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The Gathering Storm

Donald Trump and the Hollowed-Out American Heartland

by Sean Posey

http://www.hamptoninstitution.org (April 13 2016)

During the winter of 2016, the ever-present visage of Donald J Trump remained burned into television sets and computer screens across America. In the well-manicured lawns of the modest working-class homes of Austintown, Ohio, situated in long-struggling Mahoning County, “Team Trump. Rebuild America” signs began popping up everywhere.

Formerly a sparsely populated farming community, Austintown grew as a working-class suburb in the decades after World War Two. Steel and autoworkers could commonly afford vacations and college tuition for their children; the community, in many ways, symbolized the working-class American Dream. By 1970, Austintown, along with the neighboring township of Boardman, was part of the largest unincorporated area in the state [1]. The township’s population peaked in 1980 at 33,000. Today, however, it’s a very different place. Job losses in the local manufacturing sector and the graying of the population led Forbes to label Austintown as the “fifth-fastest dying town” in the country in the midst of the Great Recession. The township’s poverty rate had already reached nearly fourteen percent in the year before the meltdown of Wall Street. [2]

The 2016 Ohio Republican primary in Mahoning County witnessed the largest shift of Democratic voters to the Republican Party in decades. “Most of them crossed over to vote for Donald Trump”, remarked David Betras, Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman. [3]

This used to be Democrat country. But like so many other places in America, the brash billionaire’s message is remaking the local political landscape. Trump narrowly lost the Ohio primary to incumbent Governor John Kasich. However, he won the majority of Republican primary voters in Mahoning County and in neighboring Trumbull County, home to the city of Warren – one of the most embattled municipalities in the state. Winning his home state should have been a given for Kasich; instead, Trump pushed the twice-elected governor to the brink.

Ohio is not the only place in the heartland the Trump tornado is sweeping through. Scores of America’s most insecure communities are joining the once prosperous Buckeye State in flirting with or joining the mogul’s camp. Yet, for as much attention as has been paid to Trump and the often controversial movement behind him, far less has been said about the cracking core of a country that is currently looking for a savior, any savior, in such enormously troubled times.

Years before America’s most famous real estate and reality television personality descended a gold escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy for president, long-time journalists Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson began a cross-country journey to document America in the wake of the 911 attacks.

“On one trip”, Maharidge writes,

 

 

I drove from Chicago to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. In places like this, the abandoned shells of factories, all broken windows and rust, make this country look like it was bombed in a war. In other places it’s as if an economic neutron bomb hit-with trees and houses intact but lives decimated, gone with good jobs. [4]

 

 

Traditionally, this part of the heartland represented the economic engine of industrial America, filled with good-paying jobs in manufacturing. However, the great economic dislocations of the past forty-odd years have rendered much of this landscape a void, one more akin to the developing world than that of the United States. Even for the more outwardly normal communities, as Maharidge mentions, looks can be deceiving. Heroin is hitting the inner core of the country with a hammer force, destroying young lives already beset by economic insecurity and the end of upward mobility.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the declining life expectancy for a large swath of working-class whites, one of Trump’s key constituencies. For the past sixteen years, death rates have risen for Caucasians between the ages of 45 and 54 and also for those between the ages of 25 to 34. [5] These are notable exceptions to the overall increase in life expectancy for all groups, regardless of race or ethnicity. While working class whites in Europe continue to experience increases in life expectancy, their counterparts in America are dying from drugs, suicide, and despair. [6]

The relationship between growing white death rates and support for Trump appears in the voting data. “Trump seems to represent a shrinking, in part dying segment of America”, writes Jeff Guo in a detailed analysis of election results for the state of Iowa. [7] This holds true for other states as well. Guo goes on to demonstrate that, with the exception of Massachusetts, “the counties with high rates of white mortality were the same counties that turned out to vote for Trump”. Many of these same voters are located in former industrial centers which themselves, in many ways, are also dying.

The deindustrialization of America first appeared in the Northeast and then in the former “Industrial Belt” (now dubbed the “Rust Belt” for the region’s numerous decaying factories), stretching from Central New York to Illinois and Wisconsin. However, offshoring and free trade agreements have also severely damaged manufacturing centers in the “Right to Work” states of the South. Anger over free trade deals is driving much of Trump’s populist economic rhetoric; a similar, though smaller effect, is being felt with Bernie Sanders’s campaign on the Democratic side.

Despite regional changes, overall employment in manufacturing remained at a steady level until the end of the 1990s. Free trade agreements like Nafta and the granting of “most favored nation” status to China (along with China’s entry in the WTO in 2001) greatly undermined American manufacturing employment, which has almost continually declined over the past two decades. Aside for the traditional Rust Belt states, Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi are among the top ten states in terms of loss of total share of manufacturing jobs. [8] Trump won all but Kansas during the Republican primaries. His campaign also looks to be pursuing a “Rust Belt strategy” for the general election, which could see the wooing of disaffected former Reagan Democrats and independents who will never embrace the Clinton candidacy. So, if Trump were to falter in states with large Latino populations, he could (in theory) potentially take economically troubled swing states like Ohio (no Republican has won a general election without it) and Michigan. Trump’s appeal with working class voters could put traditionally Democratic states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in play as well in November.

Much is being made (rightfully) of the violent clashes at Trump rallies – often connected to the nativist and authoritarian overtones of the campaign itself. Yet far less attention is paid to the outlet Trump is providing by borrowing populist strains from the political left and right. With the exception of Bernie Sanders, who is facing increasing hostility from the party elite, the Democrats appear unwilling to tap into the mounting frustration over inequality, free trade deals, deindustrialization, and stagnant wages.

