This blog is an adaption and translation from a blog originally published in Dutch on the Ad Valvas website: http://www.advalvas.vu.nl/blog-item/trump-kent-zijn-kiezers-als-geen-ander
Many voters on the right are less worried about abortion, or about government being “too big”, but are above all worried about their jobs. Jobs they risk losing – or have already lost – because they have been outsourced to China or other low-wage countries. These voters do not only feel threatened by immigration and the alleged danger of the 1.6 billion Muslims world-wide (xenophobic and racist sentiments whipped up by Trump himself), but are also frustrated about staying behind as the one-percent continues to enrich itself. The real income of “Joe Six-pack” has not gone up for decades and has actually fallen in recent years.
After the financial bubble – which also gave America’s working classes the illusion of material progress – burst in 2008, many conservatively inclined Americans have come to realise that the neoliberal economic policies embraced by the Republican elite over the years in fact do not serve their interests. Understanding this better than the rest of the GOP, Trump, has never cared about being a true conservative but has deliberately deviated from the party line, positioning himself in some respects to the left of Hillary Clinton. Particularly when it comes to free trade, Trump has staked out a much more critical position than Clinton, who has only become critical of the free trade she previously championed (for instance as Secretary of State) since the rise of Bernie Sanders. Strikingly, and in contrast to all other GOP candidates, Trump also wants to preserve America’s (minimalistic) social security, this after years of the Tea Party calling for its radical overhaul in its battle against the tax-hungry beast of the federal government. Earlier in the campaign Trump also sharply criticised hedge funds, though, probably because he did not want to antagonize them too much with an eye on the New York primary, more recently he did not repeat these lines. Trump’s voters do not want to see further retrenchment of social security, and they certainly do not want more free trade or to see yet further empowerment of banks and corporations. On the contrary, they seek more security and protection against neoliberal globalisation.
The lesson we can draw from all of this is that in spite of years of “culture wars” raging in America and the obvious attachment to guns, God and country among many GOP voters, socio-economic class actually matters and leads to new fault lines in American politics. And Trump has a really good political antenna in this regard. When recently asked what his number one priority was for their country, his answer was simply: jobs! So in this respect, the Tea Party, which always attracted a large part of the working class vote but represents a politics completely opposed to working class interests, has been clearly outmanoeuvred by Trump. Even if Trump’s own policies may ultimately not serve their interests either, at least the real estate mogul better than anyone understands which policies many people are fed up with. A Trump nomination, even if it does not lead to the presidency, may yet spell the end for the Tea Party movement, or at least the small-government libertarian version of it. In any case, many lower educated voters that used to support the Tea Party are now moving in their droves to get behind Trump, who welcomes them by exclaiming: “I love the poorly educated!”
The real political revolution may have to wait until after 2016
Bernie Sanders, whose momentum after seven victories in a row has now faltered, is of course in many respects the left-wing, progressive answer to the same socio-economic problems driving the rise of Trump. More explicitly yet (and more authentically) than the businessman-entertainer turned politician, the Vermont Senator blames these problems on globalization and on America’s power elite. Though they both appeal to the same economic anxieties and the anti-elitist sentiments these produce, the differences – and not just in style – between these two revolts against the establishment are bigger than the similarities. One big difference is of course that Trump himself is a member of the “billionaire class” that Sanders rails against in his campaign, and which he always mentions in his repeated speeches against inequality. And while Trump’s anti-free trade rhetoric does worry his fellow billionaires, the material interests of the one-percent are probably pretty safe (at least in the short-term) in the event of Trump becoming the next occupant of the White House. In fact, as Fortune has calculated, Trump’s tax plans will make income inequality grow considerably, with the ultra-rich in particular (among whom include Trump himself) benefiting from the large tax cuts Trump proposes. And those same rich are, according to the Manhattan oligarch, indispensable: “To make America great again.”
“We need the rich in order to make the country great, I am sorry to tell you,” as he recently put it.
Now that it looks as if the battle will be between Trump and Clinton in the fall (even if the Republican party establishment will make an ultimate attempt to prevent this) we may begin to conclude that what began as a revolt against the elite in Iowa and New Hampshire will in fact not likely lead to a real revolution in American politics yet. With Trump versus Clinton, American voters will have the choice between a billionaire who will allow the rich to get richer, and Hillary Clinton, whose campaign is again financed by other billionaires and banks, and who has more friends on Wall Street than most D.C. politicians (which is quite a feat given the close nexus between Washington and the New York financial elite). The political revolution that Sanders has announced might therefore have to wait. Nevertheless, the fires fanned by these elections will not easily be put out. On both the left and the right of the American political spectrum it has become clear that there is a large group of voters that is fed up with the economic policies of the previous decades, and whose grievances can no longer be ignored.
Bastiaan van Apeldoorn and Naná de Graaff teach international relations at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and are the authors of American Grand Strategy and Corporate Elite Networks: The Open Door since the End of the Cold War (Routledge, 2016). Follow Bastiaan van Apeldoorn and Naná de Graaff on Twitter.