If Donald Trump looked at a demographic profile of his supporters, he would sneer. They are disproportionately out of work or not seeking it. If they do have a job, they’re probably working with their hands, maybe something a machine could do better or someone overseas could do cheaper. A large share have only a high school education, which they increasingly find useless. Trump, not one for the niceties of political correctness, might call such people “losers.” I think they’re something else as well: suckers.
In the old days, there was yet another term for such a person: cannon fodder. Jobless and poor young men often would drift into the military and stay as long as they could. They got housing and three meals a day and a sweet pension after 20 years. One such person was in my basic training unit. He had left the Army but could find no job. He reenlisted and had to do basic training all over again, but struggled because he was no longer young. One day during a run, his back gave out on him. He was writhing in pain but got to his feet anyway. Basic was tough, but as he would say, “out there” was tougher.
His name is Jim and his difficult life fits the profile of many a Trump supporter. I’d like to ask Jim and others down on their luck what they think Trump can actually do for them. Trump says he has a plan to bring back jobs, but how and from where? Can he compel manufacturers to pull their factories back from China or wherever, and, if he can, how will he keep prices as low as they are? When I have a computer problem and I call the help line, will I get someone in America and, if so, who’s going to pay the added cost?
Can he really build a great wall between the United States and Mexico and keep out undocumented immigrants who will, if they can, take the jobs of native-born Americans? What about the immigrants who do the jobs Americans no longer are willing to do — such as stooping to haul in the harvest and reaching to pick grapefruit off the trees? In short, can Trump move the clock back 50 years or so to a time when the United States had millions more manufacturing jobs, Detroit was dominant in autos and China was making those tiny paper umbrellas found in cloying cocktails?
If Trump were honest (and if pigs had wings . . .), he would tell his supporters that things are only going to get worse. He’d warn them that the robots are coming — just over yonder hill — and they are going to take so many jobs that serious people are now discussing something called universal basic income, or UBI. This would be a stipend — much like a Social Security payment — that everyone would get, regardless of income, so that the trucker who gets replaced by a robotic truck can still, as it were, make a living. In Silicon Valley, where the silicon scabs of tomorrow are being conceived and manufactured, UBI is a lively topic. I have yet to hear it mentioned by Trump.
Trump’s foreign policy speech last week was not so much about foreign policy as about betrayal. Everything and everyone have betrayed the United States. Our plight is the result of lousy deals conducted by inept negotiators, with both allies and foes playing us for patsies. Across the board, a single man — a new president — can right the wrongs and he can do it not because he has a plan, but because he has an intention. “I’m the only one who knows how to fix it,” he allowed.
Trump apologists, the ones who are now finding virtue in his demagoguery, are selling out the people who have already been sold out once. Recognizing that free trade has costs as well as benefits is hardly the same as proposing a solution. Acknowledging the pain of the Rust Belt is not a remedy, and blaming immigrants, China’s monetary policy, trade agreements and “stupid” politicians lacks a certain specificity.
I come back to Jim and those like him. Their grievances, while genuine, have impaired their hearing. They should listen hard. Listen to Trump’s education plan or his infrastructure plan or his jobs plan. Hear anything? No. That’s not the sound of silence. It’s the sound of contempt.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.