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Much of the world appears to have moved on from the early stages of grief — denial and anger — into the later stages of depression and acceptance. But accepting any part of this political climate as typical is dangerous. Maybe it’s time to get angry again.
Recently, an image circulated the internet: a group of angry youths take a picture pointing their middle fingers at Trump’s Hollywood Walk of Fame star, and the immediate reaction from the opposition is to point out that there’s “not one pair of work boots” on these kids’ feet. Yes, as though Donald Trump has ever, in his entire existence, had to wear a pair of boots to work. The caption makes a particularly troubling point: It seems like the folks who most need to wake up from this bad dream are the ones who believed in it the hardest.
We can get all the yuppies and bored teenagers in the world to gesture lewdly at the Hollywood Walk of Fame and write bored think-pieces about “Resistance”, but the real work begins when we start courting the people who need it the most — those who live in the cash-strapped, high-unemployment areas of the country. They don’t need saviours or loudmouthed presidents wielding empty promises — they just need jobs.
It’s not that hard to figure out why Trump — and the GOP before him — did so well in Southern and Rust Belt states. It’s because he spoke their language. Manufacturing, coal and other semi-skilled jobs have been vanishing for decades, and Trump singled out the folks hit hardest by these trends and emboldened them with false hope about dead industries that aren’t coming back, and factory jobs he “saved” but were doomed by automation the entire time anyway. Trump might not be a typical politician in most respects, but he has one of their gifts down to a science: find out who’s most desperate, tell them you’ve got what they need and then string them along until they figure out you’re a fraud. He’s been doing it for years and years with his business partners — why shouldn’t it work just as well with voters?
Sadly, the damage is done, and now Working Class America has buyer’s remorse like we haven’t seen since Reagan — and income inequality as bad as it was during the Great Depression. None of these things are Trump’s fault directly, that’s basically the point. The point — one driven home in a roundabout way by that work-bootless photo — is that Trump can’t fix these problems because he’s never faced these kinds of problems. He is as much an outsider to these people as it’s possible to be. He is, without apology or pretence, a superlative example of everything the working class claims to hate: self-interested, greedy and reckless politicians who are above the fray and largely ignorant of the fact that life is a lot harder when you’re not born into grotesque wealth. He’s the human face on a political ethos that’s been gutting and strip-mining America for decades.
If you need a clear indication of what the Trump voting bloc looks like, take a look at the economic output of the counties that voted for him in the general election. Hillary Clinton won 472 counties that represent 64% of the country’s economic output. Trump won 2,584 counties, but they represent just 36% of the country’s economic activity. Get it? Trump wasn’t elected exclusively by ignorant bigots, he was elected by people for whom waking life is frequently very difficult, who live in forgotten parts of the country where Establishment politics have made inevitable economic trends even worse than they might’ve otherwise been. You don’t command Trump-league loyalty in that many counties unless people believe in your message — and Trump definitely knew what message they needed to hear. They needed to know that their decades of economic and financial indignity were over. They wanted to hear that Washington was in the hands of people who wouldn’t forget about them again. Democrats and Republicans have been failing spectacularly at the walking-in-other-people’s-shoes game for a very long time. Trump sounded like something different. But there’s a double tragedy here. Trump didn’t merely have a commanding lead in economically depressed areas – he had a commanding lead in areas which desperately need skilled and semi-skilled workers.
It’s clear that across the country, skilled trades jobs are continuously some of the hardest to find talent for. Many of the states that struggle the most with these vacancies are the biggest pro-Trump states. From Pennsylvania, where 56% of employers say they have difficulty filling technical or skilled trades jobs, all the way to Kansas, where manual labor and trade jobs requiring little to no education continuously show up as having some of the highest vacancies, Trump does well where people are hurting. Indeed, according to the PA Chamber of Commerce, Pennsylvania has been struggling with these trends since 2013. In 2016, the ten most difficult positions to fill included the skilled trades, drivers, restaurant and hotel staff, and general labourers. These are solid, decent-paying American jobs that many Trump voters would be glad to have. The point is that the barrier here is not simply economic. If it were, a man like Mr. Trump might stand a chance of fixing it because money is all he seems to understand or respect.
Barack Obama was right after the 2016 election when he called Trump’s victory “a cultural issue … and a communications issue”. There must be incentives, grants, scholarships and other types of support available to folks who need them the most, or who need a helping hand to shift from one career track to another. Obama generally helped improve life for working families, but it’s not nearly enough. We still treat opportunity and prosperity like zero-sum games, and they simply aren’t. The truth is, the government can, has been, and must be again an agent of positive change in the lives of America’s desperate citizens — but this message frequently doesn’t reach the communities who most need to hear it. It takes a man like Trump to break through the noise and reach their ears, unfortunately. Progressives have their work cut out for them on this front. A globalised world and economy requires a federal government that has its ear to the ground. It needs to be nimble enough to recognise when trends are turning in an unfavourable direction for Middle America, and it needs the wisdom to stay ahead of those changes. It needs to concern itself with creating a sensible path for workers to shift from harmful and dying industries toward new jobs in clean energy and emerging technologies. It needs to invest in worker-ownership programs and empower companies to train employees on-the-job, apprenticeship-style.
We need a government that takes employment seriously — not one that makes empty promises or cherry-picks economic data to make its small triumphs appear that much bigger. Republican and Democratic presidents are equally guilty of the latter. The United Nations recognises gainful employment as a fundamental human right, which is something neither the Democrats nor the Republicans seem to believe in. But although Trump combined his message with vitriol and general unsavouriness, he spoke to his supporters as though he did believe it. Is it any wonder he did so well? We need to get out of the “denial” stage of grief and move on to the “what comes next?” stage.
Most of what candidate Trump had to say on the campaign trail contained at least a grain of understanding. In a vague way, Mr. Trump has always understood that trade deals drawn up by multinational corporations are always going to hurt “the little guy”, and a government that turns a blind eye to reckless automation or outsourcing is less a government and more a band of thugs. He just doesn’t care.
Think about the idea that this man could stand before entire stadiums full of fellow human beings and promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington — only to fill it right back up again with the likes of Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos and Scott Pruitt. They could only be more ethically compromised if they came to work wearing ponchos made of human skin. Again, he just doesn’t care. All he wants is respect and power. “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” he said to Comey. But we can’t be too hard on Trump voters for giving it to him. It’s up to us to show them love and understanding, not scorn. Like the rest of us, they’re human beings, and they’re hurting. And like anyone else, they chose to engage with the political process because they wanted to improve their lives and their country. These are worthy goals.
But at the same time, let them serve as a warning. We underestimated just how well Mr. Trump could wield half-truths and whole falsehoods. He indicated to his supporters that he understood their problems, sympathised and was positively overflowing with ideas about how to solve them. None of these things turned out to be true. But it does tell us some things. Working Americans are listening. They’re ticked off. They’re watching D.C. for signs — any sign, really — that somebody there cares that they’ve been left behind. Who could blame them for flocking to Trump, who’s one of the very few politicians this generation who appeared, at least outwardly, to understand where they were coming from? It’s not their fault he turned out to be a gigantic fraud. It’s certainly not their fault that he’s failed to put right several decades of failed economic policies pushed by both of America’s major political parties. Lots of them likely even identified Trump as a pathological liar and still voted for him. While obvious dishonesty means to them that Trump is in some way a familiar politician, he still spoke to them, rather than past them. He made them feel important in a way that few other politicians this generation have managed. Trump didn’t set out to screw over the folks who got him elected — he just doesn’t know any better. Our job next time around is making sure the folks who are hurting the most in America have something more substantial to turn to than false hope.