"Get a job, you racists, and stop playing the victim! Don't you remember the '80s?"
Does that sound like a successful political program to you? Does it sound like an adequate response when perhaps one-fourth or more of your party's voters are staging a minor revolt? Of course not. And yet, that is effectively the message the Republican elite is delivering to Donald Trump's disaffected white working-class supporters.
I recently suggested that the Republican Party, and the conservative movement, offer next to nothing to working-class Trump supporters. There are no obvious conservative policies that will generate the sort of growth needed to raise the standard of living for these working-class voters. Instead, the GOP's Powers That Be make a great show of obedience and deference to the center-right donor class, even when that donor class' preferred policies — endless war, unlimited immigration, and slashing tax burdens on the wealthy — have almost no relation to conservative ideas or even popular opinion.
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Several columnists have responded critically to my original piece. They claimed to argue with me. Instead, they confirmed my thesis.
My friend Kevin Williamson implies in National Review Online that I am indulging in "racial identity politics to help poor whites feel better about dependency." Tom Nichols writes in The Federalist that I want to play the "bitter card of victimhood and entitlement that liberals use."
Williamson says that he'd rather poor whites "took the necessary steps to improve their condition in life." Nichols outlines some of these necessary steps, saying these men need "to stop fleecing the disability system, to kick their addiction, to be fathers to their children, to get a job no matter how low or unappealing it is, and to stick with it until you get a better one." He implies that I'm against this kind of virtue. That's wrong.
In fact, this is all great life advice. I would happily repeat it to anyone. But it illustrates rather than rebuts the problem I described. Issuing godly financial advice is the job of parents and pastors and personal-finance gurus. It is not a substitute for politics or government. It is not the conservative movement's nor the Republican Party's job to tell voters to keep their fingernails trimmed and to proofread their resumes, wise as those things may be. And it should be plain as day that such tut-tutting is certainly not going to win the loyalty of the party's down-on-their-luck base.
It is not enough to say, "Stop bothering us with your economic problems, and be more virtuous; we're too busy addressing the complicated problems of our rich patrons, and using the levers of the state to make it easier for them to invest in foreign work forces instead of the whiny entitled American worker." Which, is, of course, the message that has come through to Trump voters over the last two decades.
The conservative movement can no longer repeat its old formulas as if they were a magisterium given divine authority to guard the deposit of faith in 19th century's economic liberalism. "Get a job!" is an insufficient response to the problems faced by poor Americans.
I presume that most of the working-class whites who support Trump do want jobs. I doubt that, like Williamson, they see hard work in industries that are ringed by some tariff protections as the same kind of "dependency" as a straight welfare payment. (Do Lockheed employees suffer some stigma and self-doubt from this kind of dependency on government, I wonder?) But I am not yet even arguing for protective tariffs.
Despite a natural desire to work and to create, we've seen working-age men dropping out of the workforce at alarming rates for decades. Many of these men do some work, but remain underemployed in the service industries. And the overall picture of the decline of this once-middle class is not one of living high and happy on the dole; it's far more depressing than that. Some of them do stay on Social Security Disability, and some of them abuse it, because it is competitive with some of the low-paid service work that is relatively easy to find but hard for formerly proud men to take.
At the same time as this decline of work, the returns are starting to come in on the post-Cold War policies that elite conservatives have championed, namely free trade and liberal-to-uncontrolled low-skill immigration.
The results of these policies look like a major transfer of wealth and, more crucially, wealth-generating power, away from workers and to capital. Researchers David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hansen found that globalization hammered workers while providing them with completely inadequate compensation in cheaper consumables or government assistance:
Reihan Salam recently noted that the American political class seemed blind to the effects of globalization on its working population
We also see better now than before that mass immigration of low-skilled workers does actually interact with the laws of supply and demand as you would expect; it lowers the wages of low-skilled American workers. Yes, technology has played a role in displacing workers. And yes, some forms of trade liberalization were obviously coming after the fall of the Iron Curtain. But economists did not expect the costs of these policies to be this concentrated.
