By Robert Reich
Donald Trump’s legacy — a proto-fascist movement we might call Trumpism — includes a Supreme Court rapidly taking America backwards, state legislatures suppressing votes and taking over election machinery, and an emboldened oligarchy taking over the economy. While the January 6 committee is doing a fine job exposing Trump’s attempted coup that culminated in the attack on the Capitol, it is not part of the committee’s charge to reveal why so many Americans were willing — and continue to be willing — to go along with Trump. Yet if America fails to address the causes of Trumpism, the attempted coup he began will continue, and at some point it will succeed. My purpose in today’s post (and others to come) is to begin to expose the roots of Trumpism , and suggest what must be done.
Let me start with some personal history.
In the fall of 2015, I visited Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Missouri, and North Carolina. I was doing research on the changing nature of work in America. During my visits I spoke with many of the same people I had met twenty years before when I was secretary of labor, as well as with some of their grown children. I asked them about their jobs, their views about America, and their thoughts on a variety of issues. What I was really seeking was their sense of the system as a whole and how they were faring in it.
What I heard surprised me. Twenty years before, many had expressed frustration that they weren’t doing better. Now they were angry – at their employers, the government, and Wall Street; angry that they hadn’t been able to save for their retirement; angry that their children weren’t doing any better than they did at their children’s age. They were angry at those at the top who they felt had rigged the system against them, and for their own benefit. Several had lost jobs, savings, or homes in the Great Recession following the financial crisis. By the time I spoke with them, most were back in jobs, but the jobs paid no more than they had two decades before in terms of purchasing power.
I heard the term “rigged system” so often that I began asking people what they meant by it. They spoke about the bailout of Wall Street, political payoffs, insider deals, CEO pay, and “crony capitalism.” These complaints came from people who identified themselves as Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. A few had joined the Tea Party. Some others had briefly been involved in the Occupy movement. Yet most of them didn’t consider themselves political. They were white, black, and Latino, from union households and non-union. The only characteristic they had in common apart from the states and regions where I found them was their positions on the income ladder. All were middle class and below. All were struggling. They no longer felt they had a fair chance to make it.
With the 2016 political primaries looming, I asked them which candidates they found most attractive. At that time, the leaders of both parties favored Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush to be the Democratic and Republican candidates, respectively. Yet no one I spoke with mentioned either Clinton or Bush. They talked about Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. When I asked why, they said Sanders or Trump would “shake things up,” or “make the system work again,” or “stop the corruption,” or “end the rigging.”
The following year, Sanders — a 74-year-old Jew from Vermont who described himself as a democratic socialist and who wasn’t even a Democrat until the 2016 presidential primary — came within a whisker of beating Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucus, routed her in the New Hampshire primary, garnered over 47 percent of the caucus-goers in Nevada, and ended up with 46 percent of the pledged delegates from Democratic primaries and caucuses. Had the Democratic National Committee not tipped the scales against him, I’m convinced Sanders would have been the Democratic Party’s nominee.
Trump — a sixty-nine-year-old egomaniacal billionaire reality TV star who had never held elective office or had anything to do with the Republican Party, and who lied compulsively about almost everything — won the Republican primaries and then went on to beat Clinton, one of the most experienced and well-connected politicians in modern America (granted, he didn’t win the popular vote, and had some help from the Kremlin).
Something very big had happened, and it wasn’t due to Sanders’s magnetism or Trump’s likability. It was a rebellion against the establishment. That rebellion — or, if you will, revolution — continues to this day.
Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush had all the advantages — deep bases of funders, well-established networks of political insiders, experienced political advisors, all the name recognition you could want — but neither of them could credibly convince voters they weren’t part of the system, and therefore part of the problem.
When I interviewed these people, the overall economy was doing well in terms of the standard economic indicators of employment and growth. But the standard economic indicators don’t reflect the economic insecurity most Americans felt then — and continue to feel. Nor do they reflect the seeming arbitrariness and unfairness most people experience. The indicators don’t show the linkages many Americans still see — between wealth and power, crony capitalism, stagnant real wages, soaring CEO pay, their own loss of status, and a billionaire class that has turned our democracy into an oligarchy.
The standard measures also don’t show that for four decades, Americans without a four-year college degree have worked harder than ever, but gone nowhere. If they’re white and non-college, they’ve been on a downward economic escalator.
Finally, the standard measures don’t show what most Americans have caught on to — how wealth has translated into political power to rig the system with bank bailouts, corporate subsidies, special tax loopholes, shrunken unions, and increasing monopoly power, all of which have pushed down wages and pulled up profits.
Much of the political establishment still denies what has occurred. They prefer to attribute Trump’s rise solely to racism. Racism did play a part. But to understand why racism (and its first cousin, xenophobia) had such a strong impact in 2016, especially on the voting of whites without college degrees, it’s important to see what drove the racism. After all, racism in America dates back long before the founding of the Republic, and even modern American politicians have had few compunctions about using racism to boost their standing. Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign on behalf of “the silent majority” was an appeal to racism, as was Ronald Reagan’s condemnation of “welfare queens,” and George H. W. Bush’s use of Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis. Racism was also behind Bill Clinton’s promises to “end welfare as we know it” and “crack down on crime.”
What has given Trump’s racism — as well as his hateful xenophobia, misogyny, and jingoism — particular virulence has been his capacity to channel the intensifying anger of the white working class into it. It is hardly the first time in history that a demagogue has used scapegoats to deflect public attention from the real causes of their distress, and it won’t be the last. In 2016 Trump galvanized millions of blue-collar voters living in communities that never recovered from the tidal wave of factory closings. He understood what resonated with these voters: He promised to bring back jobs, revive manufacturing, and get tough on trade and immigration. “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing,” he said at one rally. “In five, ten years from now, you’re going to have a workers’ party. A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in eighteen years, that are angry.” Speaking at a factory in Pennsylvania in June 2016 he decried politicians and financiers who had betrayed Americans by “taking away from the people their means of making a living and supporting their families.”
Worries about free trade used to be confined to the political left. But by 2016, according to the Pew Research Center, people who said free-trade deals were bad for America were more likely to be Republican. The problem wasn’t trade itself. It was a political-economic system that had failed to cushion working people against trade’s downsides or to share trade’s upsides – in other words, a system that was rigged against them. Big money was at the root of the rigging. This was the premise of Sanders’s 2016 campaign. It was also central to Trump’s appeal (“I’m so rich I can’t be bought off”) — although once elected he delivered everything big money wanted. It is well worth recalling that in the 2016 primaries, Bernie Sanders did far better than Clinton with blue-collar voters. He did this by attacking trade agreements, Wall Street greed, income inequality, and big money in politics.