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ANANISH CHAUDHURI: The Abiding Appeal of Donald Trump

Many of us find it hard to understand the appeal of Donald Trump. Trump is a grifter, liar, narcissist, adulterer and yet he remains the front-runner for the Republican nomination. He has a real shot at becoming President again in 2024.

Much angst about Trump and America’s political polarization occurs along cultural fault-lines: abortion, homophobia, transphobia, gender, critical race theory, religious instruction in schools and so on. There is absolutely no doubt that Trump and his rhetoric embolden such views. But we need to recognize that this cultural conflict is an expression of an underlying economic conflict, a clash of the classes driven by globalization in general and the “China Shock” in particular.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology's David Autor and co-authors estimate that outsourcing of manufacturing activities to China led to a 16% decline in manufacturing employment in the U.S. between 2000 and 2007. Similar losses were observed in other developed nations. Other studies have shown that US regions with industries that competed with China were particularly hard-hit in terms of higher unemployment, lower labour force participation, and reduced wage.

From an economic perspective, this is not a problem. If the gains to the winners exceed the losses of the losers, redistributing wealth can make everyone better off. Furthermore, even if there are job losses in one region but job growth in another, then labour should be reallocated from the former to the latter.

But, according to Autor and his co-authors, while employment has fallen in US industries more exposed to import competition, offsetting employment gains in other industries have not happened.

But there is a deeper problem here. Labour is hardly as mobile as economists tend to think. We are tied to a place not only by our jobs but also by a variety of social ties such as churches, schools, friends and family. When I lose my job, even if there are plenty of jobs in another state, I may not be able or willing to move; leaving aside the question that such moves may also require retraining, which is not easy no matter how subsidized it is. Consequently, across a large swath of middle America, people who were comfortably middle-class suddenly found themselves impoverished.

This was really a problem of class and of growing inequality. The winners of globalization, banks, big pharma, tech companies and their college educated workers, benefited at the expense of mostly non-college educated workers. But this is a problem with no easy fix.

As it turned out, the people who were losing out due to globalization, also tended to be disproportionately socially conservative and religious. So, the social justice warriors on the left pulled a sleight of hand. Whether they recognized the class divisions at play here or not, the easy option was to demonize the “deplorables” as ones who clung to their guns and their religion. Shifting the lens from class to culture served the narrative of globalization and its winners while downplaying the misery of those at the losing end. But, given America’s electoral college system, these states and their citizens exercise significant power over Presidential elections.

This is the anger that Trump has tapped into. Now does Donald Trump (even as President of US) have the ability to turn this around? No. The tariffs that Trump put on Chinese goods were a net loss for the US economy and China’s retaliation actually hurt those very people that were supposed to benefit. Does Trump even want to help these people? Doubtful. Can any US President or another politician turn the tide of globalization? UANANISH CHAUDHURInlikely.

But Trump certainly makes the right noises about turning back the tide of globalization; of reducing the power of big tech and big pharma, of restoring the pre-China shock middle-class status of his followers. And so, it does not matter if Trump is guilty of paying hush money or election tampering. His followers, even the non-bigoted ones, are happy to overlook Trump’s corruption, coarseness, and philandering, because Trump embodies the middle finger that these people want to extend to the establishment.

It is not surprising that Ron DeSantis is not making headway. He is trying to take on Trump’s mantle as a cultural warrior. But this never was about culture. To take down Trump, one would need to address the class divisions at stake here. The cultural issues are very much a red herring. Bear in mind that despite Trump’s hateful rhetoric against minorities, Trump’s support among Blacks and Hispanics actually increased between 2016 and 2020. This is also why, when it comes to issues like trade, there were commonalities between Trump supporters and Bernie Sanders supporters.

Trump can be beaten only by someone willing to take on the class conflict over and above cultural issues. Currently, his opponents are not even focusing on the right problem.

Ananish Chaudhuri is Professor Experimental Economics at the University of Auckland.

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