Trump Triumphed Due to Downward Mobility

Crossposted from Asia Times

It’s still a horse race, but only just: Donald Trump’s Super Tuesday victories in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia, Arkansas and Massachusetts outweigh the Ted Cruz victory in his home state of Texas and neighboring Oklahoma. The Republican Establishment will not close ranks around Cruz as the last candidate capable of beating Trump. Marco Rubio’s consolation price was the Minnesota caucuses with 37% of the vote.

For the past six months my Republican friends and I have watched Donald Trump’s ascendancy and asked ourselves whether the voters had gone crazy. The voters aren’t crazy. We in the Republican elite were crazy: we thought we could allow the American economy to remain a rigged game indefinitely. The voters think otherwise. That’s why Trump is winning. That’s also why Bernie Sanders, the least likely presidential candidate in living memory, gave Hillary Clinton a run for her money. If you don’t give people capitalism, the late Jude Wanniski used to say, they’ll take socialism.
Americans are  shrewd. You can’t spit on them and tell them it’s raining. They know the game is rigged against them. They know it’s rigged the same way that they know a lottery is rigged: There aren’t any winners. They know that they are downwardly mobile because they aren’t upwardly mobile. Americans don’t mind playing against bad odds–they play the lottery all the time–but they think that they are playing against zero odds. Ordinary Americans had an outside chance to get rich until 2008. Now they have no chance at all.

Upward mobility is America’s gauge of well-being. It’s not the decline of median family income that gets under Americans’ skin, but the perception that the elites have pulled the ladder up behind them. During the quarter-century after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, it was only a slight exaggeration to say that someone in every family got rich. They bought a cable television franchise, started a website, got some stock in a high-flying tech company, flipped real estate, or ran a small business that became a big business. Inequality didn’t bother Americans as long as they had a chance at a winning ticket–not necessarily a fair chance, but at least the kind of chance that paid off occasionally for ordinary people. As long they could see that people like them were becoming rich, they kept playing the game.

Poor people buy overpriced lottery tickets and rich people buy overpriced insurance for the same reason: the poor overpay for the chance to become rich, and the rich overpay to make sure they won’t become poor. As the distinguished Canadian economists Reuven and Gabriele Brenner argue, social mobility is the secret of economic behavior. People don’t count the pennies in their pay packet: the poor look for a path to middle class security, and the affluent insure themselves against the slippery slope back to poverty.