Trump and the White Working Class

November 14, 2016 § 2 Comments

The chattering classes are twisting themselves into knots to try to explain and understand how and why Donald Trump won last Tuesday.  How did he win out in traditionally Democratic territory in the Rust Belt? This has been the $64,000,000,000,000 question.  Me? I don’t see it as being that complicated.

Underneath it all, there is a very simple economic message that Trump has communicated to his base: he has promised to cut up NAFTA and bring the jobs back.  The United States is currently reaping the consequences of ignoring the plight of a sizeable chunk of the population for nigh-on 30 years.  They have lost their jobs, their self-esteem, their way of life.  Time was, you could graduate from high school on Thursday.  And Friday morning, wake up and head over to the HR office of the local factory or plant.  They knew you; your dad worked there, so did your uncles and big brother. Your mom worked there, so did your sisters and your aunts.  They hired you immediately. And on Monday, you came to work for the first time.  And then you stayed there for 35-40 years. You made good money.  Got married, had kids, raised them.  Eventually, you retired.  Your thanks for your loyalty and hard work was a generous pension plan that took care of you in return for giving your working years to the company.  But that’s all gone.  Deindustrialization.  And free trade.

What happened when the jobs dried up?  People lost their homes; their cars; their marriages.  Alcoholism and addiction became more common.  Re-training programs were a joke, they didn’t plan anyone for a new career in computers.  Some were lucky and found a new career in the service industry.  But making $9/hr to stock shelves at Walmart doesn’t pay the bills.  Then there’s health insurance and benefits.  With GE, those were all taken care of.  Waffle House doesn’t take care of them.  Their churches tried to take care of them but most of them weren’t religious to start with. And their politicians? They paid lip service for a bit, both Democrats and Republicans.  But then they got bored and got obsessed with other things.  And so no one had these dispossessed, under- and un- employed people’s backs.

And as a result, the Midwest joined the South as the lands of cultural carnage. They got written out of the national narrative, except when something stupid happens (don’t believe me, go read this rant from the Bitter Southerner).  Think about TV and the movies.  Time was, they were set in Milwaukee and Minneapolis and Savannah, GA.  Now?  Not so much. And when they are, you get Mike & Molly; their characters met at Overeaters’ Anonymous.  And besides, it’s set in Chicago.  Chicago isn’t of the Midwest anymore. It’s a national city.  America no longer tells stories about the heartland anymore.  There are no more little ditties about Jack and Diane.  Midwesterners don’t see themselves on TV or the big screen, unless it’s a story about them going to NYC or LA.  For example, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Or Parks and Recreation, which also began as a mockumentary making fun of Lesley Knope and the residents of Pawnee, IN.

The United States has long been a deeply divided nation.  We like to think it’s North-South.  It’s not.  It’s the coasts and Chicago vs. the ‘flyover states.’ What’s more dismissive than referring the bulk of the nation as ‘flyover’ territory?  No one listens to the fears and frustrations of the former white working class.  And their visceral anger brings out all their latent fears of mistrust of anyone not exactly like them: African Americans, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ, and so on (and this in no way excuses hatred)  And then Trumpism occurs.

Donald Trump and his Cult of Personality came along in the 2016 election and he promised to be their champion, to get rid of NAFTA, to bring the jobs back.  I get this argument, I think I understand the visceral nature of it as both a son of the working class and an historian of deindustrialization.  My family lost out with the first FTA between Canada and the US in 1988.  My Old Man lost his job as his company sold out to a larger one south of the border.  And the brief period of relative prosperity we had in the mid-80s was gone.  He eventually recovered, luckily for us, he was a skilled tradesman, a welder.  And my mom was university-educated.  But. We lost.  And so many others.  Their anger is visceral.  Even now, 30 years on, I still maintain deep, deep suspicion to FTA agreements, for this exact reason, despite knowing the rational reasons to support it.

But Trump cannot deliver on his promises.  If he tears up NAFTA and other FTAs, the American economy will collapse, and so, too, will the world’s.  Those factory jobs aren’t coming back.  Automation, people.  The smallish factories across the region I live in, the South, do not employ more than a fraction of what they used to; automation.  More to the point, Trump doesn’t care about these people any more than anyone before him did.  He used them to get to the White House, he exploited their anger.

