America’s vast midsection, a region that has been hammered by globalists of both parties, has been abandoned by the great corporations that grew fat on its labor and resources.
To many from the Appalachians to the Rockies, Donald Trump projected a beacon of hope. Despite the conventional wisdom among the well-heeled of the great coastal cities, these resource and manufacturing hubs elected the new president.
Yet barely six months after his election, Trump is emerging as the latest politician to betray middle America.
Some of this is his awful management and communications style, which may well leave the country frozen until it is returned to the care of the coastal hegemons, tech oligarchs, high-level bureaucrats, academics, and media elitists whose views of the Heartland range from indifferent to hostile. The rise of China may have been a convenient source of cheap labor and more recently investment capital and lots of full load tuitions for universities, but according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, our deficit cost the country 3.4 million jobs, most in manufacturing.
Trump’s trade rhetoric, like that of Bernie Sanders, excited the people and communities affected by these policies, but it remains questionable whether his own voters will benefit from his regime. Certainly the president’s tax proposals have been tailored to appeal to his billionaire friends more than the middle class. His health care reforms failed to prioritize those who feel threatened by loss of coverage, however much they gripe about the inanities of Obamacare.
Meanwhile promises that could help middle-America, like a massive infrastructure program, appear to be roadkill squashed beneath Trump’s staggering ineptitude and his Republican Party’s dysfunction.
There is no chance he will succeed in convincing voters he’s making America great again, let alone in actually doing so, if he cannot address the reasons why companies desert our towns and cities for all but elite functions, leaving so much of America in tatters.
A Failed Peasant’s Revolt
In its incoherence and lack of organization, Trump’s victory less resembled a modern social movement than a peasant’s revolt from the Middle Ages. His campaign lacked a coherent program, although its messenger, a New York narcissist, possessed a sixth sense that people “out there” were angry. Trump’s message was negative largely because he had nothing positive to say, though that had the useful effect of driving his enemies slightly insane.
So while he’s succeeded in stirring the blue hornet’s nest, he’s created no productive movement. Successful social movements—the Jacksonians, the New Dealers, the Reaganites, and the European social democrats—directly appealed to the working class with policies that for better or worse, challenged the existing social and economic hierarchy.
Trump, like Jackson, identified with the plight of the “left behind” America, notably rural areas and small towns that have seen their business communities shrink, while larger metropolitan areas have grown much faster. The new economic order, evident throughout the Obama era, represents what urban analyst Aaron Ren describes as “the decoupling of success in America. Those who are succeeding in America no longer need the overall prosperity of the country to personally do well. They can become enriched as a small, albeit sizable, minority.”
Trump brilliantly played off this geographic and class segmentation. But unlike others who successfully played populist themes, Trump did not emerge from and understand the mindset of those further down the social order, as did Jackson, Lincoln, Truman, Reagan, Nixon, and Bill Clinton. Trump simply stoked resentments, many but not all well-justified.
Trump has taken few concrete steps to address the causes of his supporters’ distress. Changes in trade negotiations and jawboning corporations are good first steps but limited in their effect. There is little in what he’s proposed since January that would help the middle and working class. Unlike Reagan, who cut rates across the board, Trump seems to be listening mostly to the Goldman Sachs grandees to whom he has entrusted our economy.
In the end Trump’s modern-day peasants will be left stranded like the supporters of European peasant rebellions of the European middle ages, like England’s Jack Cade in the 15th century, or the Taiping rebels in mid-19th century China. These movements grew bright, stormed across the countryside, and conquered cities, until the forces or order imposed themselves and eliminated the most rebellious of their subjects. Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the Taiping, committed suicide in 1864, as the 14-year rebellion failed. Cade, of course, was killed, as recounted in Shakespeare’s Henry the 6th, still proud of his “unconquered soul” but nevertheless despised by the ruling classes.
The Revenge of the Clerisy
Trump, of course, won’t end up executed, but simply excommunicated from polite society. He will creep back to his Manhattan keep, surrounded by gold and glitter, celebrated by as many retainers as he can afford. The same, however, cannot be said for those who rallied to his cause in the thus-far unrealized hopes that we could protect them from the cognoscenti’s plans to refashion, and largely diminish, ordinary American’s daily lives and economic prospects.