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Coffee House US Election

Donald Trump is capitalising on America’s declining middle class

22 January 2016

5:31 PM

22 January 2016

5:31 PM

While watching MPs in the House of Commons debate banning a politician they find disagreeable, my first thought was to wonder how this chamber once ruled one-quarter of the globe. If Trump becomes president we could not ban him from visiting; if he doesn’t, he doesn’t matter anyway. Either way, having controversial or even obnoxious opinions does not make someone a danger, and we do not need ‘protection’ from them. It is all the more embarrassing when you consider that this country has hundreds if not thousands of genuinely dangerous extremists living here.

I’m not sure what to make of this; my instinctive reaction to Trump is that he is rude and unkind, and sometimes appears to be a left-wing person’s idea of what a conservative is – overly macho, xenophobic and liable to violate their Care/Harm Foundation. But I appreciate politics is irrational, and when I see MPs moralising about how much better they are (Tory MPs trying to be sanctimonious is a particularly gruesome sight) I have a strange urge to defend the Donald to the hilt.

Not that Trump is that conservative, for as Michael Brendan Dougherty points out in The Week, he is in fact a nationalist, and on many issues he is not just un-conservative but positively European. Ross Douthat described him as such:

On foreign policy, he can sound like Paul when he condemns both parties for the Iraq war and blames United States intervention for many of the world’s ills, and like Cruz when he promises to put an end to the Islamic State from the skies. On immigration and trade, he’s offering a fortress-America vision that echoes the 1920s and 1930s more than the Reagan-era G.O.P.

But on other domestic issues, he can sound center-left (he’s no religious conservative, he loves eminent domain, he’s made favorable noises about single payer) or even liberal — particularly on entitlements, where he’s argued that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid should be protected from any kind of restructuring and reform.

This combination of views isn’t incoherent; it just puts Trump closer to Europe’s nationalist right than it does to most of the post-1960s American conservative tradition.


So why he is so popular? Trump’s supporters, a large number of them Democrats, tend to come from what we would in Britain call the lower-middle-class; demographically they’re similar to Ukip voters, although Trump has far more support among women than Farage does. So it’s probably true, as Owen Jones points out, that growing inequality plays a part in his rise, and for some time now America’s middle class – much like Britain’s – has been under pressure, perhaps even in decline.

Democracy is a product of bourgeois society and those countries that lack a solid middle tend to find sustaining democracy difficult; Brazil, with its umpteen coups, is the obvious example. So as the middle class continues to be emptied by automation and globalisation we will probably see more radical politics of both left and right.

One area Owen Jones didn’t mention, and which the left has a blind spot for, is immigration and diversity. Mass migration of unskilled workers almost certainly increases inequality, and as America and Europe start to look like Brazil they will probably get Brazilian-style inequality, corruption and extremism. It’s not just that migration most likely (and I accept many economists dispute this) lowers employment at the bottom, or affects wages, but that as diversity increases social capital declines, and trust in turn affects equality levels. During the middle third of the 20th century, America was a place of great social stability, trust, equality and progress, and it was also – not coincidentally – one of restricted immigration. It’s not irrational for American voters to look back at this period with fondness, and wonder how further mass migration will affect their quality of life.

For many years Democrats have asked why the poor still vote for the Republicans, when they do so little to help their economic interests; well, now they’ve got someone who might.


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