Flat White

Trump: it’s not just the economy, stupid

14 November 2016

7:24 AM

14 November 2016

7:24 AM

GettyImages-484797712-1So, it’s happened.

Donald Trump is not only now being referred to by a sneering press pack as the ‘President Elect’. They will soon be calling him ‘Mr President’.

Despite many claims to the contrary – indeed claims I had myself made – he has proved himself worthy of the office by winning it. The system, it is said, always gets it right.

Much will be made of this election, much already has. It is true, for example, that union voters in Ohio broke to Trump 50-44. It is also clearly true that Michigan voters – spurred on by the insecure nature of their work and the slow death of the auto industry – preferred to take a chance on Trump on the basis that the status quo hadn’t worked out too well for them so far.

Is it possible that the Michigan vote could have pulled around Democratic had they attended more resources there? Possibly. If Joe Biden or Barack Obama had spent a bit of time talking about the auto industry and some of the real wins they’d had there, the result might not have been quite so bad.

But – as a member of a centre-left party with a profound interest in the politics of ordinary people – I am genuinely concerned that the political elite worldwide will simply fail to once again understand the problem with which they have been confronted with twice in 2016 across two totemic elections: Brexit and Trump.

In fact, it is no longer especially useful to refer to this as a problem specifically for the left of politics. These elections have split post-industrial economies into two groups: the political elite and the rest of us.

Confirmation bias is always a problem for any opinion piece, and I am certainly not going to pretend that I’m not pushing my own agenda. But some of the op-eds penned by allegedly serious people at The New StatesmanVox, the New York Times or – I am sad to say – Peter van Onselen’s hysterical diatribe in The Australian is precisely the sort of reaction that explains the premise of Donald Trump’s candidacy.


Among some electoral analysts there is a tendency to focus on demographic or turnout data. This leads partisans to attach their hopes on arguments that carry little or no weight. Yes, Hillary won the popular vote. And no, it still doesn’t matter. FiveThirtyEight recently wrote a piece pointing out that although the popular vote has occasionally been won by the loser of the race, it has never robbed a clear victor of their victory. Electoral College is the system the United States operates under for presidential elections. Candidates running for president are aware of those rules heading in and are obliged to craft a strategy that adequately targets states that could win them the College.

Social scientists might say that this election has simply been a way for the white supremacist living inside every Trump-voting American to have their voices heard. Partisans might co-opt the language of identity politics and start using innately stupid terms like ‘whitelash’ to describe, and explain, this electoral ‘mistake’. They might have difficulty, though, explaining why voters who elected Obama twice voted for Trump this election.

Both these arguments are pretty easy to dismiss. My observations of conversation between people – admittedly confined to the elite echo chamber – have been refreshingly honest. Most conversations I’ve seen among acquaintances involved in politics rejected these arguments as nothing more than hysterical reactions to the nuisance of democracy.

I am more concerned about a third, seemingly more valid explanation: economics.

Let me start this point by making it plain what I am not saying. I am not saying that economic dislocation played no role whatsoever. I am saying that the choice that working Americans made this election is incidental to the problem. If you are a Michigan auto worker laid off because Ford moved to Mexico, your economic position predisposes you to vote for a candidate who promises to address that problem.

The real problem, I submit, is cultural elitism. Not economic elitism.

Many have looked at Donald Trump and failed to understand how he managed to avoid being labelled an elitist when he is worth about $3 billion. Clinton’s strategy of attacking his privileged financial position did not work because Democrats have reduced class to another identity politic. How could a poor person vote for a rich one only makes sense if you also can’t understand how a Latino could, or a woman could, or an African American could. It is a spectacularly wrong, politically negligent reading of economic aspiration.

Donald Trump, whether you believe it or not, always talks about his wealth in the context of how he earned it. He made the best deals. He knew the best people. And that is why hundreds of buildings litter America’s wide landscape bearing the name “Trump”.

No one wants to be poor. Everyone wants to be rewarded for their effort. But those that make it don’t want to be thought of as out of touch. This is why you see wealthy people endlessly refer to how hard they’ve worked. This is why you saw Trump do exactly that. It is possible to be worth millions of dollars and not be an elitist in the same way that it’s possible to be an elitist studying a unit in Marxist philosophy without having a dollar to your name.

It is not about wealth, or class. It is about culture. Democrats must resist the notion that treating working people as reliable votes for the Democratic Party is possible only if they are campaigned to directly along the identity tropes they now use. Working people are not an identity expressed through their wealth; they are an identity expressed through their work ethic. Would a better campaign apparatus assisted their Michigan vote? Yes, it is difficult to see how it wouldn’t. But if Democrats treat working people in precisely the same way they have treated every other group in their supposed ‘firewall coalition’, they will continue to be surprised when support peels away. If your campaign strategy is built on premises that are used to divide people – even if that division is allegedly celebrated – people will feel that division. And it is by definition difficult to unite the divided.

The ‘silent majority’ is usually used to refer to anything psephologists don’t understand. More and more it is used as smear to refer to those hicks who live out there. There is a reason why these folks are silent: we’re not listening and they’ve given up talking. Not just because they’re busy at work or busy leading their own lives but because we don’t respect them enough to even know why they are angry. We don’t deal with their issues. Most damagingly, we don’t speak the same cultural language anymore.

What should be clear as day after Brexit and Trump is that there are people who are fed up with being treated like annoyances. Not just because they’re being left behind by globalisation, but because they are also being sneered at by an elite, technocratic establishment. The Republicans offshore their jobs, and the Democrats call them sexists or racists.

The silent majority will continue to be silent, but their voices will be heard whenever there’s an election. If political operatives want to remain relevant in a world that has less use for them then ever before, they’d better work out how to correct this.

And sometimes that might require being silent themselves.

Mitchell Goff is a unionist and member of the Australian Labor Party.

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