Donald Trump Isn't Killing Democracy. Inequality Is.

Political elites have misdiagnosed the Trump problem.
Working-class Americans are raising the right question, even if Trump is the wrong answer.
Working-class Americans are raising the right question, even if Trump is the wrong answer.
Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters

In the 1990s, a Democratic president named Bill Clinton teamed up with a Republican Congress to rewrite the rules of the global economic order. Ronald Reagan had set the blueprint: cut taxes, deregulate corporations and curb the power of labor unions. Clinton forged ahead where his predecessor had not dared, passing the North American Free Trade Agreement, committing to World Trade Organization treaties, slashing taxes on investments and unraveling financial rules that had been set in place by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.

For all the fracas around small hands, Marcobot malfunctions and Goldman Sachs speeches, the 2016 presidential election has largely been a referendum on the economic transformation unleashed during the Clinton years. The bipartisan elite political class -- the preferred euphemism is "establishment" -- remains wedded to the basic tenets of the Clinton-Gingrich agenda. But both the progressive base of the Democratic Party and rank-and-file Republican voters are in revolt.

This uprising has empowered Donald Trump's hostile takeover of the GOP, and enabled a disorganized 74-year-old socialist from Vermont to nearly wrest the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton.

Call it free trade, globalization, small government, free enterprise or whatever term of art you like. The policies of the 1990s turned over a tremendous amount of market power to elites. Both Trump and Sanders have thundered on the stump about manufacturing jobs that have been lost in subsequent years. But as Thomas Frank notes in his new book, Listen, Liberal, actual offshoring only accounts for part of the problem for working-class Americans. After NAFTA and WTO, corporate executives could tell unions to accept lower wages and slimmer benefits, or else watch the factory disappear overseas. Incomes were under pressure even when jobs didn't leave, and corporate executives and shareholders reaped the benefits. Working people, not financiers, were the ones hit hardest by the Wall Street crash -- a calamity facilitated by deregulatory laws advocated by banking titans who proceeded to run their firms into the ground.

Economic inequality was on the rise before Clinton, but it exploded during his tenure and has remained high ever since. Even during what we call the "economic recovery" of the Obama years, families outside the 1 percent have seen their real incomes fall since 2009. This inequality doesn't just breed resentment, it's also deadly: The mortality rate for white men and women without a college degree has significantly increased since 1999.

To many members of the establishment, this sad state of affairs was inevitable. In a recent essay for New York Magazine, conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan argues that the core problem facing American politics is not economic policy, but democracy itself, which cannot cope with the mad passions of people who have lost out in the modern economic landscape. The essay is titled "Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic."

"Elites still matter in a democracy," he writes. "We need them precisely to protect this precious democracy from its own destabilizing excesses."

Sullivan elaborated on this view in an interview with HuffPost's politics podcast, So, That Happened, which is embedded below. (The segment begins at the 11:40 mark.)

Trump, Sullivan argues, has transfixed the populace, laying bare the inherent flaws in democratic political organization.

"There was something about the faces of the people who were looking at Trump," Sullivan says, describing a Fox News town hall event with the presumptive GOP nominee. "And the look of sheer adoration and excitement and projection. And what can only be called the look of people who had joined a cult. … I realized we have a problem."

"What a fascist we have right here," he adds. "This is a takeover of a political party by a mass movement stoked by the most foul demagoguery."

But it's hard to escape the fact that democracies are vulnerable to fascism after periods of economic distress. Since the 1870s, financial crises around the world have almost always empowered "extreme right-wing" political groups, according to a recent study by three German economists.

And the economic component of Trump's rise is unmistakeable. The higher a county's mortality rate, the more likely it was to support Trump in the Republican primaries. The higher a county's recent unemployment rate, the more likely you are to find Trump voters there. Counties with lower median incomes? Probably going for Trump.

Looked at individually, Trump voters generally have above-median incomes, but that trend holds for voters supporting candidates in general, across party lines. Bernie Sanders is right: The poor don't vote. Not everybody showing up to punch protesters at Trump rallies actually makes it to the polls, but a lot of the people who do have a brother or a cousin or an aunt who has had trouble making ends meet.

Many are also bigots. Like countless demagogues before him, Trump has channeled economic anxiety into a racist movement. When people are struggling, it's easier to pin the blame on neighbors who look different than to bemoan abstract economic forces. Racism isn't a new phenomenon among white working-class voters, of course, but a 2014 study by New York University psychologists David Amodio and Amy Krosch found that racist attitudes intensify amid economic scarcity.

Sullivan thinks the world just has to get used to these economic facts. "Inequality isn't driving it, it seems to me," he told HuffPost, referring to Trump's appeal. "What's driving it is globalization. And the impact that it's having on the kind of jobs that the white working classes have historically been able to have. That's not a question of their inequality as such, it's a question of the grinding nature of a global economy in which they now have to compete in ways they never had to compete before."

It's jarring to hear such an openly elitist critique of democracy. But over the course of the 2016 campaign, many politicians have cloaked the same sentiments in oblique attacks and vagaries. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) offered a buttered-up version of Sullivan's ideology when she told MSNBC that Sanders was "frankly against trade" and accused him of peddling an "extreme message." It's what former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) meant when he told Slate, "I am disappointed by the voters who say, 'OK I’m just going to show you how angry I am!'"

The good news for democracy is that Trump is unlikely to be elected. As Slate's Jamelle Bouie and others have noted, Republicans have been pulling in white working-class voters since the civil rights movement, and there just aren't enough of them to threaten a Democratic presidential candidate on Election Day. Democrats don't have to reinvent the political wheel to win in November -- making appeals to women, people of color and college-educated white men should be enough.

But it's a mistake to view Trump as a mere electoral phenomenon. The anger he has exploited will not simply disappear after November. There is no reason to believe that Trump himself will leave the political scene, and even if he does, other politicians will build on his recent success. If the governing class cannot redress the severe economic inequalities that have enabled Trump, the national relief that he's not in the White House will be short-lived.

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

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