A Story Behind “Why Trump?”

From the Editor:  As part of his multi-instalment series covering the intricacies of the upcoming presidential election in the United States, SAS catalyst candidate and guest contributor to The Eye, Allen Wang, will be maintaining this featured column: POTUS POLITICS 2016.  As with all articles in The Eye, we welcome your feedback, opposing viewpoints, or commentary in the “Reply” section at the end of this piece. 

Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters as he takes the stage for a campaign event in Dallas, Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

America is facing an advanced democracy’s worst nightmare: widening polarization. Statistics reveal an alarming, growing animosity and fear voters feel towards the opposing party. Violence has broken out in the electoral process; Donald Trump has encouraged brutality against his critics, and riots against his political presence have burst out in cities like Albuquerque, Chicago, and Costa Mesa.

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Francis Fukuyama (from The Irish Times)

Renowned Political Scientist, Francis Fukuyama, has dubbed this political decay and fragmentation as both a symptom and cause of “vetocracy.” Budget crises, stagnant bureaucracy, and lack of policy innovation; fractured government, controlled by interest groups, has generally failed at promoting common goods. In the election 16 years ago, there was a relatively high percentage of voters that believed either candidate would’ve made a good president; to most Americans this year, the political stakes behind each candidate’s campaign are vastly higher. The last time voters were this dissatisfied with their own party candidates was in 1992 and 1996, where an independent had about 20% and 8% of the popular vote in the respective elections.

American politics, simply put, aren’t ideal right now. And a lot of us blame the Trump phenomenon – but perhaps his rise is only reflective of the direction of national politics, not the cause of its divisive nature.

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A Polarized Country and Congress (from The Economist)

Donald has upheaved the GOP’s expectations about the election, outclassed all of his moderate rivals despite attempts by the establishment to repeatedly smash his campaign, and his vitriolic rhetoric has stunned the world. The United Kingdom has even hotly debated whether or not he should ever be allowed into the country.

If we look at changes in the social and economic state of his supporters, a reason behind his angry appeal can be deduced.

Fukuyama points out how gargantuan income inequality in America is an uncontested fact. Multinational Corporations have at least 2 trillion dollars parked abroad, evading corporate taxes. The 2008 Financial Crisis was triggered with big banks issuing subprime mortgages – a form of predatory lending that leniently gives cheap credit to irresponsible homeowners (a precarious investment in the midst of rising housing prices).

There is a certain demographic of people who aren’t living in the robust cities which have bounced back from the recession, who have witnessed household incomes fall by 2% in 2014-15, and been part of a rise in the poverty rate by 0.2%, as 5 million Americans in rural

trump1-blown-looking-trump-supporters
Disenfranchised voters? (From Reuters)

areas “have simply left” instead of escaping poverty. Trump’s support skews towards those who are male, white, and poor; 50% of voters that earn less than $50,000 annually will vote for him.

As the upper middle classes and beyond achieve economic calibers the poor can only dream of, the age of automation, outsourcing, and a lack of compensation for employment displacement, the shortest end of the stick in our economy is stiffly shoved in the face of rural Americans. It is grim, but no surprise, that the consequences to unstable and weakened personal finances are life-changing, harrowing, and severe. Jason Furman, the Chair for the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers (the chief economist to the President), writes that “the human toll of involuntary joblessness” affects “not only workers themselves, but also their spouses, children, and other dependents.” When we take the example of New Hampshire and Kentucky, where the US Census records that more than 50% of those states’ residents live in rural areas, we can see the human toll of low labor-force participation and unemployment wreaking damage. Republican voters are anxiously concerned about a drug epidemic among the rural white communities. There is an alarming Increasing death rate among rural white women; the death rate of white men has hardly improved over the last 20 years, while blacks and hispanics experience a downward trend.

Of course, Trump’s supporters aren’t exclusively disenfranchised, poor, white Americans. Nate Silver, founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight, tells us that, based on exit polls and Census Bureau data “the median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data” – above the national median household income of about $56,000. Furthermore, about 44% supporters have college degrees, higher than the national 33% of white adults who have at least a bachelor’s. But even these well-off supporters express high levels of economic anxiety. A Gallup Survey with Trump supporters concluded that, after asking questions related to financial security such as “you are watching you spending very closely” or “Do you have enough money to buy the things you need, or not?” reveal such, and these people typically live in areas with lower mobility, lower health, and lower educational levels.

Fukuyama explains that the Republican Party has been an uneasy coalition between business elites and social conservatives. By unwinding many social services, labor union powers, and New Deal protections, Republicans voters are going through an emotional fight that’s shaking the normal ebb and flow of the GOP, where a working class base craves for nationalist economic policies.

This makes sense, but doesn’t create a narrative that is completely sound. The GOP has been doing extremely well during Obama’s Presidency – usurping control of Congress in both houses, taking control over 900 State legislative seats, and has 31 governors across the nation. If the party has been such a failure at pandering towards this disenfranchised voting base, then why is it still so strong? In other words, why has the political-outsider-that-is-Trump phenomenon been so successful at turning the GOP on its head when up until now, the votes seem to indicate otherwise?

The point is, if we look at things economically, we can’t and shouldn’t characterize Trump supporters as racist, ultra-conservative, radical, fascist, ignorant, gullible bigots. His voters are part of a disenfranchised, disadvantaged demographic that are scrambling to finally feel like they have a say in the political system.

Author: Allen Wang

Allen is a guest contributing writer for the SAS EYE and is writing a series of articles for his Catalyst project on American Politics, and aims to put specific political events in larger contexts. He has helped restart the Students for Political Activism club and is currently a co-President. For all inquires, please email him at wang43537@sas.edu.sg

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