Trump’s unexpected election victory has been explained by many commentators as a combination of bigotry and economic despair. While this picture has more than a little truth, it ignores some of the most salient factors: First, Trump got slightly fewer votes than Romney did in 2012, so there was not an upwelling of previously unengaged citizens. Second, Hillary Clinton got 6 million fewer votes than Obama did in 2012 and 10 million fewer than Obama received in 2008, pointing to a loss of enthusiasm among Democrats. Third, Trump’s voters earn more than the median income; they are the sort of Americans who vote in most elections.
The real questions are these: why didn’t Obama’s achievements bring his voters back to the polls for Hillary Clinton? Why are relatively well-off Americans so angry as to vote for a man who freely deploys racist invective and offers completely incoherent policy proposals? What did Trump’s voters think they were getting from him? And what did potential Democratic voters find so lacking in Hillary’s presidency that they chose not to vote?
The answers to these questions can be found in the very narrow pathways open to progressive Democrats in twenty-first century American politics. Possibilities of building broad coalitions behind new social programs have been blocked by (1) the numerous veto points that prevent most reforms from being enacted, (2) the ever increasing political spending by wealthy Americans that disconnect members of Congress from the particular industries and interests of their states and districts, and (3) the massive, industry-dominating firms and banks that have been created by the virtual suspension of antitrust enforcement since the Nixon Administration. As a result, Obama could only enact policies that met the demands of elite constituencies. Thus, the Affordable Care Act had to be written in a way that held insurance companies, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies harmless. Surtaxes on the wealthy covered the cost of paying off those veto-wielding interests, a genuinely progressive achievement. However, the complexity of the Act, which Americans noticed when they tried to sign up for insurance, undermined support for the Act, as did the tax penalties on ordinary citizens who didn’t buy insurance. Those procedural penalties created real anger among potential beneficiaries.
The greatest outrage stemmed from the Federal government’s weak response to the crimes revealed by the 2008 financial crisis. Not a single banker went to prison for their role in creating the banking crisis, in contrast to the numerous prosecutions of Savings and Loan crooks under Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Yet there were obstacles to any attempt to nationalize banks (even temporarily) or to regulate banks strictly. The relatively weak provisions of Dodd-Frank and the still ongoing efforts to limit new regulations mandated under that legislation testify to bankers’ continuing political sway even at the depths of the crisis. As a result, Obama never had the backing in Congress to confront banks and force them to write down mortgages they issued under fraudulent circumstances.
Now Trump’s voters expect him to deliver, but they will be in for a bad surprise. What they want would be very hard for Trump to deliver because he will confront the same veto-strewn system and will need to win over the elites that finance his party’s campaigns and can sabotage programs that challenge their interests. It will be easier for Trump to deliver what Congressional Republicans and their big backers have sought for years, ever more of which appeared day after day on the Trump campaign’s website: tax cuts and deregulation of financial firms, product safety, the environment, and more. Even when Trump moves to fulfill campaign promises to help the unemployed and revive industry, he will do so in ways that (like Obamacare) leave no special interest behind. The coming infrastructure spending, his most expensive proposal aside from tax cuts, will be structured in the form of tax credits to investors. States with few resources, but the same number of U.S. senators as California, would do less well under Trump than under current methods of allocating spending. Tax credits also provide openings for corruption, as has been demonstrated over decades of private financing for low-income housing or the recent sales (mainly by Republican-controlled state governments) of toll roads.
Tax cuts, which shape the budget just as much as direct spending, are drastically skewed toward the rich. His plan promises more than 35% of the income tax reductions to the top 1%, similar to what Paul Ryan previously proposed. The estate and gift taxes, which are paid almost exclusively by the top 0.1% are slated to be totally abolished. These proposals are likely to sail through Congress.
Repeal or restriction of Dodd-Frank could increase market volatility, and raise the chances of yet another financial collapse, while opening the door to predatory behavior by banks and other firms.
Cultural issues are of little concern to business interests, and are a low-cost reward to social conservatives. His right-wing choice for the Supreme Court will be confirmed. He will restrict birth control and abortion as much as he can, and with no sense of irony. We already see supporters who reveal in the license they think Trump’s election gives them to engage in bigotry and violence.
What will happen after the Trump policies fail to reverse decline in the parts of the country that voted for him? Here are some possibilities. This takes us into the realm of speculation. I hope this essay provokes responses so that together we can refine and deepen our understanding of the forces that elected Trump and that will shape his administration and voters’ responses to his presidency. In that spirit here are five possible future scenarios, some of which are not mutually exclusive.
- The Reagan, GW Bush economy, Mark 3: The economy grows slowly, but in the absence of recession (or with a recovery from a recession early in Trump’s presidency) it looks like Morning in America and a majority view his policies as a successes even though job growth is slower than under earlier Democratic administrations and inequality deepens.
- Any or all of a crash of market bubbles, trade wars, and inflation create clear declines in incomes for a majority of voters who then punish Trump and Congressional Republicans in 2018 or 2020.
- In anticipation of the political costs of scenario #2 Trump takes a Bonapartist route, encouraging vigilantes and seeking to use police powers (under Attorney General Giuliani) to silence opponents. Such measures combined with increasingly effective voter suppression methods, certain to be allowed by a Trump Justice Department, could mean that the U.S. will not have a fair, contested election for the foreseeable future.
- A fortuitous terror attack or wars sparked by Trump’s foreign policy errors and belligerence, create patriotic fervor maintaining his political viability past 2020 as they did for George W Bush. This seems to me the least likely outcome, in large part because the continuing military and intelligence leadership of the ‘Deep State’ will block Trump’s deviations from America’s longstanding foreign policy parameters. If a real war began, fought with live soldiers rather than drones or bombs dropped from 30,000 feet, the U.S. would do even worse than it did in Iraq and Afghanistan and Trump would be blamed. He and his party would pay a severe electoral price.
- Trump’s failures provoke a level of opposition even he recognizes and like Philip Roth’s President Charles Lindbergh in The Plot Against America he simply disappears, perhaps ahead of indictment, leaving President Pence to lose in 2020 (although not to a returning Hillary Clinton). This scenario, mirroring the deus ex machina ending of a literary novel, is the most hopeful one for the Democrats.