Earlier this year I wrote that a Donald Trump presidency wouldn’t be that bad. Today I’m a whole lot less cheerful.
I expect a lot of kiwis will be tempted to see the Trump phenomenon through an income inequality lens. While rising income inequality is a myth in New Zealand, it isn’t in America. But that easy narrative doesn’t sit well with the data, or not in the obvious ways. Gallop polling back from August even showed Trump supporters weren’t those, on average, left behind by globalisation or automation. Supporters did not have lower income and were not more likely to be unemployed. And the same Gallup study showed supporters were more likely to work in industries that did not really have to worry much about competition from China – like construction. But they were more likely to live in places far from the media and political elites.
To get a sense of what’s going on in some of what’s considered flyover country in the US, JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy looks to be a great place to start. He paints a sympathetic, but dismal, picture of life in failing communities. The New Yorker‘s coverage was very good. So too is this excerpt in the Washington Post. It isn’t just an economic story, it’s also a cultural one.
What exit polls are out so far show Clinton won among those earning less than $50,000 per year, but lost among those on higher earnings – despite Clinton having much stronger support among the college-educated. It isn’t easy to simultaneously lose badly among those on higher incomes and win strongly among those with college degrees. And race has certainly played a role. None of this cleanly fits an income inequality narrative. But it does fit a cultural narrative.
And so my current take, as I write on Wednesday evening, and until the data tells me otherwise, is the same one I gave in my closing summary after the debate The Initiative hosted back in August on inequality. American society is bifurcating on cultural lines at least as much as on economic lines, and it’s the cultural ones that are mattering.
Look back again at Vance’s description of life in hillbilly country. There was a great interview with Vance in The American Conservative a few months ago. He talks about the resentment felt in those communities about being looked down on by urban elites. About being told that their way of living and religious beliefs and pride in military service are wrong. About their accents being a great source of amusement. Trump earned the same condescension from urban elites that a lot of people who aren’t in that elite feel pretty regularly. And warnings about Trump’s racism, misogyny, and potential fascism ring hollow when those words have lost the meaning they should have through overuse: when everything is a microaggression and when President Bush was regularly compared to Hitler, well, people start discounting when they shouldn’t. And there’s always a fraction of the population that just wants to watch it all burn.
That’s my reckon on “what happened here”. It’s likely wrong, but it is the best explanation I currently have.
As for what now?
It won’t be the end of the world.
But it will be rather bad.
Back in March I’d pointed to the institutional constraints that would stop a Trump presidency from being apocalyptic. I was too optimistic about two of them.
Something that I should have thought about when I wrote the piece is how much damage a vindictive narcissist can do through his control of administrative agencies. He will be able to set the IRS and other agencies against his perceived enemies. The vast apparatus of the regulatory regime is scarily unbounded in potential misuse by a bad President. It is this way because, for decades, the governing elite on both sides of the aisle did not see the point of constraining their own power. Libertarians did warn about the need to fix that before somebody really dangerous got a chance to have a go. And now Trump has those reins.
It’s bad, but I worried a bit less about it than I should have because I thought a second check might do a bit more work. But I’m a lot more worried about that one now.
I had hope in the Republican establishment’s hating Trump. It was clear during the nomination race. But since March, they have all fallen into line behind him, or failed to speak out against him. Ted Cruz even manned phone lines for Trump. Paul Ryan worked for Trump. I don’t quite know how to put it politely so I’ll put it in Trumpist terms: Donald Trump made the Republican establishment his bitches. I don’t think the GOP elite fell into line because they expected a Trump victory. Careerist concerns instead came to the fore. And so I worry that House and Senate leaders will fall into line behind Trump rather than protect the Party’s potential long term prospects for similar reasons. I’m worried now that the Republicans in the House and Senate wouldn’t block pernicious appointments.
I’m glad I’m in New Zealand, but we aren’t going to be immune here. I was lukewarm at best about TTPA – that looks dead, but I don’t see great shakes in it either way. Far more worrying is that crazy stuff isn’t out of the question – big new tariffs, for example. Even if they’re only directed at China, the US screwing up China screws up our trade with China. And who the heck knows what will happen to geopolitical stability.
Last night was crazy. I don’t think it will get less crazy from here. Buckle up.