November 27, 2020

THE IRONY OF TRUMP’S APPEAL

Trump set himself against the 1 percent at a time when donor-dependent politicians (including virtually all of them in the Republican Party) were unable even to consider that the country might have a problem with inequality. And Trump did so credibly. He didn’t just oppose the 1 percent, he made them sick. That meant he wouldn’t be able to sell out to them even if he wanted to. That was enough.

The inequality that we are speaking of was as much cultural as economic. Trump’s supporters were disproportionately rural and exurban “deplorables,” to use a coinage of Hillary Clinton’s that will be the one thing the average schoolchild is taught about her a generation from now. They were sneered at, condescended to, and lectured about their racial homogeneity, as it were a function of their hostility to diversity rather than of their exclusion from the global economy arrangements that generate diversity. But such matters are often subjective, subtle, and time-consuming to describe except in broad stereotypes. We must turn to economic statistics for an objective description of this great social conflict, even if they leave out its most important psychological and sociological elements.

Trump didn’t sell out his supporters. In fact, his presidency saw something extraordinary, even if it was all but invisible from the country’s globalized cities: the first egalitarian boom since well back into the twentieth century. In 2019, the last non-Covid year, he presided over an average 3.7 percent unemployment rate and 4.7 percent wage growth among the lowest quartile of earners. All income brackets increased their take. That had happened in the last three Obama years, too. The difference is that in the Obama part of the boom, the income of the top decile rose by 20 percent, with tiny gains for other groups. In the Trump economy, the distribution was different. Net worth of the top 10 percent rose only marginally, while that of all other groups vaulted ahead. In 2019, the share of overall earnings going to the bottom 90 percent of earners rose for the first time in a decade.

The Democrats have a plan to fix that.

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