America's elites, however, have won astounding gains during these decades with their ability to more easily invest in the development of foreign workforces, and to hire recent immigrants who don't share the typical American's democratic revulsion at entering into low-status service jobs at their great homes. The stock market proved resilient in the face of an economic crash, recovering and surpassing its previous value, even as real median household income is still almost $4,000 below the pre-recession level. Williamson says the answer is growth driven by investment. Growth is here, but it is captured at the top. Investors are getting gains. Why aren't others?
Without trying to hand working-class Americans a permanent victim card, we should allow ourselves to notice that following some of the bootstrapping advice that Williamson and Nichols offer as a substitute for political reflection is more difficult now than in the past. Why? The bootstrapping solution also requires resources — spiritual, social, habitual, familial, and cultural. These resources sometimes well forth from a man who has hit rock bottom in life; many callers into Dave Ramsey's radio show will testify to that. But for others these resources are usually "loaned," so to speak, from what conservatives used to treasure as the mediating institutions of our society — namely, families, churches, ethnic clubs, paternalistic employers, schools, and even unions. Collectively we might refer to these institutions as a kind of treasury of resources. My intuition, confirmed faintly by statistics on declining church attendance, rising divorce and cohabitation and illegitimacy, and the shortening terms of employment, suggest that these institutions have abandoned their paternalistic roles, or partly disintegrated, especially among working-class Americans. In other words, this treasury of resources is close to bankruptcy.
By their nature, the networking, emotional support, and loyalty traditionally delivered by these institutions to working people is almost invisible to policy wonks. These institutions push and pull. Men are much more urgent job-seekers and better job-keepers when they are living with a wife and children. Americans have slowed their pace of internal migration to find work, perhaps because moving to find work is more difficult when you are divorced and would leave children behind. Perhaps it is more difficult when you tried participating in George W. Bush's ownership society and over-invested in an inflated home that you can no longer afford to sell. Or perhaps it is more difficult because the institutions that you would seek out for social stimulation and solidarity in new places, like your denomination's local church or an Italian-American club, mean little to you now or have ceased to exist. That societal treasury, if it were full, could supply people with motivation, resources, and unofficial patronage networks to make difficult changes in life, like moving for work.
This state of affairs should be a frightening thing for any civic-minded American, particularly those who call themselves conservative. Long before American conservatives pledged themselves to the free-market tenets of Manchester liberalism in economics, the people defined by a conservative political persuasion dedicated themselves to protecting and defending those mediating institutions. If these institutions are in as much disrepair as I see, do conservatives have any idea how to regenerate them?
The foremost task of conservative political forces is to maintain legitimacy for the state and to carefully guard the surplus within that great invisible treasury of goodwill in their societies. That means finding ways of balancing the interests of different actors, classes, and types in society, whose unchecked actions would otherwise tear the nation apart. The tenets of Manchester liberalism were adopted by conservatives in America because they found them well-suited to an Anglo-Protestant people with a wide distribution of property and a continent of resources. They are not divine writ, though I happily admit that they have been successful because they align with something in our nature and history. Still, we may need to make different exceptions to them than we have in the past.
But if the libertarian prophecies of an American society without a middle class comes true, and 80 percent of resources will ineluctably accrue to the top 20 percent, then the American polity will find itself in danger very quickly of something much worse than Trumpism. The combination of an anti-statist ideology inherited from the Cold War, and a natural inclination to be responsive to an ever-more-rich donor class, puts the conservative movement in danger of rationalizing all the work the movement and the government does in the economic interests of their elite clients, and de-rationalizing any work it might do in the economic interests of workers. Such a course is a sure way of delegitimizing the state and the American political class.
It is true that I manifestly do not have the answers yet, nor do I believe Donald Trump has them. My aim in trying to understand and explain Trumpism and generate sympathy for the people who find themselves supporting Donald Trump is not to ratify dependency or a sense of victimhood in working-class people; it's to slap conservatives out of a torpor, to tell them that they are not victims of this Trump-led populist revolt, but the authors of it. And to warn them that they make Trumpism inevitable by enabling the American elite and the political class in its cultural and economic secession from the rest of the American nation. And ultimately, my aim is to recruit men like Kevin Williamson and Tom Nichols into the incredibly inconvenient work of stripping away the policy ideas and political formulas that have grown stale over the last 20 years, and to revivify the American right, and the bonds that hold our nation together.
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