Donald Trump is a middle finger to the entire political system
His rise is about more than racism
Is the key to Donald Trump's success just old-fashioned racism? He surely stokes race hatred among his followers and even more-or-less openly panders to anti-Semitism. Yet he also seems to feed on economic desperation. He has won running against trade, his support tracks inversely with educational attainment, and he's posted his biggest margins in some of the most desperate counties in America; surely economic anxiety has something to do with his rise.
This has led to various attempts to untangle race from economic factors in predicting Trump's support. An effort from The Washington Post found some of both, with racial resentment something like twice as important in predicting Trump support. Yet one should not end the analysis there: Trump also represents bitter hatred of the political system, driven by the shredding of the American social contract over the last 40 years.
The thing about Trump is that not only is he the most openly bigoted presidential candidate since 1968 (or perhaps even 1948), he's also utterly uncouth and unqualified. Unlike William F. Buckley, his racism is not genteel or hidden behind polite words, and unlike George Wallace or Strom Thurmond, he has precisely zero political experience. Even against his Republican primary opponents, he was a boorish jerk, insulting their wives and boasting about the size of his penis.
In other words, Trump doesn't just express bigoted views, he also has utter contempt for the traditional norms of political decorum, and in previous times would have been considered a completely laughable choice for president. But his followers revel in it.
The rise of Trump is worth examining in the context of this brilliant article by Matthew Stoller, detailing the change in the American social contract from the postwar generation to today. In brief, for 30 years after World War II, there was a strong political-economic consensus around a high rate of unionization, shared productivity growth, strict financial regulation, and low unemployment — all centered around homeownership as the bedrock of middle-class status and wealth.
Starting in the mid-'70s, this social contract was slowly ripped apart. First unions were deliberately crushed in the Volcker recession, and low unemployment was gradually discarded as a political goal. This severed the link between productivity growth and wage growth. Meanwhile, Wall Street was slowly unchained, resulting in repeated financial bubbles, each one larger than the last (and each with concomitant sprees of fraud).
Yet growing consumer spending was still needed for economic growth. Thus American women went to work, and American families levered up. They took out credit cards, and drew down their savings. "Finally, they liquidated their financial assets, including their home equity," Stoller writes. A new, much less egalitarian social contract emerged, where wages were replaced with credit.
But this contained the seeds of its own destruction. Eventually Americans had reached the absolute limit of how much debt they could take on, while simultaneously Wall Street blew up the biggest bubble yet, and this time around the key asset for ordinary families. When home prices collapsed, middle-class America got it right on the chin, and tens of millions were ruined outright.
As David Dayen's new book details, the Obama administration rescued Wall Street from its self-induced problems but basically ignored foreclosures, figuring that eventually the system would unclog and normal operation of the mortgage and homebuilding sectors would return. They didn't, because the administration fundamentally misunderstood what was happening. Home equity collapsed for years, and while it has since recovered to some extent, drastically fewer are represented: The homeownership rate has steadily fallen to levels not seen since the mid-'60s.
The Reagan-era social contract has collapsed, and nothing is on the horizon to replace it — indeed, it's hard to imagine a "social contract" whereby a largely parasitic financial and executive class makes off with virtually all income gains, a rapidly vanishing middle class is increasingly locked out of wealth creation, and the political class is all but owned outright by Wall Street. Such a society would be more about coercing consent from the restless masses through surveillance, mass incarceration, and highly militarized police than it would be about obtaining it by social spending and quality services.
A white backlash to the first black president is a very important part of Trump's rise. But the fact that he represents a raised middle finger to the entire American political system is, I submit, about equal in importance.
Now, it's worth noting that the old postwar days were by no means perfect. Homeownership is a highly problematic bedrock for middle-class wealth, particularly in the dispersed, suburban style typical of America. Worse, a great many demographics were left out of the good times — minorities and women especially.
Yet it is unquestionably true that those days had much more enthusiastic buy-in from the broad mass of the population than today. Trust in the federal government has fallen from 77 percent in 1964 to about 20 percent today. The approval ratings of the Supreme Court and especially Congress have also plummeted.
Back in the '50s and '60s, minority activism to get a piece of what the white middle and working class had was a sensible goal. Now it seems inadequate, as more and more white folks are careening down to meet their black brethren at the bottom of the social ladder.
What is needed is a new social contract that restores some fairness and decency to American society. Without it, the politics of rage and contempt will only grow.