Thursday, March 10, 2016

Thomas Frank on why many Americans support Donald Trump

Thomas Frank has written some smart books on the links between the American political and corporate elite and the concerns and aspirations of everyday Americans, the rise of the political right, the failure of the Democratic liberal elite and why ordinary Americans often support politicians and policies that are counter to their own interests.

In a recent article in the
Guardian [1] Frank drills down beneath all the rhetoric and outrage about Donald Trump to explore why large numbers of ordinary Americans support him.

dismisses the simplistic moralizing and manufactured outrage of the media and political commentators who dismiss Trump’s working class supporters as ignorant and ill-informed bigots and racists.

As Frank
notes, while Trump appears to be a racist himself, racism is not necessarily what motivates many of his followers. Instead Frank writes:

“A map of his support may coordinate with racist Google searches, but it coordinates even better with deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America… ……when people talk to white, working-class Trump supporters, instead of simply imagining what they might say, they find that what most concerns these people is the economy and their place in it”
Franks suggests that part of Trump's appeal is that he is telling a tale as much about economic outrage, as it is about racism:
"Many of Trump’s followers are bigots, no doubt, but many more are probably excited by the prospect of a president who seems to mean it when he denounces our trade agreements and promises to bring the hammer down on the CEO that fired you and wrecked your town, unlike Barack Obama  and Hillary Clinton".

In a similar vein, Jeff Gupo [2] of the Washington Post argues that it is economic distress among older white people in many parts of the country that is driving many voters toward Donald Trump.

Gupo, who has delved into the connection between white mortality, economic anxiety and support for Trump writes:

"[I]t is nonetheless striking that Trump’s promise to "Make America Great Again" has been most enthusiastically embraced by those who have seen their own life's prospects diminish the most — not [only] in terms of material wealth, but in terms of literal chances of survival."

In his Guardian article, Thomas Frank refers to the findings of a recent study by Working America, an organization associated with US Unions, which interviewed some 1,600 white working-class voters in the suburbs of Cleveland and Pittsburgh in December and January. 

The group found that support for Trump is strong, even among self-identified Democrats and not because people are racist or want a racist in the White House, but because Trump speaks about their number one concern- “good jobs and the economy”.

Of that study Frank writes:

“People are much more frightened than they are bigoted,” is how the findings were described to me by Karen Nussbaum, the executive director of Working America. The survey “confirmed what we heard all the time: people are fed up, people are hurting, they are very distressed about the fact that their kids don’t have a future” and that “there still hasn’t been a recovery from the recession, that every family still suffers from it in one way or another.”
Frank cites Tom Lewandowski, the president of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council:

“These people aren’t racist, not any more than anybody else is,” he says of Trump supporters he knows. “When Trump talks about trade, we think about the Clinton administration, first with Nafta and then with [Permanent Normal Trade Relations] China, and here in Northeast Indiana, we hemorrhaged jobs.”

“They look at that, and here’s Trump talking about trade, in a ham-handed way, but at least he’s representing emotionally. We’ve had all the political establishment standing behind every trade deal, and we endorsed some of these people, and then we’ve had to fight them to get them to represent us.”

Frank concludes:

"Left parties the world over were founded to advance the fortunes of working people. But our left party in America – one of our two monopoly parties – chose long ago to turn its back on these people’s concerns, making itself instead into the tribune of the enlightened professional class, a “creative class” that makes innovative things like derivative securities and smartphone apps. The working people that the party used to care about, Democrats figured had nowhere else to go, in the famous Clinton-era expression. The party just didn’t need to listen to them any longer.

Yet still we cannot bring ourselves to look the thing in the eyes. We cannot admit that we liberals bear some of the blame for its emergence, for the frustration of the working-class millions, for their blighted cities and their downward spiraling lives. So much easier to scold them for their twisted racist souls, to close our eyes to the obvious reality of which Trumpism is just a crude and ugly expression: that neoliberalism has well and truly failed."
[1] Thomas Frank 2016) Millions of ordinary Americans support Trump: here’s, the Guardian, March 7 2016


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