Among the stranger features of the 2016 election campaign was the success of Donald Trump, a creature of globalization, as an America First savior of the white working class. A candidate who amassed billions of dollars by playing globalization for all it was worth —he manufactured clothes and accessories bearing his name in low-wage economies and invested in corporations eager to outsource—won over millions of voters by promising to keep jobs here in the United States.
Admittedly, only a third of his voters earned less than $50,000 a year and cultural and racial resentment, not just economic grievances, drove many of them to Trump. Still, in an ever more economically unequal America, his populist economic message resonated. It helped him win the presidency by peeling off white working-class votes in key regions, particularly the industrial Midwest. Now he’s stuck with his populist narrative, and here’s the problem for him: It’s not likely to work—not given the economic realities of this planet, not for long anyway.
Fading Economic Hegemony
In the Oval Office, as on the campaign trail, Trump’s refrain remains that the economic woes of American workers, including stagnant wages and job insecurity, are the fault of predatory Asian and Mexican exporters, aided and abetted by inept past presidents who inked lousy trade deals. During campaign 2016, he promised to kick down doors abroad and force countries running surpluses, notably China, to buy more from the United States or face huge tariff hikes. He railed against companies that relocate production abroad, depriving Americans of jobs.
Trump’s economic nationalism is, of course, a con job. He did, however, effectively employ the demagogue’s artifice, which invariably lies in crafting simplistic answers to complicated questions and creating plausible scapegoats for complicated problems. In fact, workers in industries the United States dominated for decades are in distress because of irreversible historic changes and the absence, thanks to a staggeringly lopsided distribution of wealth and political power in America, of progressive policies that would better prepare them to cope with the changes that have occurred in the international economy.