Understanding the Donald J Trump Phenomenon

March 9, 2016

Understanding the Donald Trump Phenomenon

by Thomas Frank

@The Guardian


When he isn’t spewing insults, the Republican frontrunner is hammering home a powerful message about free trade and its victims

Let us now address the greatest American mystery at the moment: what motivates the supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump?

I call it a “mystery” because the working-class white people who make up the bulk of Trump’s fan base show up in amazing numbers for the candidate, filling stadiums and airport hangars, but their views, by and large, do not appear in our prestige newspapers. On their opinion pages, these publications take care to represent demographic categories of nearly every kind, but “blue-collar” is one they persistently overlook. The views of working-class people are so foreign to that universe that when New York Times columnist Nick Kristof wanted to “engage” a Trump supporter last week, he made one up, along with this imaginary person’s responses to his questions.

When members of the professional class wish to understand the working-class Other, they traditionally consult experts on the subject. And when these authorities are asked to explain the Trump movement, they always seem to zero in on one main accusation: bigotry. Only racism, they tell us, is capable of powering a movement like Trump’s, which is blowing through the inherited structure of the Republican party like a tornado through a cluster of McMansions.

Trump himself provides rather excellent evidence for this finding. The man is an insult clown who has systematically gone down the list of American ethnic groups and offended them each in turn. He wants to deport millions upon millions of undocumented immigrants. He wants to bar Muslims from visiting the United States. He admires various foreign strongmen and dictators, and has even retweeted a quote from Mussolini. This gold-plated buffoon has in turn drawn the enthusiastic endorsement of leading racists from across the spectrum of intolerance, a gorgeous mosaic of haters, each of them quivering excitedly at the prospect of getting a real, honest-to-god bigot in the White House.

All this stuff is so insane, so wildly outrageous, that the commentariat has deemed it to be the entirety of the Trump campaign. Trump appears to be a racist, so racism must be what motivates his armies of followers. And so, on Saturday, New York Times columnist Timothy Egan blamed none other than “the people” for Trump’s racism: “Donald Trump’s supporters know exactly what he stands for: hatred of immigrants, racial superiority, a sneering disregard of the basic civility that binds a society.”

Stories marveling at the stupidity of Trump voters are published nearly every day. Articles that accuse Trump’s followers of being bigots have appeared by the hundreds, if not the thousands. Conservatives have written them; liberals have written them; impartial professionals have written them. The headline of a recent Huffington Post column announced, bluntly, that “Trump Won Super Tuesday Because America is Racist.” A New York Times reporter proved that Trump’s followers were bigots by coordinating a map of Trump support with a map of racist Google searches. Everyone knows it: Trump’s followers’ passions are nothing more than the ignorant blurtings of the white American id, driven to madness by the presence of a black man in the White House. The Trump movement is a one-note phenomenon, a vast surge of race-hate. Its partisans are not only incomprehensible, they are not really worth comprehending.

Or so we’re told. Last week, I decided to watch several hours of Trump speeches for myself. I saw the man ramble and boast and threaten and even seem to gloat when protesters were ejected from the arenas in which he spoke. I was disgusted by these things, as I have been disgusted by Trump for 20 years. But I also noticed something surprising. In each of the speeches I watched, Trump spent a good part of his time talking about an entirely legitimate issue, one that could even be called left wing.

Yes, Donald Trump talked about trade. In fact, to judge by how much time he spent talking about it, trade may be his single biggest concern – not white supremacy. Not even his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border, the issue that first won him political fame. He did it again during the debate on 3 March: asked about his political excommunication by Mitt Romney, he chose to pivot and talk about … trade.

It seems to obsess him: the destructive free-trade deals our leaders have made, the many companies that have moved their production facilities to other lands, the phone calls he will make to those companies’ CEOs in order to threaten them with steep tariffs unless they move back to the US.

Trump embellished this vision with another favorite left wing idea: under his leadership, the government would “start competitive bidding in the drug industry”. (“We don’t competitively bid!” he marveled – another true fact, a legendary boondoggle brought to you by the George W Bush administration.) Trump extended the critique to the military-industrial complex, describing how the government is forced to buy lousy but expensive airplanes thanks to the power of industry lobbyists.

Thus did he hint at his curious selling proposition: because he is personally so wealthy, a fact about which he loves to boast, Trump himself is unaffected by business lobbyists and donations. And because he is free from the corrupting power of modern campaign finance, famous deal-maker Trump can make deals on our behalf that are “good” instead of “bad”. The chance that he will actually do so, of course, is small. He appears to be a hypocrite on this issue as well as so many other things. But at least Trump is saying this stuff.

All this surprised me because, for all the articles about Trump I had read in recent months, I didn’t recall trade coming up very often. Trump is supposed to be on a one-note crusade for whiteness. Could it be that all this trade stuff is a key to understanding the Trump phenomenon?

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.

To the remaining 80 or 90% of America, trade means something very different. There’s a video going around on the internet these days that shows a room full of workers at a Carrier air conditioning plant in Indiana being told by an officer of the company that the factory is being moved to Monterrey, Mexico, and that they’re all going to lose their jobs.

