promises have not materialized. So why is then that Trump’s white working-class base continues to support him so adamantly?
The President claims that America’s economy is the “strongest it’s ever been in the history of our country.”
By some metrics, that may be true. Stocks have surged to record highs this year while the unemployment rate is very low. Gross Domestic Product continues to grow steadily, surpassing the elusive four percent mark in the second quarter of 2018.
“You just have to take a look at the numbers … our country is doing phenomenally well,” Trump said in Twitter video in late August. “We’re having a lot of fun.”
But not everyone is doing phenomenally well. A different set of numbers omitted from White House press releases and Fox Business graphics paint a wholly different picture – one in which the large segments of society continue to struggle.
- 12 percent of Americans, or about 43 million people, live below the poverty line despite being employed.
- A third of the U.S. population has no savings and another third has less than $1,000 on hand to spare in case of an emergency.
- America’s youth are straddled with $1.52 trillion in student loan debt collectively.
- Wages remain stagnant, even as markets continue to grow.
- Nearly 40 percent of adults say they struggled to meet a basic need such as food, housing, health care or utilities in 2017.
“Over the years, we’ve built two Americas,” Peter Georgescu, Chairman Emeritus of Young & Rubicam Inc., told The Globe Post. “The other America is hiding in plain sight.”
Georgescu himself is a wealthy businessman and a believer in capitalism. He immigrated to the United States from Romania at the age of 15 and went on to become a successful marketing executive.
“I got to live the American Dream. People gave me a chance,” he said.
Somewhere along the way, Georgescu realized that for so many others, that once great notion no longer seemed to be a reality. He’s since dedicated much of his life to advocating for a more just system of capitalism.
“Over the years, we’ve built two Americas. The other America is hiding in plain sight.”
While the America that most people live in continues to face a wide array of economic challenges, the other is indeed “having a lot of fun” under the Trump administration.
“For the top 20 percent of us, life is as good as it gets,” Georgescu said. “Let me tell you, life is great.”
Despite Trump’s populist economic rhetoric, Gerald Friedman, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told The Globe Post that the administration’s agenda is really designed to promote the interests of the most wealthy.
Trump’s tax cuts, passed in December, overwhelmingly benefit those in the highest income brackets. While some middle-class families will see small cuts, others will actually have their taxes raised under the bill.
Large corporations also saw major tax cuts under the new legislation. Many of these companies have used the savings to buy back shares in their own company, driving up the value of their stocks.
“The buybacks make the CEO’s and the shareholders happy … without actually doing anything for the actual functioning of the company,” Friedman, who served as an advisor for Bernie Sanders during his 2016 presidential campaign, said.
Because stock ownership is very highly concentrated among America’s wealthiest people, Georgescu said the boom that resulted from the tax cuts makes little difference for ordinary Americans.
“The way you really pay back your Republican donors is to have a strong stock market,” he said.
Even Trump’s promises to bring back manufacturing jobs through tariffs and new trade deals have proved largely fruitless.
“At this point, not many people work in the industries that he’s trying to protect and he’s going to hurt a lot of people in other industries,” Friedman said. “People in auto plants will lose from higher steel prices because it’s very easy to shift production to Canada or Mexico where there aren’t these tariffs.”
The Culture War
And yet, support for Trump amongst the working class voters who elected him remains steady. An extensive report from Pew Research published in August found the vast majority of Trump voters still feel “warmly” towards him nearly two years after the election.
White working-class voters, particularly in rural communities, played a crucial role in electing Trump. As the historic losers of globalization and automation in the neoliberal era, their economic grievances were very real going into the 2016 election. Yet, by almost any indicator, they’ve reaped very little to no rewards from the Trump economic agenda.
So why is it then that so many in this demographic voted for and continue to support their “class enemy,” in the words of Noam Chomsky?
One answer proposed by Friedman is that the Democratic party has left the rural working class – once a key part of its base in the New Deal era – behind, focusing instead on a more affluent, suburban demographic.
Arlie Hochschild, an influential sociologist at the University of California Berkeley, agrees. She spent five years immersed in a rural Louisiana community that heavily favored Trump doing research for her book, “Strangers in Their Own Land.”
“The general feeling is that they don’t see anything else for them on the political horizon … the Democrats seem to offer nothing for them,” Hochschild told The Globe Post.
But Hochschild proposes another answer as well. By fear mongering on social issues like illegal immigration, the national anthem and religion, Trump has been able to divert attention away from class and towards culture.
“For a lot of the people I talked to, it was very important to elevate their cultural worldview,” she said. “Although the people I met are not white nationalists … they feel that there’s some recognition that whites are declining. They do feel that, and someone is speaking to that.”
Right-wing media also plays a critical role in the diversion, Hochschild said.
“There are certain ideas that are just being hammered in,” she said, citing segments from Fox hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham on supposed issues like “demographic changes” and the “crisis for men.”
“For a lot of the people I talked to, it was very important to elevate their cultural worldview.”
As historian Joshua Zeits writes, this is not the first time in U.S. history the working-class has been successfully divided on social issues.
Following the Civil War, poor white farmers and newly emancipated black Americans formed biracial coalition governments around shared economic interests that won elections all across the South.
Their success, however, was short-lived. Wealthy plantation owners drove a wedge between the coalition by stoking fears of “Negro rule” and drumming up marginal social issues like interracial marriage.
“The white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage,” W.E.B Du Bois concluded in his seminal work on Reconstruction.
By scapegoating immigrants, African Americans, Muslims and other minority groups, Hochschild said the modern Republican party has been able to achieve the same ends.
“It’s a replay of history,” she said, referencing “The Mind of the South,” a classic book by journalist W.J. Cash. “It’s really the mind of poor whites who are being hoodwinked by rich whites in the South. That’s really what that’s about and yea, we’re seeing it again. I think this is a cultural payback. You may be losing economically but you’re still white.”