There is an important lesson for all sorts of leaders – whether of nations, organizations, or various communities – embedded in Donald Trump’s surprising electoral victory: No leader can afford to ignore the concerns of a substantial portion of his followers, or those subject to his authority, indefinitely.
I learned this lesson as a child from Dr. Seuss’s 1958 classic Yertle the Turtle. For those readers of a younger vintage (almost everyone today) or who have forgotten, Yertle was king of Sala-ma-Sond pond. But he aspired to more, and so began stacking turtles under him, while proclaiming, “I’m ruler of all that I see.” Like the Dor Haflaga, who sought to build a tower to reach the heavens, Yertle aspired to pile up enough turtles to be higher than the moon.
His dreams, however, are crushed, and all the turtles freed, when a turtle named Mack at the bottom of the pile burps and brings Yertle’s throne tumbling down.
The implicit warning to unresponsive leaders: Sooner or later, if you do not attend to the suffering of the Macks, they will bring you down (though, as the recently deceased Fidel Castro demonstrates, torture and terror against political opponents can delay that event for decades).
That is the story of the 2016 election.
FOR YEARS, Dr. David Luchins, professor of political science at Touro College and former senior advisor to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been championing the theory of the missing white vote to explain Republican electoral failures.
He was vindicated this year. The missing white voters showed up, and three states that have been solidly Democratic in presidential elections – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan – went for Trump, and blue Minnesota almost followed suit. In Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton ran almost even with President Obama’s winning margins in the two major cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. But in the rest of the state, she ran 629,000 votes behind Trump, as opposed to President Obama’s 273,000 vote deficit in 2012 – a fatal differential of more than 350,000 votes. Similarly, in Wisconsin, Clinton ran almost even with Obama’s 2016 performance in the Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee and Madison, but lost the rest of the state by 333,000 votes. Turnout in the more rural areas was very high – close to 80 percent.
In short, lots of voters who have long felt that neither major party was addressing their issues or feeling their pain voted this year. Donald Trump had said that he would bring them to the polls, and he did.
THE REASONS FOR THE DISCONTENT of the recently resurfaced white voters are not hard to find. For many working class whites, the American dream of a better life for one’s children has died. In 2015, only 57% of working age Americans were found on the government’s payroll survey. In 1969, the comparable figure was 78%. Less than half of adult Americans today hold full-time jobs.
More galling, yet, no one in power seemed the slightest bit concerned about the decline of the working class. After the passage of Obamacare, the president promised to shift his focus to jobs. He never did. His Education Department proved much more interested in rules relating to bathrooms and locker rooms than in preparing Americans for a future in which manufacturing jobs are increasingly scarce. The Obama administration’s refusal to approve the Keystone Pipeline made clear to even the most obtuse union leaders that jobs were simply not a priority.
Ironically, the progressive left forgot all about class in its obsession with a panoply of gender and ethnic identities. As Columbia Professor Mark Lilla put it in an insightful post-election New York Times piece, “America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ bathrooms,” especially if those Americans are without jobs and their kids are hooked on meth or opiods.
Donald Trump’s attacks on “political correctness” resonated with whites sick of being lectured about “white privilege” as the source of all evil, particularly as nothing about their lives makes them feel particularly privileged. The left’s obsession with identity succeeded in providing a sense of solidarity, as a victimized group, to large numbers of whites. As Lilla notes, if you are going to call out various identity groups – Afro-American, Latino, women – at every campaign stop, you better make sure to mention them all, or those left out will notice and solidify around their own feelings of exclusion.
Those with money to invest in the stock market, who have been raking it in since 2008, know nothing of the lives of those living outside of their coastal enclaves. If they paid attention at all, it was with an attitude of smug superiority to the “stupid hicks.” Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, argues Jesse Bernstein in an August article in Tablet, epitomized “a very specific type of internet-era liberal smugness,” in which the righteousness of those “in the know” is a given.
At least some on the left noted where this was headed. The American Enterprise Institute’s Andy Smarick quotes from their warnings in a Weekly Standard piece, “With Smugness Toward None . . . .” Vox’s Emmet Rensin diagnosed “The Smug Style in American Politics,” which treats political differences as based not on moral or policy arguments, but on the basic fact that half the country is too stupid to know what’s good for them. Nikki Johnson-Huston echoed Rensin in a Huffington Post piece called “The Culture of the Smug White Liberal,” in which she accused her fellow denizens of the left of having stopped “fighting for the little guy” in favor of joining “the smug, educated elites who look down on those with less education and deem them unable or unworthy of being able to make personal decisions for their own lives.”
HAVING IDENTIFIED A LARGE ENOUGH NUMBER of previously ignored and disdained voters to bring him to the White House, the question remains: Can Trump do anything to improve their circumstances and make good on his promises?
In the short run, the answer is at least a partial yes. Senator Mike Lee of Utah has long been one of those Republicans most alert to the plight of the ignored Americans targeted by Trump. Lee, one of the sharpest minds in the Senate, is skeptical about Trump’s attacks on free trade and globalization, He notes that American industrial production continues to grow, as a consequence of automation, even as jobs stagnate. That means that the jobs lost to foreign manufacturers may not even still exist.
But Lee agrees that the benefits of globalization have disproportionately benefitted the wealthy. He urges adopting a policy that distributes those benefits more equitably. He proposes, for instance, dramatically reducing the corporate tax rate, perhaps even eliminating it, as a means of attracting major foreign investment in American manufacturing. The lost revenues could be recouped via higher taxes on investment income.
Walter Russell Mead points out another attraction of America for European and other foreign manufacturers: the shale oil and natural gas boom that makes American fuel prices significantly lower than those in Europe. For energy-intensive European manufacturers, America has a great deal to offer, particularly with the reduction of corporate tax rates. And America’s more flexible labor market is a further attraction.
The Trump administration will not be constrained by the environmental concerns that prevented the Obama administration from fully exploiting the energy boom brought about by the shale revolution. Major Democratic donors, like Tom Steyer, are hostile to fossil fuels of all kinds, and those concerns were reflected in the Obama administration’s energy policy.
Unleashing the American energy industry will, Mead estimates, create tens of thousands of new, high-paying blue collar jobs. Coupled with stricter immigration policy – less porous borders, workplace enforcement against employers of illegal immigrants, and greater rigor in expelling those who have overstayed their visas – that demand for workers will push up blue collar wages.
In the long run, writes Mead, there is no putting off indefinitely the switch to an information and service based economy. But an American energy boom offers hope of a sufficient respite for hard hit blue collar workers, to begin the difficult, but necessary, task of developing an educational system that prepares them for the new world ahead.