As I watched it, I thought of all the arguments over trade that we’ve had in this country since the early 1990s, all the sweet words from our economists about the scientifically proven benevolence of free trade, all the ways in which our newspapers mock people who say that treaties like the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement allow companies to move jobs to Mexico.

Well, here is a video of a company moving its jobs to Mexico, courtesy of NAFTA. This is what it looks like. The Carrier executive talks in that familiar and highly professional HR language about the need to “stay competitive” and “the extremely price-sensitive marketplace”. A worker shouts “Fuck you!” at the executive. The executive asks people to please be quiet so he can “share” his “information”. His information about all of them losing their jobs.

Now, I have no special reason to doubt the suspicion that Donald Trump is a racist. Either he is one, or (as the comedian John Oliver puts it) he is pretending to be one, which amounts to the same thing.

But there is another way to interpret the Trump phenomenon. A map of his support may coordinate with racist Google searches, but it coordinates even better with deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America.

It is worth noting that Trump is making a point of assailing that Indiana air conditioning company from the video in his speeches. What this suggests is that he’s telling a tale as much about economic outrage as it is tale of racism on the march. Many of Trump’s followers are bigots, no doubt, but many more are probably excited by the prospect of a president who seems to mean it when he denounces our trade agreements and promises to bring the hammer down on the CEO that fired you and wrecked your town, unlike Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Here is the most salient supporting fact: when people talk to white, working-class Trump supporters, instead of simply imagining what they might say, they find that what most concerns these people is the economy and their place in it. I am referring to a study just published by Working America, a political-action auxiliary of the AFL-CIO, which interviewed some 1,600 white working-class voters in the suburbs of Cleveland and Pittsburgh in December and January.

Support for Donald Trump, the group found, ran strong among these people, even among self-identified Democrats, but not because they are all pining for a racist in the White House. Their favorite aspect of Trump was his “attitude”, the blunt and forthright way he talks. As far as issues are concerned, “immigration” placed third among the matters such voters care about, far behind their number one concern: “good jobs / the economy”.

“People are much more frightened than they are bigoted,” is how the findings were described to me by Karen Nussbaum, the executive director of Working America. The survey “confirmed what we heard all the time: people are fed up, people are hurting, they are very distressed about the fact that their kids don’t have a future” and that “there still hasn’t been a recovery from the recession, that every family still suffers from it in one way or another.”

Tom Lewandowski, thePpresident of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council in Fort Wayne, puts it even more bluntly when I asked him about working-class Trump fans. “These people aren’t racist, not any more than anybody else is,” he says of Trump supporters he knows. “When Trump talks about trade, we think about the Clinton administration, first with NAFTA and then with [Permanent Normal Trade Relations] China, and here in Northeast Indiana, we hemorrhaged jobs.”

“They look at that, and here’s Trump talking about trade, in a ham-handed way, but at least he’s representing emotionally. We’ve had all the political establishment standing behind every trade deal, and we endorsed some of these people, and then we’ve had to fight them to get them to represent us.”

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.

What Lewandowski and Nussbaum are saying, then, should be obvious to anyone who’s dipped a toe outside the prosperous enclaves on the two coasts. 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.



17 thoughts on “Understanding the Donald J Trump Phenomenon

  1. []
    Mr. Trump’s ability to generate panic in both pro-immigrant and anti-immigrant precincts, among pro-life and pro-choice voters, suggests that at least part of the opposition to him is rooted not in policy differences but in aesthetics. Mr. Trump’s opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, for example, is seen as intolerable nativism. But when Hillary Clinton takes the same position, people shrug it off as election-season pandering to labor.

    The prospect that Mr. Trump would govern more soberly than he campaigns is another argument in favor of calming down. Confronted with a Democratic Senate or one with only a slim, non-filibuster-proof Republican majority and with a House of Representatives led by the big-hearted Speaker Paul Ryan, a President Trump would have to adjust to Washington reality.

    Recent history, after all, has shown little connection between campaigns and governance. Bill Clinton campaigned on middle class tax cuts and gave us tax increases. George W. Bush campaigned on humility in foreign policy and gave us the Iraq War. Barack Obama campaigned against the individual mandate of Hillary Clinton’s health insurance plan, but ObamaCare wound up including precisely such a mandate. Mr. Obama campaigned as a uniter but wound up as a divisive president. Listen to Mr. Trump, and he’s pretty open about some of his more extreme positions being opening offers for deal-making negotiations.


  2. DONALD TRUMP: I say let’s come together folks. We’re going to win. I say let’s come together. Carl, the answer is not 100 percent but largely I would say yes. Some people you are just not going to get along with. It’s okay.

    But largely I would like to do that and believe it or not, I am a unifier. I unify. You look at all of the things I built all over the world. I’m a unifier. I get along with people. I have great relations. I even start getting along with you, right? Campaign Carl. But, no, I get along with people. And I really say this, Carl, I think it’s time to unify.

