Michael Brendan Dougherty, The Week, February 16, 2016
“Get a job, you racists, and stop playing the victim! Don’t you remember the ’80s?”
Does that sound like a successful political program to you? Does it sound like an adequate response when perhaps one-fourth or more of your party’s voters are staging a minor revolt? Of course not. And yet, that is effectively the message the Republican elite is delivering to Donald Trump’s disaffected white working-class supporters.
I recently suggested that the Republican Party, and the conservative movement, offer next to nothing to working-class Trump supporters. There are no obvious conservative policies that will generate the sort of growth needed to raise the standard of living for these working-class voters. Instead, the GOP’s Powers That Be make a great show of obedience and deference to the center-right donor class, even when that donor class’ preferred policies–endless war, unlimited immigration, and slashing tax burdens on the wealthy–have almost no relation to conservative ideas or even popular opinion.
Several columnists have responded critically to my original piece. They claimed to argue with me. Instead, they confirmed my thesis.
My friend Kevin Williamson implies in National Review Online that I am indulging in “racial identity politics to help poor whites feel better about dependency.” Tom Nichols writes in The Federalist that I want to play the “bitter card of victimhood and entitlement that liberals use.”
Williamson says that he’d rather poor whites “took the necessary steps to improve their condition in life.” Nichols outlines some of these necessary steps, saying these men need “to stop fleecing the disability system, to kick their addiction, to be fathers to their children, to get a job no matter how low or unappealing it is, and to stick with it until you get a better one.” He implies that I’m against this kind of virtue. That’s wrong.
In fact, this is all great life advice. I would happily repeat it to anyone. But it illustrates rather than rebuts the problem I described. Issuing godly financial advice is the job of parents and pastors and personal-finance gurus. It is not a substitute for politics or government. It is not the conservative movement’s nor the Republican Party’s job to tell voters to keep their fingernails trimmed and to proofread their resumes, wise as those things may be. And it should be plain as day that such tut-tutting is certainly not going to win the loyalty of the party’s down-on-their-luck base.
It is not enough to say, “Stop bothering us with your economic problems, and be more virtuous; we’re too busy addressing the complicated problems of our rich patrons, and using the levers of the state to make it easier for them to invest in foreign work forces instead of the whiny entitled American worker.” Which, is, of course, the message that has come through to Trump voters over the last two decades.
At the same time as this decline of work, the returns are starting to come in on the post-Cold War policies that elite conservatives have championed, namely free trade and liberal-to-uncontrolled low-skill immigration.
The results of these policies look like a major transfer of wealth and, more crucially, wealth-generating power, away from workers and to capital. Researchers David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hansen found that globalization hammered workers while providing them with completely inadequate compensation in cheaper consumables or government assistance:
As a result, the authors found in a 2013 paper, competition from Chinese imports explains 44 percent of the decline in employment in manufacturing in America between 1990 and 2007. For any given industry, an increase in Chinese imports of $1,000 per worker per year led to a total reduction in annual income of about $500 per worker in the places where that industry was concentrated. The offsetting rise in government benefits was only $58 per worker. In a paper from 2014, co-written with Daron Acemoglu and Brendan Price, of MIT, and focusing on America’s “employment sag” in the 2000s, the authors calculate that Chinese import competition reduced employment across the American economy as a whole by 2.4 million jobs relative to the level it otherwise would have enjoyed. [The Economist]
It is true that I manifestly do not have the answers yet, nor do I believe Donald Trump has them. My aim in trying to understand and explain Trumpism and generate sympathy for the people who find themselves supporting Donald Trump is not to ratify dependency or a sense of victimhood in working-class people; it’s to slap conservatives out of a torpor, to tell them that they are not victims of this Trump-led populist revolt, but the authors of it. And to warn them that they make Trumpism inevitable by enabling the American elite and the political class in its cultural and economic secession from the rest of the American nation. And ultimately, my aim is to recruit men like Kevin Williamson and Tom Nichols into the incredibly inconvenient work of stripping away the policy ideas and political formulas that have grown stale over the last 20 years, and to revivify the American right, and the bonds that hold our nation together.