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Capital Mobility and Trumpism

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As I have been saying throughout the election season, the collapse of the working class thanks to capital mobility is going a long way to feed Donald Trump’s popularity.

The fuzzy video, shot by a worker on the floor of a Carrier factory here in the American heartland last month, captured the raging national debate over trade and the future of the working class in 3 minutes 32 seconds.

“This is strictly a business decision,” a Carrier executive tells employees, describing how their 1,400 jobs making furnaces and heating equipment will be sent to Mexico. Workers there typically earn about $19 a day — less than what many on the assembly line here make in an hour. As boos and curses erupt from the crowd, the executive says, “Please quiet down.”

What came next was nothing of the kind.

Within hours of being posted on Facebook, the video went viral. Three days after Carrier’s Feb. 10 announcement, Donald J. Trump seized on the video in a Republican presidential debate and made Carrier’s move to Mexico a centerpiece of his stump speeches attacking free trade.

In fact, many Carrier workers here say that it was not so much Mr. Trump’s nativist talk on illegal immigrants or his anti-Muslim statements that has fired them up. Instead, it was hearing a leading presidential candidate acknowledging just how much economic ground they’ve lost — and promising to do something about it.

Mr. Trump has repudiated decades of G.O.P. support for free trade, calling for heavy tariffs on Mexican-made goods from the likes of Carrier. This has helped put him within arm’s reach of the Republican nomination.

Opposition to trade deals has also galvanized supporters of Mr. Sanders, helping him unexpectedly win the Michigan Democratic primary this month. At the same time, it has forced his rival Hillary Clinton to distance herself from trade agreements she once supported, like the proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and the North American Free Trade Agreement, the 1994 deal with Mexico that is an important part of President Bill Clinton’s political legacy.

Exit polls after the Michigan primary , for example, showed that a clear majority of both Republican and Democratic voters believe international trade costs the American economy more jobs than it creates.

Nicole Hargrove, a 14-year Carrier worker, said she was an undecided voter and was uncomfortable with Mr. Trump’s attacks on immigrants, particularly Mexicans. “But I’d like to turn him loose on the financial world,” she said. “Maybe if Carrier had to pay more to bring stuff in, they’d think twice about moving jobs out.”

Mark Weddle, 55, started work at Carrier 24 years ago and earns $21 an hour running a machine that makes heat exchangers. “I have two brothers-in-law from Mexico,” he said, explaining why he disagrees with Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant stance.

But when it comes to Carrier, “we’ve all worked our butts off,” he said. “And now they’re going to throw us under the bus? If Trump will kick Carrier’s ass, then I’ll vote for him.”

That’s pretty much what Mr. Trump has threatened to do. At rally after rally, to rapturous crowds, he vows to impose a 35 percent tax on Carrier products from Mexico. Then, the laugh line: “I want to do this myself, but it is so unpresidential to call up Carrier.”

And Mr. Trump vows not to take Carrier’s calls until it agrees to change course. “As sure as you’re here, they will call me up within 24 hours,” he promises, and say to him, “‘Sir, we’ve decided to stay in the United States.’”

Consistently in the comments of this blog, people wave away these connections or say it is an acceptable cost to pay for global capitalism. Well, maybe. But you have to live with the political consequences of a declining working class. And while people may support dreamy ideas like Universal Basic Income or more politically possible ideas that would help around the margins like an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, none of these things are happening now while all the manufacturing jobs are in fact disappearing. And whether that is because of capital mobility or it is because automation, we have zero concrete plans on what to do with millions of working class people. At best, we might give slight subsidies to retraining programs for careers that pay less and may not have a future anyway. At worst, we start drug testing for people who get on public assistance or slash those programs to nothing anyway.

The doctrine of unrestricted free trade has been basically bipartisan for many decades now. But no one ever thought hard enough about what this would look like when all the manufacturing jobs were gone. We are now finding out. This opens the door to demagogues taking advantage of what is worst about the United States–xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia, political violence, strongmen, intimidating journalists, fascism. When you give working Americans no good options, we might think they would turn to socialism. And a few have, as the Sanders campaigns demonstrates. But without widespread leftist organizing in working-class communities, which in working-class white communities largely does not exist, the appeal of racial and class prejudice added to the appeal of seeing someone tell off the forces that have doomed them to stagnation and poverty, that’s very powerful. That’s the Trump voter. Unless we do something for working-class Americans, even if Trump is defeated this year, the door is open for more demagogues and political violence in the near future.

The question is what to do about it. The answer has to be, in part, jobs that pay well and allow people to live dignified, upwardly mobile or at least stable lives. And for proponents of unrestricted capital mobility and extreme globalization, they simply have no answer on how to do this. We as a nation are reaping the results of their indifference.

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