    We have something special going on in the Republican party. And, unfortunately, the people in the party, they call them the elites or they call them whatever they call them. But those are the people that don’t respect it yet. We have millions and millions of people, I’ve discussed it before. We have millions and millions of people coming up and voting, largely for me.

    It’s a record. It has never happened before. In 100 years what is happening now to the Republican party has never happened before.

  3. A most interesting Presidential race in the USA:

    Democratic Party front-runners — a woman and a Jewish man

    Republican Party — a WASP fascist and two Cuban-Americans

    Current President — an African-American man (actually, the son of
    a black Kenyan man and a white Kansas woman)

    It shows that America has made great social progress, but that the
    Far Right/racist/nativist/xenophobic/Christian fundamentalist religious extremist/ bloc is sizable too.

  4. a trump sanders showdown my hope.
    It is going to be Hilary vs Trump.–Din Merican

  5. Politics has become the single most critical arena to capture and control for big businesses in almost in every country around the world. They finance every political party Right as well as not the Right ones, proportinately in scale, covering all bets, to protect and further their interests in terms of generating superlative revenue, expansion and global reach. Capitalism masquarading under the veneer of Globalisation has knocked out to oblivion good old pro- labour Marxism, Communism and Socialism. Can the clock be set back, if at all?

    The motherboard of Capitalism is the US because it is their Corporations that have their tentacles reaching all corners of the world and controlling the global economy. The Wall Street based financial institutions , Internet, Visa Cards, Oil and Gas owning international companies are some of their entities that generate massive revenue for them.

    Donald Trump himself is Corporations owning Billionaire. Whether he is real or fake in wanting to fight for the well being of the poor and working class, is something only he knows. But he is giving out the right soundbites: bringing US industries overseas back home, bringing and creating more jobs, relooking trade deals that are inimical to American workers, creating wall at Mexican border and temporarily banning Muslims from coming to the US. He has literally segregated the minorities, the Latinos and the Black Americans with his White Supremacy bluster, that mathematically he stands no chance of winning the Presidency. When John McCain took on Obama in 2008, some 60% of the Whites in the Northern belt voted for him and yet he lost. No way can he win, short of a miracle.

  6. Thaya,
    If Sander wins the nomination, Trump will win the presidency. The US military establishment will not allow Sander to win.

    Guys and Gals,
    Trumps remind me of George Wallace

    Come to think of it. Anwar Ibrahim is the Malaysia version of George Wallace

    Looks familiar! If only Humphery can get 14% more……….Obviously Humphery and Wallace can’t get along

    Sanders is a George Mcgovern type……..Thaya…….Sanders win the nomination, Trump shall be in Oval Office!

    P.S : I believe Conrad would love George Mcgovern but then when one can’t get power

  7. Donald Trump’s appeal is rooted in the traditional right-wing appeal to nationalism. What traditionally divided the left and right was not so much free markets, but more the sense of identity. For the communist, it was class, and a working class person from another country was considered an ideological brother. Not for nothing is the Communist/Socialist anthem called “The Internationale” – “This is the final struggle / Let us group together and tomorrow / The Internationale / Will be the human kind.”

    For the Right, it was national identity that counted most. Most people now forget that pre-WWII fascist regimes adopted a collectivist approach to the economy and markets (what was called Corporatism), and the state played a dominant role in the economy. Volkswagen (literally “People’s Car”), for example, was started as a state-owed project by the Nazi government to create a car that ordinary Germans could own. The underlying idea was that the nation-state was the focus of loyalty. To this end, both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany pursued protectionist policies in the 1930s.

    In Europe, there remains a terminological difference between Conservatism and Liberalism, where the latter is understood to stand for individual liberty and limited government, but this distinction has disappeared in the US. Indeed, the term “liberal” now means leftist in the US, which is totally the opposite of its traditional meaning. In France, to be called a “liberal” is synonymous to being called a capitalist. Nonetheless, Conservatism generally came to incorporate free markets and capitalism into its fold starting in the 1970s, but this may be meeting resistance now.

    Trump’s appeal to the American working class and advocacy of protectionism is not some strange mismash, but can be read as a reversion to the traditional right-wing appeal to nationalism (or “patriotism” in more polite circles) and pushing away from free markets. Free markets, after all, conceptually do not respect national borders or identities. In many ways, Trump’s appeal is echoed in the growing popularity of the National Front in France or the voices in the UK calling for exit from the European Union. The appeal of national identity is growing in an uncertain world.

  8. Trump remind me of UMNO. I guess bigots politicians are every where. The scary part is a lot of ignorant voters in US just like Malaysia.


  9. /// Phua Kai Lit March 9, 2016 at 8:45 pm
    A most interesting Presidential race in the USA: ///

    Indeed. Saw this photo on facebook, not sure how to upload it – so here it is:

    No matter who you vote for, this will be a historic election…
    First female president of the United States (Hillary Clinton)
    First Jewish president of the United States (Bernie Sanders)
    First Latino president of the United States (Marco Rubio)
    First Canadian president of the United States (Ted Cruz)
    Last president of the United States (Donald Trump)

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