‘Working people felt better under Trump’

What do voters see in Donald Trump? It’s a question that, eight years on from his 2016 election victory, US elites are still struggling to comprehend. Of course, many would rather demonise Trump voters as bigoted or dim-witted than try to understand their motivations. Meanwhile, voters’ concerns – from their economic struggles to the culture war – are still routinely dismissed by the Washington bubble. Joe Biden’s surrogates insist that the economy is booming and that woke is merely a right-wing myth. Could their complacency lay the ground for another Trump upset in 2024?

Journalist Christopher Caldwell joined Brendan O’Neill on the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show to discuss Americans’ appetite for populism. Listen to the full episode here.

Brendan O’Neill: American politics can look like a mess to outside observers. What’s really going on in your view?

Christopher Caldwell: It is a bit crazy in its outward appearance, but there’s a logic to it. What we have is a straightforward conflict between populists and the elite.

The basic error that most people make when they look at American politics is to think that Americans are so stupid for not understanding what a lunatic Donald Trump is. That’s the first thing you have to get out of your mind. Whoever you are, wherever you are on the political spectrum, the American voter sees the same Donald Trump as you do. He knows that Trump runs a sleazy business that builds cheap casinos and things like that. They know that he’s often, let’s say, economical with the truth. They know all these things about Trump. So the question is not: don’t voters know that Trump made some disrespectful comments about women however many years ago? The question is: how bad does the situation in the US have to be for Americans to vote for Trump?

From that lens, I’d say it’s clear that this comes down to a populist-vs-elites problem. It’s the kind that will be familiar from the Brexit referendum, from Italian politics and the Five Star Movement, and from the farmers’ movements on the streets of Europe today. It’s that same kind of dynamic.

O’Neill: What is pushing working-class communities towards Trump? Do you think they are motivated more by economic insecurity or by cultural issues?

Caldwell: I think those things are very hard to disentangle. Trump has his strengths and weaknesses in both economic and cultural areas.

The prime example of this is the border issue, which is key right now. It’s really vivid. You see people coming over the barbed-wire fences of the southern border in enormous numbers – in the thousands and tens of thousands. They’re streaming in. If you watch Fox News, you’ll see pictures of this every night. It seems like a flowing mass of people. And everyone in Washington, DC has ignored it and done nothing about it.

Trump was a very ineffective president in a lot of ways. His learning curve was absolutely flat. He didn’t know any more about the office of the presidency on the day he left it than on the day he arrived. But he did have certain intuitions. And he did shut down the border bureaucratically with all the tools he had at his disposal. He tried to ban migrants from a handful of Muslim countries that he considered liable to produce terrorists. He may have been thwarted in a lot of ways, but he really was working on this issue of people pouring across the border. And he gets a lot of credit for that from voters – for just doing something.

The border crisis is also an economic issue. Look at it from the perspective of a roofer or a landscape gardener, for example. Imagine you live in a town of 2,000 people and suddenly 100 young men arrive. They’re coming from a country where the average labourer makes $5 a day. Of course you’ll anticipate a downward pressure on your own wages. You don’t have to be a bigot or full of hatred to have that worry.

That feeling of economic insecurity is really driving a lot of people toward Trump. If you look at the Trump economy and measure it by mean income – you take all the income in the country and split it – it did worse than under Obama. There was growth, but it was more modest. But if you look at median income, you’ll see that the average person did much better under Trump.

These statistics are clouded a little bit by Covid-19 in the final year of Trump’s presidency, but you can see the pattern in the first three years of the Trump administration. Under Trump you had lower economic growth, but you also had a more even distribution of the gains from the economy. And in fact, I’ve heard some people say that it’s the first truly egalitarian period of economic growth since the 20th century. I’m not saying working men became millionaires, but they felt better. That’s not purely sentiment. That can be measured.

That’s why I tend to have an open ear to those people who say they don’t feel that this so-called Biden economy is a good economy. Even though all the experts are telling us that we’re fools for not appreciating what wonderful times we’re living in. We probably have an increased per capita income, but it’s disproportionately skewed towards the rich.

Christopher Caldwell was talking to Brendan O’Neill on The Brendan O’Neill Show. Listen to the full conversation here:

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