What Pushed Working-class America Into Trump's Arms

Trump’s election is a wake-up call for the out-of-touch left around the world.

Terry Wright, a 59-year-old retired union painter, adjusts the U.S. flag on his porch in Portland, a white, working class neighborhood in Louisville, K.Y., on Nov. 1, 2016.
Claire Galofaro, AP

The results of Tuesday’s elections will be analyzed for many years to come. Why did Donald Trump – a candidate who professed racist positions and revealed an abysmal ignorance of economics and world affairs – win? The answer might be less complicated than it seems.

Over the past two decades, neo-liberal corporate capitalism coupled with rapid technological change has made working-class jobs far less plentiful and secure. More crucially, it has made working-class skills less valued. During the years, following the 1940s, when industrial capitalism was expanding, working-class people could be assured they would have a job for life, that their wages would steadily increase and, more important, that they performed functions that their society valued.

The financialization of the economy, the increased role of technology and the delocalization, the movement offshore of manufacturing jobs have entailed a profound transformation in the working-class world – a world that has become characterized by a permanent sense of insecurity, with its citizens at the mercy of “streamlining,” “flex-time,” “short-term contracts,” “innovative technologies,” more up-to-date skills. The result is that the opportunities for social mobility have shrunk considerably among the working class.

The possibility of unskilled Americans being able to join the ranks of the middle class, to see their life chances improve, to pass on property to their children – all of these have been undermined by the very economy they historically helped create and consolidate. With automation increasing and technology taking over, and with de-localization, high-paying jobs for the non-educated are increasingly difficult to come by. The power of unions, which had been key to the social mobility of the working classes, also shrank. (In 1945, more than one-third of employed people in the U.S. belonged to unions, whereas by 1979 the proportion had fallen to 24 percent, and in 1998 to 13.9 percent.)

The Nafta treaty between the U.S., Canada and Mexico only added to the decline of the traditional working classes: The treaty lifted tariffs, encouraged American enterprises to relocate in cheap Mexico, and enabled the freer movement of people across borders. But, while it may have benefited small businesses, it did not contribute overall to an increase in traditional manufacturing jobs, and actually probably added to their decline.

Add to this the steady hikes in health-insurance premiums, and one perhaps can get a sense of the acute insecurity that has come to define many American working-class lives.

In a now-famous study, the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton found that during the period between 1999 and 2013, the mortality of working-class, uneducated men had considerably increased, an indication that the lives of working-class people have become vulnerable, insecure and disorganized, meaning they are unable to defend their class interests effectively.

Economic insecurity has been accompanied by a sense of loss of self-respect and pride, accentuated by the threats posed by a greater influx of immigants. With the surge of women in pink-collar (service) professions, working-class men also lost their last privilege, that of their masculinity, often being unable to support a family, or even to marry at all. Being a man, or at least a blue-collar man, no longer brings with it a secure socio-economic position nor the social respect that came with being a productive man. In the face of all this, nativist, supremacist and chauvinist messages can restore a sense of rootedness and lost pride. Fundamentalist churches, which have expanded considerably over recent decades, have also contributed to channeling and funneling anxieties and insecurities in “time-proof” ultra-conservative values of religion, patriotism and traditional family, thereby reshaping working-class culture.

These economic and ideological changes have created a new divide, based less on income per se than on education level (which imperfectly overlaps the urban/rural divide). Far more than in the past, it is education that provides one with the jobs and skills needed to adapt to a global economy. But education also often imbues a set of values that are very different from those of the working classes.

Sixty-seven percent of the non-educated white electorate voted for Trump. Along with race, education was by far the strongest predictor of a vote for Trump. “Educated” rather than “rich” people have become the target of working-class ire because the former are more likely to hold the values the red states despise: secularity, support for globalization in all its forms, defense of the rights of women and gays, cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. This is why a tax-evading billionaire like Trump can pass so easily among the working classes: His ignorance, vulgarity and uninhibited speech mark him as uneducated, and, thus, as “one of us.” Where urban, cosmopolitan, educated America recoiled in disgust from Trump’s abysmal incompetence and ignorance, it was those qualities that bestowed on him a pathos of authenticity among the working classes.

Although its socialist tradition meant that the left had fought for the working class – for example, through unionization or shortening the working week. But from the 1980s onward, the left relocated itself in universities and redirected its efforts toward the exposure of symbolic inequalities, via women’s studies programs, gay and queer studies, African-American studies, cultural studies, while defending the rights of minorities in the media and in courts. These struggles were vitally important, but they in practice they entailed a desertion by the left of the factories and the working-class neighborhoods. More than that: Because of the increasing religiosity of large segments of the working classes, their members and the left came to live in vastly different moral and cultural worlds: Multiculturalism, gay marriage, abortion, all dear to the political agenda of the left, have become anathema to the God-fearing, white-supremacist working classes.

Populism – in Israel and in the U.S. – is made possible by the fact that the educated, left-wing elite does not represent the struggling classes, those whose lives are economically insecure and ideologically close to traditional values. For the struggling classes, the left seems more worried about minorities (“Arab- or Latino-loving left-wingers”) than about the deep insecurities of working-class people. Right-wing populism thrives because once the world of the working-classes has been destroyed by corporate capitalism, it can be reconstructed through the promise that people will enjoy again their lost racial, gender and ethnic privileges. What the right hand destroys, the left hand promises to repair.

Trump’s election is a wake-up call for the left throughout the world. The time has come to leave the safe walls of academia and to make ourselves relevant to the lives and concerns of those, who in the end, decide the outcome of elections. However polarized our two worlds may have become, we must energetically reengage with the moral world of those whose lives that have been torn asunder by economic forces. Short of that, in the long run, liberalism may be doomed to extinction.