Though we do not have detailed data, it appears that Trump is appealing primarily to less educated white sectors of the population, lower middle class and working class, people who are angry, frustrated, frightened, bitter about the fact – and it is a fact – that they have been in many ways cast by the wayside. The neoliberal programs of the past generation have been harmful to affected populations almost everywhere, sometimes severely so.
Rising global inequality, which has reached extraordinary proportions, is one (and only one) of the many indications. Oxfam produces annual reports of poverty and inequality. In 2014, they found that about 90 individuals held half of total world wealth. In 2015, the number was reduced to 62. Meanwhile perhaps 5 million children are dying of starvation every year – more than 500 an hour, a tragedy that could easily be remedied by available resources. Among the developed (OECD) societies, inequality is particularly prominent in the Anglophone countries, with the US well in the lead. Despite its unique advantages, by most measures of poverty and social justice the US ranks with the poorest OECD countries, alongside of Greece, Mexico, Turkey, facts heightened by lavish displays of concentrated wealth.
The disparities have increased since the latest crash, with some 90% of growth going to 1% of the population. As widely reported, the global rich now live in a different world from the general population. In the US, the neoliberal programs have led to stagnation or decline for much of the population, undermining of functioning democracy, reduction of benefits and social welfare. People do not have to read academic studies to know that real wages for male workers are about what they were in the 1960s while wealth has concentrated in very few hands; that corporate strategies have shifted manufacturing abroad; that a considerable majority of the population is virtually disenfranchised in that their representatives disregard their attitudes; and much more. Years ago, academic studies showed that the socioeconomic profile of abstention in the US matches those sectors in similar countries who vote for laborite or social democratic parties, lacking in our political system, which in some ways still reflects the Civil War.
We also cannot overlook the deeply rooted historical background of white supremacy and racism that has never been overcome, and the increasing atomization of the society that leaves people alone and isolated, feeling helpless against forces that are crushing them. Under these circumstances it is not hard for demagogues to stir up anger against those who are even more victimized – immigrants, minorities, “welfare cheats” (demonized by Reaganite racist slurs) – and to stimulate highly exaggerated fears of threats ranging from the federal government to Islamic terrorists.
We should also remember that what we are witnessing is not entirely new. A decade ago, the distinguished scholar of German history Fritz Stern, writing in the establishment journal Foreign Affairs, opened a review of “the descent in Germany from decency to Nazi barbarism” in the establishment journal Foreign Affairs by writing that “Today, I worry about the immediate future of the United States, the country that gave haven to German-speaking refugees in the 1930s,” himself included. With implications for here and now that no reader can fail to discern, Stern reviewed Hitler’s demonic appeal to his “divine mission” as “Germany’s savior” in a “pseudo-religious transfiguration of politics” adapted to “traditional Christian forms,” ruling a government dedicated to “the basic principles” of the nation, with “Christianity as the foundation of our national morality and the family as the basis of national life.”
Hitler’s hostility toward the “liberal secular state,” shared by much of the Protestant clergy, drove forward “a historic process in which resentment against a disenchanted secular world found deliverance in the ecstatic escape of unreason.” That was ten years ago. The words resonate more ominously today.
It is also useful to compare the current malaise with the Great Depression in the 1930s, which I’m old enough to remember. Objectively, conditions were far worse than today. Subjectively, they were quite different, as I could see even from my own extended family, many of them unemployed working class with limited education. Despite the grim conditions, there was a sense of hopefulness, a belief that we’ll get out of this together. The labor movement had been virtually crushed by the 1920s, largely by force, but reconstituted in the ‘30s with organization of the CIO and militant labor actions that helped induce a fairly sympathetic administration to institute significant social reforms. The unions also provided crucial forms of association and interaction, including educational and cultural opportunities. There were also lively political organizations – Communist, Socialist, others — participating actively in labor and civil rights actions and general intellectual life in which much of the working class participated.
Business publications warned of “the hazard facing industrialists” in “the rising political power of the masses,” but were powerless to stem the tide, though reaction was building up by the late ‘30s and picked up forcefully when the war ended. This is not the place to review what has happened since, but one consequence is that the hopefulness of the ‘30s and the social struggles and achievements that inspired it have been largely supplanted by fear, despair, and isolation, opening the way to the Trump phenomenon, which should be cause for deep concern.
Perhaps the most favorable observation that can be made about his candidacy is that Cruz is even more dangerous, and the other likely Republican prospect, Rubio, is hardly less of a threat to the country and the world, at least if he means a word he says.