Since the early 1990s, American politics has seen an America first, nativist rise in both state and national politics. In 1994, California Governor Pete Wilson pushed for the passage of Proposition 187 to halt undocumented immigrants from using state services. Two years earlier, Pat Buchanan made a significant challenge against sitting President George H.W. Bush while pushing nativist issues. Preceding both of these was David Duke’s brief electoral success on even a more extreme message in Louisiana starting in 1989. Talk radio and the developing Internet began to create a culture of blame.Since then, increasingly partisan national and state legislatures, coinciding with the rise of the Tea Party, has brought a conservative fringe viewpoint, known as the alt-right, into a leadership role in the Republican Party. The rise of Donald Trump is simply the culmination of decades of xenophobic chest pounding.
The 2016 election will be gone, but it is unlikely that the forces that caused Trump to rise will recede. It isn’t merely sexism, racism or nativism that has brought Trump to the forefront. It is easy to dismiss these revulsions as the worst of human nature. However, they are more the symptoms than the cause of the Trump movement.
The economic changes that began to sweep the United States in the 1970s are at the heart of the problem. The simple version is that imports began to cut into good-paying American jobs. Instead of bad trade deals, the real culprits are higher wages and a standard of living by Americans over foreign workers who can do the same task at lower cost. Add in that productivity has risen in dramatic steps over 50 years so that employers don’t need the same number of workers and that is the recipe of economic upheaval.
It is a relatively straight line of improved productivity for 65 years, which helped to contribute to a stable level of around 18 million manufacturing jobs for decades. There was a slight uptick in productivity in the 1990s. Since then, manufacturing jobs have fallen to the current 12 million. Part of that has to do with the Great Recession, but the trend was already in place by then. Increased imports have played a role through the rise of an export-rich China and regional trade deals, but the more efficient American worker is the backbone of this change.
The Trump campaign is embedded by the belief that the United States doesn’t manufacture things anymore. It is a common belief shared by many non-Trump supporters as well. It is also wrong. United States manufacturing produces twice as much as it did as recently as 1984. It just takes far fewer workers.
Since 1840, the manufacturing workforce in this country has had up and downs, but it is nothing compared to the other two main labor force components: agriculture and services. We have become a service-oriented economy not so much because productivity and trade have eliminated manufacturing jobs but because far fewer people work in agriculture. The trend is that as the economy changes, then manufacturing is going the way of agriculture. It is not disappearing. It is expanding but needs far fewer workers than before. The service jobs are then left. That doesn’t mean only flipping burgers, but also jobs in medicine, computer software, financial services and similar positions that require a more advanced educational background. More and more, the service jobs appear to be either low-paying or great paying. There aren’t as many of the middle-income jobs that manufacturing once provided.
The point here is that a lot of things have a role in the loss of manufacturing jobs: trade, productivity, labor trends, etc. All this is difficult to explain in the politically terse language of our campaigns. People who lost manufacturing or similar good working class jobs want an answer. The same to those who never had one of these jobs, and can’t find one’s like their father’s had. Without college educations, they are left behind economically. Assembling autos is replaced by flipping burgers because that worker doesn’t have the experience to be an accountant. It becomes an easy, appealing answer to blame the job losses on bad trade deals or “illegals” stealing jobs. Trump, backed by the nativist alt-right, stoked a twenty-five-year indoctrination blaming the weakening of the manufacturing sector on foreigners. People who were down in their luck were told that their tough times were caused by foreigners. Blaming someone else for one’s hard times is human nature. It is made easier when it is encouraged as Trump and the alt-right have done. It is all an attempt to stir the fires of racism. It worked.
Trump may go away, but the anger and misinformation remains. To dismiss many Trump supporters as simply racist won’t work. That’s because it is only part of the problem. Yes, there are racists backing Trump. They will only change if their minds change. However, for most of these people, they simply want an opportunity for a better life. Grant a better life, and the anger and nativism will pass away.
The high cost of a college education and lack of vocational training programs stymies many from moving into a better life. Until a national effort creates opportunities for those left behind, not unlike the situation that exists for many minorities denied good educations, the economic displacement is going to bubble into racism and nothing will be resolved but another round of Trumpism in 2020.