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Trump’s Economic Message



Despite the attempts by many people to say that economics and economic messaging had nothing to do with Trump’s victory on November 8, as I have stated repeatedly, Trump’s victory had to do with both race and class, as well as with misogyny, with evangelicals seeing (correctly probably) that Pence is going to be driving a lot of policy and thus God has created in Trump a vessel for Him, and of course rich people and policy hawks voting for any Republican. There’s a lot of factors at play here. That does indeed include appealing to white working class voters over economic issues, with enormous shifts in the vote in traditionally Democratic cities like Scranton and Erie strong evidence for the effectiveness of this message.

Mike Konczal has an excellent piece on Trump’s economic messaging. He went back and watched a whole bunch of Trump speeches from before the election to analyze how he talked about economics. His conclusions are that Trump had a very simple, if false message, that touched the lives of some white workers, whereas Clinton simply did not have simple message that low-information voters that going to attach themselves to. Two excerpts here. First, Konczal’s analysis of how Trump’s message appealed to white working-class voters precisely because it did not blame the rich for their economic problems.

Trump never blames the rich for people’s problems. He doesn’t mention corporations, or anything relating to class struggle. His economic enemies are Washington elites, media, other countries, and immigrants. Even when financial elites and corporations do something, they are a combination of pawns and partners of DC elites.

It’s important to watch that trick, of who has agency under runaway inequality. From a June speech in western Pennsylvania: “Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization — moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas. Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.” The rich buy politicians (and Trump can’t be bought) but he doesn’t turn around and denigrate those rich people.

Trump was smart to do so. As Joan C. Williams noted in an important essay, “the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich.” The WWC doesn’t encounter rich people, but “professionals order them around every day. The dream is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money.”

Now even if the WWC doesn’t resent the rich, Trump is likely to push it as far as it can go with a plutocratic administration. But there’s a reason his appointments aren’t sounding alarm bells right away, and it’s this logic. The media messed this up, assuming random vindictive statements amounted to policy, or not understanding how his tax plan worked, instead of seeing this consistent, deeper message.

We’ll need to do better putting populist energy against the bosses and owners. The mechanical, bloodless algebra of Piketty and income statistics probably won’t be enough by itself. We need a story of owners and investment to go with it. We need to talk about monopoly power, especially as Trump doesn’t take it up. Meanwhile we should feel out our own case against professionals. Tying professionals to commodification, the people who get in the way of needed goods (especially with whatever TrumpCare ends up looking like), might be a way to go there.

There sure isn’t any easy answer there. After analyzing Hillary’s unclear message on economic issues, Konczal tries to think through where to go from here:

There are a lot of reasons Clinton lost. There was some made-up wishful thinking in retrospect: her unfavorables were “priced-in”, I heard, which isn’t a thing. What I haven’t seen an answer for is that for all the money and tech, they didn’t know their blue wall was much less safe from the people on the ground than the polling numbers in Brooklyn HQ would see. Something broke down there and it’s urgent to understand why.

But even without that loss there would have been a need to reboot. As Ezekiel Kweku writes in an excellent article, “The lesson we should draw from Clinton’s loss is not that white supremacy is unbeatable at the polls, but that it’s not going to beat itself…If the Democratic Party would like to keep more Donald Trumps from winning in the future, they are going to have to take the extraordinary step of doing politics.” Politics is informed by analysis and policy, and though it is clear we need policy to move beyond neoliberalism, that is only the first step. The journey to find this new path is just beginning.

And of course, given the extremely tight races in the relevant states that tipped the election to Trump and Hillary’s large win in the popular vote, as far as winning the 2020 elections go, Democrats might not really have to change much at all, although the likely overwhelming voter suppression of people of color will make it harder. However, on economic messaging, Democrats need to realize something that Bernie Sanders figured out really quick–people don’t care about complex policy. They want to feel in their gut that a candidate is going to make their lives better. That means couching complex economic issues in simple terms that everyday voters can understand. As Konczal notes, that’s doing politics. That’s not only getting white working class voters to vote for Democrats again, but it’s also getting black and Latino voters to the polls, excited about the Democratic candidate, which they were not in 2016.

I don’t necessarily have an easy answer to this either, but it’s something that Democrats need to start taking seriously, as opposed to making cheap jokes every time some racist does a horrible thing that it’s about “economic anxiety.”

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