Donald Trump hit new lows when he insisted that Muslims should be barred entry into the United States based on their religion. It has been noted that he often ratchets up such rhetoric when he slips in the polls, but it’s clearly an extension of a fundamental theme of his campaign: fear and blame the “other,” where the “other” is someone different than you.
Blame them for what? For everything you’re angry about. Outside of economics, I neither claim to be nor would want to become an expert on all the things people are angry about these days. But inside of economics, I think I get it. Income inequality is through the roof, meaning economic growth is mostly something you read about in the paper as opposed to see in your paycheck. The finance sector tanked the economy, got bailed out with taxpayer money, and not only did nobody go to jail, but they more than recovered their lost profits way ahead of the rest of us (while thousands lost their only source of wealth: their homes). And Congress doesn’t do squat about any of the above; to the contrary, they continue to try to protect finance from oversight, block the minimum wage (yes, there are Trump supporters who want to see a higher minimum wage), and fail to stop President Obama.
And, of course, immigration. It happens to be the case that immigrant flows, especially from Mexico, have flattened or declined. Also, as I’ve long stressed, the impact of immigrants on non-immigrant wages is more complicated than “they’re taking your jobs!” Immigrants create new demand that helps absorb their new supply, and much research shows that many native-born workers are “complements,” not “substitutes” to immigrants, meaning immigrants don’t replace them; they boost their opportunities.
But such nuances can be pushed too far. Some workers have lost their jobs to immigrants (many of those job losers are older immigrants, btw), and neither Trump nor many of his followers (nor pretty much anyone else) care to delve into the research.
Even if the Trump campaign should fizzle, the anger will not. What then happens to these angry voters? I’m not asking this from a vote-counting sense (do they go to Sens. Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders, etc.?). I’m asking: Is there a way to speak to them that’s both fact based and emotionally resonant. (This question is a variation on one Politico’s Ben White asked me the other night on a panel in New Hampshire.)
That’s a tough one, but think about this: What if the problem isn’t the alleged bad guys? What if it’s not Mexicans, Muslims, Wall St. fraudsters, top 1 percenters, lobbyists, Democrats, Republicans, tea partyers, socialists, China, the Fed, the debt, etc. that’s ruining everything?
What if instead, mostly everyone above is playing by the rules — in a game that’s often rigged; in a game where elite players write the rules or hire legal teams to bend the rules on their behalf? What if what’s really holding back the broad middle class, especially those who view themselves as hurt by globalization and immigration, isn’t Mexicans and Muslims at all but the structure of our economic system and the distribution of power within that system?
When you tee it up this way, the political problem facing the angry Trump supporters is that nobody’s got their back. Nobody’s fighting for them. Nobody’s trying to wrest the power from the wealthy elites that too often set the political agenda and use that power on behalf of those left behind.
This sort of demagoguery — politicians revving up hatred designed to distract people from what’s really going on — is as old as history, but I see it around me here in D.C. all the time. Obamacare’s a great example. It’s a mind-numbing technical set of policies designed to increase health coverage and create incentives to slow cost growth. Any such plan will and does (in other advanced economies) look pretty much the same. But instead of working to reconnect growth and middle-class prosperity, Republicans wasted countless hours on 50+ votes to repeal Obamacare.
Meanwhile, they want to give their Wall Street backers even more power by taking down financial reform. And they’re not alone. At the behest of the financial services lobby, some Democrats have joined Republicans in trying to block the implementation of the “conflict of interest” rule that requires financial advisers to put their customers’ best interest before their own profits.
All of this leads me to wonder if there’s a way to channel the anger of Trump supporters away from powerless immigrants who are invariably trying to stay afloat much like those castigating them, and toward the real power structure, with a goal of wresting some power back from them on behalf of the working class.
The left-leaning wonk’s temptation here is to trot out the list: Fiscal policy that raises more revenues, say, through a financial transaction tax on securities trades, and invests in jobs and opportunities for the majority on the wrong side of the inequality divide; setting a policy course for a full employment economy (which invokes a role for the Fed, too) which definitely increases worker bargaining power and probably increases social tolerance as well; a higher minimum wage and a robust safety net, or better yet, a trampoline that helps people bounce back, re-skilled if necessary.
But that’s how we lose people. The key message is that one above: I’ve got your back. I’ll fight everyday against entrenched power and on behalf of an agenda that reconnects growth and broadly-shared prosperity.
It is far too easy for demagogues like The Donald — a billionaire born on third who’s quick to tell you he hit a triple — to stoke anger at the “other,” especially when there’s so much anger in the air. But if there’s someone out there who can channel that anger from a politics of hate to a politics of helping those of any race or religion who’ve been left behind, that is the person who deserves to be called a true leader.
Update: in an earlier version, I mistakenly called Ben White Ben Smith.