Like many in the subset of Americans who are more passionate about policy than politics, I did not take the presidential campaign of Donald Trump seriously. For the past fifteen years, I've done a weekly radio segment on Minnesota politics and this past summer, when the issue of Trump came up, I said it wasn't an intellectually serious conversation and thus I had nothing to say. As I indicated, I was on that show to talk policy.But it is not to the Chattering Classes that Mr Trump is speaking. And the Trump voters deserve respect from advocates of strong towns.
As time has gone on, I've watched my Facebook feed -- a self-selected group of people with largely similar education levels and worldviews as mine -- deride Trump and his supporters. They're stupid. They're ignorant. They're clueless. They should go back to their NASCAR and reality television, which is what they're likely to do when it is actually time to vote. This has all been very condescending in that elitist kind of way.
All those taunts of Trump supporters -- all those condescending statements of their ignorance and stupidity -- never sat well with me because they set off an innate sense of injustice. I wouldn't handle that injustice the way Trump seemingly wants to -- his commercial never appealed to me because I'm not the target audience -- but I now understand more fully why an entire class of Americans are willing to give it a try, why they see nothing appealing from any of the other agendas on offer.That "not the target audience" refers to Lexus's Christmas adverts. I've not been in the target audience, whether in 2005 or 2006 or 2008 or 2011 or 2014. But the target audience seems to be headed downscale, too. Maybe there is a thinner market for economy luxury cars.
Mr Marohn also recommended Archdruid Report's Donald Trump and the Politics of Resentment. By all means, read it, it's not, despite the post-modern sounding title, the usual Kultursmog. Here's the salient part.
To understand what follows, it’s going to be necessary to ask my readers—especially, though not only, those who consider themselves liberals, or see themselves inhabiting some other position left of center in the convoluted landscape of today’s American politics—to set aside two common habits. The first is the reflexive resort to sneering mockery that so often makes up for the absence of meaningful political thought in the US—again, especially but by no means only on the left. The dreary insults that have been flung so repetitively at Donald Trump over the course of his campaign are fine examples of the species: “deranged Cheeto,” “tomato-headed moron,” “delusional cheese creature,” and so on.The tie to Strong Towns comes in a brief history lesson.
The centerpiece of most of these insults, when they’re not simply petulant schoolboy taunts aimed at Trump’s physical appearance, is the claim that he’s stupid. This is hardly surprising, as a lot of people on the leftward end of American culture love to use the kind of demeaning language that attributes idiocy to those who disagree with them. Thus it probably needs to be pointed out here that Trump is anything but stupid. He’s extraordinarily clever, and one measure of his cleverness is the way that he’s been able to lure so many of his opponents into behaving in ways that strengthen his appeal to the voters that matter most to his campaign. In case you’re wondering if you belong to that latter category, dear reader, if you like to send out tweets comparing Trump’s hair to Cheese Whiz, no, you’re not.
So that’s the first thing that has to be set aside to make sense of the Trump phenomenon. The second is going to be rather more challenging for many of my readers: the notion that the only divisions in American society that matter are those that have some basis in biology. Skin color, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability—these are the lines of division in society that Americans like to talk about, whatever their attitudes to the people who fall on one side or another of those lines. (Please note, by the way, the four words above: “some basis in biology.” I’m not saying that these categories are purely biological in nature; every one of them is defined in practice by a galaxy of cultural constructs and presuppositions, and the link to biology is an ostensive category marker rather than a definition. I insert this caveat because I’ve noticed that a great many people go out of their way to misunderstand the point I’m trying to make here.)
In 1966 an American family with one breadwinner working full time at an hourly wage could count on having a home, a car, three square meals a day, and the other ordinary necessities of life, with some left over for the occasional luxury. In 2016, an American family with one breadwinner working full time at an hourly wage is as likely as not to end up living on the street, and a vast number of people who would happily work full time even under those conditions can find only part-time or temporary work when they can find any jobs at all. The catastrophic impoverishment and immiseration of the American wage class is one of the most massive political facts of our time—and it’s also one of the most unmentionable. Next to nobody is willing to talk about it, or even admit that it happened.There's more at work. The competition in wages among workers performing routine tasks is going to be different from the competition in wages among workers performing advanced technology tasks. The comparative advantage of the United States has almost always been in knowledge-intensive, advanced technology products, thus airplanes and spaceships, clocks in the 1850s, and automobiles in the 1920s. Thus no vast middle-management conspiracy is necessary.
