Sunday, November 13, 2016

Trump and the Revolt of the Rust Belt
The election is over and a potentially disastrous candidate has won. The damage to civil tolerance and multiculturalism is likely to be profound. A lot of people’s lives will change. Naturally, people are asking the question: who could have voted Trump into office? Well, clearly white people. This isn’t terribly surprising. White people have plenty to answer for in American history and show no particular energy about improving their record. Others blame people of color who didn’t turn out for Clinton as they did for Obama, never mind that expecting black people to turn out for anyone other than Michelle Obama as much as they did for Barack Obama is entirely unrealistic. Latinos voted for Trump at a slightly higher rate than they did for Romney. As baffling as that is on the surface, pure block voting is simply not how voting works and Latinos still voted overwhelmingly for Clinton.
The problem for explanation is not that any of these factors are irrelevant as such, they aren’t. They just don’t have much to do with the actual reason why Trump won. The reason he won should be obvious to anyone who pays attention to the electoral map rather than exit polls. The Rust Belt revolted against the rolling out of a neoliberal New Economy and multicultural society. The fact of this economic transformation is nothing new, people have been talking about it for years. In fact, policy makers, politicians, and journalists had also stopped talking about it, probably because they were exhausted by the conversation. Democrats learned that they could win presidential contests handily with only marginal nods to the industrial Midwest (Clinton: “Trump ties are made in China!”). Some states would just be written off by Democrats. Coal-mining and unionized West Virginia, solidly Democratic since the New Deal, was flipped to the Republican column in 2000 by climate warrior Al Gore. No one much cared, even though a Democratic West Virginia would have prevented a Bush presidency. Other states, it was assumed, would participate just enough in the economic transition to fracture any conservative Old Economy majority that might emerge in the Rust Belt. And even if it didn’t, there were enough black people and union workers to prevent a Republican victory in those states. Democrats were so confident of their support in Rust Belt states that they were part of Clinton’s “blue wall” that, it was argued, would deliver her the presidency even if Trump won traditional swing states like Florida.
The cultural transformation from a tacitly white society to a more multicultural one is considerably newer and much more at the center of political discussion—a transformation that was supercharged by the Obama presidency. This isn’t simple progress; it animated white supremacists, xenophobes, and homophobes as much as it did the tolerant. Such people are always around, there may even be more of them, but they don’t deliver electoral majorities. But this conversation was also a heavily coastal phenomenon. The Rust Belt has a lot of black people, but few Latinos. When workers were in unions alongside others who had different color skin, holding together a viable multiracial working class coalition was possible. But unions have been destroyed, with the Democratic Party complicit, and stunning economic decline has made it easy for narratives of zero-sum competition between different social groups to take hold. Democrats have offered precious little to prevent people in the Rust Belt from feeling embattled and forgotten. More to the point, the Clintons are avatars of free trade, financialization, and identity politics, a triumvirate of characteristics that associates them pretty directly with what many people associate with the causes of Rust Belt decline and crisis. But it didn’t matter that Democrats stood for these things when Republicans stood for most of them as well. When lines of political conflict were organized around abortion, guns, and taxes, as the Republican operative Grover Norquist wanted, there was no room for a distinctively Rust Belt politics. Trump changed that particular calculus. It may have been cynical, but the message was clear: he would be a protectionist president. This is a part of the country that does things like smash Japanese cars at civic events. Trump’s message was likely to resonate, but probably only in the Rust Belt. People have been suspicious of the role of the white working class for a variety of suspect reasons: sure, Trump supporters were on average affluent, but they are always Republican and aren’t numerous enough to deliver the presidency (538 has changed their view in the wake of the election result). Some point out that looking at support by income doesn’t show much distinctive support for Trump among the “poor”, but that’s beside the point too, as it submerges a regional phenomenon in a national average, just as exit polls do.

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