So what is going to happen when all these angry white working class people realize they’ve been lied to, again?  When Trump is revealed as nothing more than a false prophet, that anger will still be there.  But it will be amped up because he failed to deliver. And they will look for scapegoats, and all the people who already feel unsafe will feel it all the more.  Racism, homophobia, misogyny; these will all be amplified.  Maybe Trump will mollify them by blaming someone else, another shadowy group that hindered his ability to deliver on his promises as our leader.  Or maybe he’ll double down on the elitists, Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, etc., etc.  I don’t feel optimistic either way.

Deindustrialisation in the Rural Heartland

September 22, 2014 § 8 Comments

The Macon County Fair in Decatur, Il, was cancelled this year.  The fair has been a going concern for 158 years, but it also survives through funding from the state of Illinois.  Illinois, of course, is a particularly cash-strapped state, which is saying something.  It has the lowest bond rating from Moody’s of all 50 states of these United States of America.  So funding for county fairs in Illinois has dropped drastically since the turn of the century, from $8.16 million to $5.07 million.  Meanwhile, Macon County’s population has been in steady decline since the 1980s, falling from 131,375 to 109,278 today.

We were in Decatur last summer, in our drive across the continent to my sister’s wedding in Portland, OR.  It was a pretty, but sleepy town in Central Illinois. It remains a central component of the industrial/agricultural heartland of the United States.  It is also the birthplace of the Chicago Bears, the franchise known as the Decatur Staleys, after its original owner, a food-processing magnate.

But Decatur is in trouble, its population also in steady decline since the 1980s.  And this decline is reflected in the trouble the Macon County Fair has encountered, as the organisation that puts on the fair is carrying a $300,000 debt, and its headquarters was damaged by heavy rains in July.

What is happening in Macon County is not unique, it is symptomatic of most rural areas in the United States (and Canada) today, as corporate farming becomes further and further entrenched, in the wake of deindustrialisation.  Oportunities in these areas dry up, people are left with no choice but to move away, most of them to big cities, both in the MidWest, but also Chicago and coastal cities.  Most Midwestern cities continue to grow, though St. Louis seems to be bucking this trend, its population in free-fall since the mid-20th century.

The story of deindustrialisation in North America is one that has been largely limited to big coastal cities, most notably in the northeast, and the so-called “Rust Belt” that stretches around the Great Lakes on both sides of the border (for an excellent treatment of deindustrialisation in the Rust Belt, check out Steve High’s book, Industrial Sunset).  Left out of this story is the affect of deindustrialisation on the rural areas across the Heartland.

Writing Deindustrialisation

September 19, 2014 § 3 Comments

I’m always surprised by how deindustrialisation and the economic and social dislocation it caused in the northern United States and Canada gets written about.  Take, for example, an otherwise interesting and informative article in The Boston Globe last weekend.  In an article about Sahro Hussan, a young Somali-American, and Muslim, woman who has created a business of avant-garde fashions for Muslim women, in Lewiston, ME, Linda Matchan, The Globe‘s reporter, writes:

Lewiston was one of the largest textile producers in New England, rolling out millions of yards in cotton fabrics every year.  In time, though, the industry struggled to compete with Southern states where production costs were lower.  Lewiston went into decline.

While there is nothing factually wrong with Matchan’s description of what happened in Lewiston (or any other industrial town across the northern portion of North America), note how any responsibility for what happened is removed from the equation.  Matchan makes it sound like this was just an entirely natural process.

Deindustrialisation wasn’t a natural process, it didn’t just happen.  The reason why the mills in Lewiston (or Lowell, Laurence, Lynn, or anywhere else) struggled wasn’t some random event.  It happened because the corporations that owned those mills decided that they were not producing enough value for share-owners.  So these corporations pulled out of places like Lewiston and moved down South.  Why?  Because production costs were too great in the North, the workers made too much (they were often unionised), and there was too much regulation of the workplace for the corporations’ preferences.  So, they were induced to pull out and move down South where workplace regulation was minimal, where workers weren’t unionised, and the corporations could make great profits.  The governments down South actively worked with these corporations to bring them South, mostly through these unregulated workplaces and tax incentives.  As a friend of mine notes, this is how the South won the Civil War.  But the South’s victory was shortlived, as soon, the corporations realised they could make even more money for their shareholders by moving overseas.

So.  Long and short, deindustrialisation wasn’t just some random process, it was a cold, calculated manoeuvre by the corporations that owned these mills, in conjunction with cynical state and local governments in the South.

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