The destruction of the wage class was largely accomplished by way of two major shifts in American economic life. The first was the dismantling of the American industrial economy and its replacement by Third World sweatshops; the second was mass immigration from Third World countries. Both of these measures are ways of driving down wages—not, please note, salaries, returns on investment, or welfare payments—by slashing the number of wage-paying jobs, on the one hand, while boosting the number of people competing for them on the other. Both, in turn, were actively encouraged by government policies and, despite plenty of empty rhetoric on one or the other side of the Congressional aisle, both of them had, for all practical purposes, bipartisan support from the political establishment.
It’s probably going to be necessary to talk a bit about that last point. Both parties, despite occasional bursts of crocodile tears for American workers and their families, have backed the offshoring of jobs to the hilt. Immigration is a slightly more complex matter; the Democrats claim to be in favor of it, the Republicans now and then claim to oppose it, but what this means in practice is that legal immigration is difficult but illegal immigration is easy. The result was the creation of an immense work force of noncitizens who have no economic or political rights they have any hope of enforcing, which could then be used—and has been used, over and over again—to drive down wages, degrade working conditions, and advance the interests of employers over those of wage-earning employees.
The next point that needs to be discussed here—and it’s the one at which a very large number of my readers are going to balk—is who benefited from the destruction of the American wage class. It’s long been fashionable in what passes for American conservatism to insist that everyone benefits from the changes just outlined, or to claim that if anybody doesn’t, it’s their own fault. It’s been equally popular in what passes for American liberalism to insist that the only people who benefit from those changes are the villainous uber-capitalists who belong to the 1%. Both these are evasions, because the destruction of the wage class has disproportionately benefited one of the four classes I sketched out above: the salary class.
Here’s how that works. Since the 1970s, the salary class lifestyle sketched out above—suburban homeownership, a new car every couple of years, vacations in Mazatlan, and so on—has been an anachronism: in James Howard Kunstler’s useful phrase, an arrangement without a future.
It was wholly a product of the global economic dominance the United States wielded in the wake of the Second World War, when every other major industrial nation on the planet had its factories pounded to rubble by the bomber fleets of the warring powers, and the oil wells of Pennsylvania, Texas, and California pumped more oil than the rest of the planet put together. That dominance went away in a hurry, though, when US conventional petroleum production peaked in 1970, and the factories of Europe and Asia began to outcompete America’s industrial heartland.That global economic dominance, though, was in routine production. And a lot of intellectual effort during the 1980s went down the rabbit holes of recrimination over oligopoly industries failing to invest in new plants, or over the work the Army Air Force did compelling Japan and Germany to build state of the art factories. To imitate routine production. Meanwhile the "salary class" remained involved in the newest advanced technologies, often involving methods of production that required fewer manual workers applying muscle.
The only way for the salary class to maintain its lifestyle in the teeth of those transformations was to force down the cost of goods and services relative to the average buying power of the salary class.
And let us not forget that the "salary class" was where the vanguard of increased female labor force participation was. That bids up prices.
And yet, there is room for more discontent among disaffected wage workers.
I trust none of my readers are naive enough to think that a Trump defeat will mean the end of the phenomenon that’s lifted him to front runner status in the teeth of everything the political establishment can throw at him. I see the Trump candidacy as a major watershed in American political life, the point at which the wage class—the largest class of American voters, please note—has begun to wake up to its potential power and begin pushing back against the ascendancy of the salary class.In Iowa tonight, Senator Sanders tied with Senator Clinton, Senator Cruz ahead of Mr Trump and Senator Rubio.
Whether he wins or loses, that pushback is going to be a defining force in American politics for decades to come. Nor is a Trump candidacy anything approaching the worst form that could take. If Trump gets defeated, especially if it’s done by obviously dishonest means, the next leader to take up the cause of the wage class could very well be fond of armbands or, for that matter, of roadside bombs. Once the politics of resentment come into the open, anything can happen—and this is particularly true, it probably needs to be said, when the resentment in question is richly justified by the behavior of many of those against whom it’s directed.