After their apocalyptic defeat in the 1972 presidential election, the Democratic elite began to push for the transition from a labor-oriented party to one rooted in the professional (upper) middle class. The process greatly accelerated under the auspices of the Democratic Leadership Council and Bill Clinton in the 1990s. It brought the party electoral success, but as the upper ten percent of the country prospered – including the new elite professional class loyal to the Democrats – economic conditions deteriorated for the party’s old base and for the majority of the country at large.

In Thomas Frank’s latest book, Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People (2016), the acerbic author takes a painful look at the effect of the unmooring of the Democratic Party from its roots in the working class:

 

 

Since 1992, Democrats have won the plurality of votes in every single election except one. For six of those years, they controlled Congress outright. But on matters of inequality they have done vanishingly little: They have stubbornly refused to change course when every signal said stop. [9]

 

 

It is indisputable that Republican policies during the same period also greatly increased inequality; however, the old liberal class of Franklin Roosevelt’s party should have been the antidote to supply-side poison. They failed. And while the Republicans are paying the price for offering disaffected white workers the wages of identity politics (while advancing policies that destroy their livelihoods) the Democrats are likely next in line for the blowback.

“If you read mainstream coverage of Donald Trump, it’s all focused on the bigotry and intolerance”, Thomas Franks writes, “but there is another element, which is [he] talks about trade and he talks about it all the time” [10]. Where is the Democratic Party on trade? It took the Democrats and Bill Clinton to succeed where George H W Bush failed and get Nafta passed, which devastated whole regions and cost the country 700,000 jobs [11]. President Obama and Hillary Clinton both championed the Trans-Pacific Partnership – which will also cost working class jobs – over the objections of labor. (Clinton has since tried to walk back her initial support.) According to analysis by The Atlantic, “The trade pact will increase the importation of competing goods, which will drive down the cost of US-made goods, putting downward pressure on wages”. Even Breitbart News, a stalwart conservative publication, condemns the TPP for its likely effect on the working class, while the Obama Administration relentlessly pushes for its passage:

 

 

The question that conservatives must answer in the on-going debate over President Barack Obama’s proposal to rewrite the rules for the world’s economy through the Trans-Pacific Partnership is whether following General Electric’s agenda to flatten the world’s regulatory regimes to produce efficiencies in manufacturing and labor is in the interests of the United States? [12]

 

 

It is difficult to imagine President Obama ever uttering such words about a free trade deal.

Only Senator Sanders has rallied to the defense of labor and the sections of the country hard-hit by trade; Clinton by contrast is seemingly ready to turn her back on the traditional manufacturing heartland in the Midwest and parts of the South. In reality, the Democratic Party’s record over the pasty 25 years on everything from trade to protections for labor is a fantastically dismal one.

The best strategy to counter Trump’s rise would be to focus on the legitimate grievances of much of his constituency while countering his appeal to identity politics. Democratic elites who view the white working class as hopelessly racist are playing into Trump’s hands (while also discounting the racism of the professional class). But while they dither, the thunder of a movement inspired by the storm that is Donald Trump continues to coalesce. And even if Trump disappears from the political radar tomorrow, the backlash he has inspired will live on.

From the crumbling factory walls of the Rust Belt to the shuttered main streets of the Deep South, a revolt is underway. The long forgotten “flyover country” is erupting in a paroxysm of anger and despair over the generations of decline that have battered once solid bastions of white working and lower-middle class America. With progressive voices replaced by neoliberal orthodoxy, no constructive outlets remain to channel the cacophony emerging from the heartland. With a fading Bernie Sanders and a rising Trump, the outcome might already be decided. If both parties fail to come up with economic solutions for decaying sections of the country’s interior (and if no radical movements emerge from the grass roots), the potential for the worst possible right-wing backlash will remain. It is certain that America will never right itself until it deals with this crisis; if it does not, the forces of nativism and demagoguery will win the day. And from there, we will all reap the whirlwind.

Notes:
[1] Charles Etlinger, “Mahoning Valley Faces 70s Crisis”, Youngstown Vindicator (September 27 1970).

[2] “Austintown 5th-Fastest Dying Town in US Says Forbes”, Vindicator (December 20 2008).

[3] Peter H Milliken, “The Elephant in the Room”, Vindicator (March 20 2016).

[4] Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, Homeland (2004), page xlii.

[5] Wonkblog, Jeff Guo, “The Places That Support Trump and Cruz are Suffering. But That’s Not True of Rubio”, The Washington Post (February 08 2016).

[6] Olga Khazan, “Middle-Aged White Americans are Dying of Despair”, The Atlantic (November 04 2015).

[7] Wonkblog, Jeff Guo, “Death Predicts Whether People Vote for Donald Trump”, The Washington Post (March 04 2016).

[8] “The Manufacturing Footprint and the Importance of US Manufacturing Jobs”, Economic Policy Institute (January 22 2015).

[9] Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? (2016), page 9.

[10] “It’s not Bigotry but Bad Trade Deals Driving Trump Voters, Says Author Thomas Frank”, CBC Radio: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-march-16-2016-1.3493397/it-s-not-bigotry-but-bad-trade-deals-driving-trump-voters-says-author-thomas-frank-1.3493433 (accessed March 22, 2016).

[11] “Nafta’s Impact on US Workers”, Economic Policy Institute (December 09 2013).

[12] Rick Manning, “A Rebuttal to National Review’s Claim that White Working Class Communities Deserve to Die”, Bretibart News (March 17 2016).

http://www.hamptoninstitution.org/trump-and-the-hollowed-out-american-heartland.html

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