The costs of globalization in the American heartland and the 2016 presidential election

In processing how and where Democrats lost the 2016 presidential election, I returned to Bill Clinton's speech when he signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in December 1993.

Clinton’s key sales point to the nation was that corporate America would send low paying jobs abroad and replace them with higher paying jobs and economic security to the dislocated.

The way this would happen? Through education.

"Every worker must receive the education and training he or she needs to reap the rewards of international competition rather than to bear its burdens,” Bill Clinton said,. It was a theme to be repeated often by Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and over time grew hollow and thread-bare.

The inheritors of that broken promise -- educated or not -- delivered Donald Trump to the White House this week. This is what you get, Trump voters seemed to say to Democrats, for lying to us.

In 2004, a little more than a decade after NAFTA was signed, I attended a meeting of progressive Democratic donors in DC. John Podesta, Bill Clinton's former chief of staff and administration point man on NAFTA with Congress, sat in the front row as Bill Moyers delivered a powerpoint presentation on the hollowing out of the Rust Belt.

Moyers showed slides and video clips of bereft landscapes in the American heartland; of communities and joblessness attributable to NAFTA. By 2004, a crisis triggered by Russian debt had come and gone. The dot.com boom had inflated and busted. 9/11, the pot that would cook the housing and financial bubble was on the burner, and George W. Bush had just been re-elected to the White House. Democratic donors had a lot to digest.

In 1992 Bill Clinton claimed the White House with, "It is the economy, stupid." In 2004 Moyers addressed Podesta, who just completed work as Hillary Clinton's top campaign advisor, directly.

NAFTA, in fact, only memorialized what corporate America was pursuing as a matter of free enterprise: chasing maximum profits through supply and demand and the cheapest possible costs. In the decades since NAFTA, the United States -- through both Democratic and Republican Congresses and presidents -- endured the greatest wealth divide in its history. Globalization did not lift all ships.

What about education, the panacea for the new American economy? During these decades, public education has been treated as a piñata, pure and simple, by the majority party in Congress and the states: the GOP.

NAFTA was bitterly opposed by the nation's unions whose membership rolls have been crushed in the past twenty years. Unions are another piñata of the GOP and its corporate funders.

This week, many former union members in the heartland and family members once protected by unions voted for Donald Trump. It didn't escape their attention -- because Trump hammered it home -- that while their grip on the middle class slipped, the Clintons became centi-millionaires, hobnobbing with the world elites and the Davos crowd while they stewed in Scranton, Detroit, Akron, Milwaukee and a thousand other cratered places.

Not to put too fine a point: the Bush political dynasty is also a money machine and did very little to protect jobs in the Rust Belt. In 2016, red state Republican voters sent their message about the GOP establishment loud and clear, when they boosted Donald Trump over the rest.

Resentments burn white hot and straight through common sense. Bill Moyers, a witness to history as a top staff person in the Lyndon Johnson White House, is a humanist who -- in that 2004 presentation -- pointed out that Democrats had to answer for the problems of globalization in the American heartland. In the 2016 presidential election, Democrats paid the price.

Can president-elect Trump bring back manufacturing jobs and job security to traumatized rural, middle America and decrepit, rusting cities? "Make America Great Again"? "Drain the swamp" of Washington, DC?

In little more than two months, president-elect Trump will be filling thousands of political appointments in the federal government. Where can he turn, to help do that work except to the conspiracy theorists, internet trolls and crack-pots he enlisted to fire up suspicion, hatred and popular resentments, or, to the GOP establishment he railed against?

Trump is not a student of politics or economics. To the extent he has informed advisors, they are from the GOP think tanks -- funded by the Koch Brothers -- that supported policies leading to the great wealth divide in the first place.

Credit Trump, though, for finding the taproot of white anger in rural America at being left behind. It is a paradoxical achievement because in his own life, Trump has nothing in common with America's dispossessed except a story line.

But let's be straightforward: globalization and technological advances eliminating human jobs is a genie that can't be put back into its bottle. Unless, of course, the planet burns up with war, famine and global warming.

In that case, no one will care about bottles, boxes or the packaging of economic expansion. We will be living a version of "The Hunger Games", lead by entertainers who know how to create popular diversions, who present themselves like the man who lived high above the elites in a tower, in a germ-free atmosphere surrounded by marble, glass, and the trappings of empire, helicopters and big private jets, and only came to earth for photo-ops in the White House.

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
CONVERSATIONS