Analysts have been slow to peel the onion on the reasons for Trump’s success – other than that people are mad (the current conventional wisdom pertaining to both Trump and Bernie Sanders) and he “tells it like it is” (the refrain of Trump fans.) For the moment, let’s put personality aside and dig a bit deeper on why people are mad – and how that might affect a race between Trump and Hillary.
First, this has been building for a long time, and shame on the political establishment for not offering a response before it hit them over the head. I’ll be simplistic.
1. The median family income (half above; half below) in 2014 was $53,657, 3% below when Barack Obama came into office and 7% below when George W Bush came into office. The causes are complex – globalization; demographics; technology; (bipartisan) governmental policies – but the average American understands that things are not getting better, that the country is on the “wrong track” (Rasmusssen 65%), that the next generation will be worse off, and that the political and business establishment is indifferent, in part because the S&P 500 companies are doing fine as over half of their earnings are from abroad and profit margins are at record levels while domestic wages stagnate.
Bernie Sanders (and to a lesser extent Hillary) has a set of policies to address the symptoms – tax the rich and redistribute it to the poor; increase the minimum wage. Donald Trump has a set of policies to address the root causes – stop immigration which increases downward pressure on jobs and wages; bring jobs home by reducing the foreign tradegap of $40 to $50 billion dollars per month. Hillary is trapped as will become clear in a head-to-head contest: as part of the long term ethnic strategy the Democrats favor a large, low wage Hispanic immigrant population; regardless of what she advocates now, her State Department negotiated the “gold standard” increasingly unpopular Trans Pacific Partnershiptrade agreement – much like her husband negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement two decades ago, creating what third party presidential candidate Ross Perot called “a giant sucking sound”. What goes around comes around.
2. The Unites States has been bogged down in (bipartisan) endless Middle Eastern wars since 2001 while our global power is declining relative to Russia, China, and Iran. The president refuses to acknowledge international Islamic terrorism while ISIS expands in the Middle East, claims supporters in Africa and Asia, and fosters attacks in western Europe and the United States. With no draft the boil of the American public is slow, but the human and multi-trillion financial cost is real, and security is eroding at home and globally with the likely proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Trump talks tough, believing that he can negotiate with Vladimir Putin while giving no quarter to ISIS. More significantly, he departs from the neocons and aligns more with the isolationist wing of the Republican Party favoring limited American involvement in foreign wars – and increased compensation when we do act as the guarantor for our allies. Hillary voted for the Iraq invasion and was Secretary of State as Barack Obama put his “leading from behind” imprimatur on the world order. She was a central architect of the failure in Libya, advocating for the removal of Kaddhafy and botching Benghazi. It will be hard for her to hide on the removal of troops from Iraq, the totally failed policies in Syria, and the failed “reset” with Russia. In a campaign “experience” will translate to “responsibility”.
3. Nobody has been held accountable for the financial collapse of 2008. Millions lost their houses, while the perpetrators at the banks, the mortgage companies, Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac, the rating agencies, and the regulators kept their bonuses. The “too big to fail” banks are bigger and we have a new bureaucracy in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but the real changes advocated by Elizabeth Warren have gone nowhere and nobody went to jail.
Bernie Sanders is all over it – and if this were the only issue in the election, he might well win. In fact, Warren would have been hard to beat had she run. Trump’s policies are unknown – but will undoubtedly catch the national mood, whether they actually survive an election or not. Hillary again is on the wrong side of history – as the senator from New York she actively advocated for her constituents; she dominates the political contributions of Wall Street; her husband was the overseer of eliminating the Glass-Steagal Act which kept the investment banking speculators out of commercial banks.
4. There is definitely an overlay of the disrespect for the “flyover states” writ large. For decades The coastal elites have, with an air of moral superiority, disparaged people who hold traditional American values. Any response to the Democrats pandering to minorities has been met with cries of “racism”. Any effort to curb abortion is met with cries of “a war on women”. Americans travelling abroad are told that they should apologize for our country – the most powerful, wealthy, diverse, generous, free, and open to upward mobility in the history of the planet.
After seven years of President Obama’s disconnect with the American psyche, we are met with Hillary Clinton’s promise of a third Obama term, with a more strident appeal to ethnic minorities and ongoing battles over social issues to energize her constituents. Trump promises a return to greatness.
None of this says that Trump would be a good president – he is unprepared, badly damaged, and divisive. But, on the policies that are turning out record numbers of voters in the Republican primaries he is pitch perfect, and Hillary will be unable to avoid not only her status as part of the establishment, but also her history on the issues.
This week’s video is Donald Trump being as presidential as he can be – but still not enough on torture.