The Hankyoreh, October 9, 2016
My friends around the world are all asking me how an openly misogynist, racist, xenophobe who can’t make a coherent argument on anything can be a major party’s nominee for president. The answer is both better and worse than it may appear on the surface.
First, people should be assured that Donald Trump will not be the president of the United States. He has been behind in virtually every poll conducted since he locked up the Republican nomination in May. While Hillary Clinton’s margins are not very large, many people have just begun paying attention to the race. Millions still know Trump as only as a largely comical character on a reality TV show. Clinton will likely win by a comfortable margin.
Still, there is the issue of how Trump managed to get as far as he did. The answer is that the experts handicapping the race for the Republican presidential nomination completely misunderstood what was going on. All through the fall of 2015, and even after Trump won several primaries in 2016, the experts were virtually unanimous in their belief that Trump could not win the nomination.
This view had a huge impact on the race because it meant that the leading Republican contenders chose to go after each other rather than going after Trump. Since they were all convinced that Trump would never be the nominee, they saw no reason to criticize Trump in the public debates, their campaign events, or their political advertising.
By the time the other candidates finally realized that Trump could win the nomination, it was too late. He had already accumulated a large delegate lead and the other candidates were running out of money.
The positive side is that if the Republican Party leadership had accurately assessed Trump’s prospect early on they almost certainly would have united behind a single candidate and prevented him from getting the nomination. For this reason the Trump nomination can be seen as largely a fluke event.
If the Trump candidacy can be seen as a fluke event that is unlikely to be repeated, the ugliness of his campaign and the sentiments he voices are nonetheless real. Openly racist groups have been on display at Trump rallies often doing things like waving the Confederate flag from the Civil War. Most of his supporters are fine with this. Similarly, they have no problem with the hateful comments that he routinely directs towards women.
The more establishment Republican candidates may display better manners in public, but these people are an important part of the base of the Republican Party and therefore an important part of the electorate. Mainstream Republican politicians have routinely sought to pander to these sentiments even if they have not gone so far as Trump in saying things like Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers.
The racism and xenophobia underlying these sentiments are not new. They have always been present among the white population. What is new is the central role that these sentiments are taking in political activity, and in particular with the white working class, which is Trump’s base of support.
The white working class did not suddenly become more racist than it was in prior decades. What has changed is that large segments of the working class have seen stagnating incomes for decades and they see a country where their children have little better prospects in life than their parents.
And this outcome is largely by design. Trade policy has been explicitly crafted to put manufacturing workers in direct competition with low-paid workers in the developing world. The theoretical and actual effect of this competition is to put downward pressure on their wages and the wages of less-educated workers more generally.
At the same time, out trade deals left in place protections that benefit the mostly educated workers. Doctors from other countries are not allowed to practice medicine in the United States unless they complete a residency program here. There is a strict cap on the total number of residents and the number of foreign medical students who can be admitted. This protectionism for doctors causes them to be paid twice as much as doctors in other wealthy countries, adding $100 billion a year to the country’s health care bills.
In the same vein, we have made patent and copyright protection stronger and longer over the last four decades both through trade deals and domestic legislation. This redistributes money from ordinary workers to those who benefit from patent and copyright monopolies. And of course we have babied the Wall Street super-rich with bank bailouts, exemption from sales tax, and endless insider deals with public pensions and other assets.
The white working class is right to feel that those in power are not acting in their interests. Of course they are not acting in the interests of the African American or Hispanic working classes either. Unfortunately, unless mainstream politicians stop doing the bidding of the wealthy, the white working class will continue to look to political figures who blame non-whites for their problems, since that will be the only answer they see.
This ugliness will be an ongoing feature of U.S. politics until the policies change. Perhaps a Hillary Clinton administration will turn the country in a different direction. If not, racism, sexism, and xenophobia will still play a central role in future elections even if Donald Trump is not the one leading the charge.