By Kumar David –
The life-cycle of American neo-populism seems to be short – Surprising shifts in Trump’s support base
On 29 July, according to Gallup’s daily poll-tracker, President Trump‘s disapproval rating was 57% and his approval rating stood at only 38% (5% undecided). Starting from a nosedive at the end of May his approvals and disapprovals have hovered around these numbers. In 17 states – all had voted solidly for Trump in November 2016 – his approval was over 50%, but below 50% in 31 others including some he carried in the elections. In Vermont, Massachusetts, California, Maryland and New York, approval was less than 32%, which is abysmal for a new president of just six months vintage. More interesting and significant is the way in which his support has shifted across states implying a transition in American political dynamics. This is the topic of this article; but a digression first.
I was surprised by the limited understanding of underlying causes of the Trump phenomenon and the roots of American populism among those one would consider well informed leftists in Lanka. This was driven home to me in a Q&A session in June in Colombo. Even ‘higher level’ participants were unaware of the important socio-economic drivers behind Trump’s victory. They attributed it to superficial reasons; white racism, anti-Muslim prejudice, jingoistic rhetoric and “make America Great Again” chest beating. This is superficial; 60 million voted for Trump (Hilary, 63 million) because there was good reason to reject a system which had failed in jobs and living standards. The Trump mass loathed the well to do elite (Wall Street, Washington, Financiers) making money while the worker tottered and the middleclass stagnated. There is a wealth of data (income and wealth gap, unemployment, fall in real wages and collapse of American manufacturing) to prove this assertion. This alienation was garnished by anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim and anti-Chinese scaremongering, but many in Lanka don’t grasp the greater significance of socio-economic drivers, rather than intemperate rhetoric, in fashioning the political and electoral dynamics of American populism.
Why didn’t Democrats, who usually do well in working class, trade unions, left and radical circles (known as liberals in this strange country), win this vote? Failure of the system should play into the hands of the Democrats, should it not? It is a more complicated than that; I need to explain. The Democrats, especially under Obama, were the party of rational, modern capitalism, as expressed by a commitment to global trade agreements, reliance on high tech, intellectual elitism, free-markets including capital export, and internationalism in combating climate change. But modernism stands in contradiction to the current needs of American national capitalism, modernism does not help to slow down America’s decline. Rational leadership of global capitalism is no longer on a parallel track with promoting US capitalism. The parallelism has eroded from the mid-1990s because of the shift of economic power to Asia, flabbiness of social classes in the West, and because capitalism, like all things animate and inanimate, has a life cycle. Gibbon described the decline and fall of the Roman Empire as a 300 year saga, but in the modern age, time flies faster.
To cut to the point, neo-populism was seed that fell on fertile ground. The white trash that intellectuals despise, the working class driven out of jobs by the defeat of American manufacturing in the rust-belt states, the impact of national security scaremongering, and the ability of hostile actors (ISIS, China, Afghanistan and technology) to stand outside America’s control, changed perceptions for 60 million voters. Make America Great Again was a resoundingly appropriate battle cry, part valid part imagined, to rescue America from its fate. Time cannot be reversed but time progresses by kinks and quirks. The long and short of it is that the rise of American neo-populism was written into the genes of American capitalism’s life-line. A clownish boor, an error prone bungler, a crude vulgarian; a cranky personality, all this did not matter to an alienated populace in the worst of times.
But it has, almost by definition, got to be a temporary dysfunction; the Gallop Poll ratings seem to suggest that. The daily chaos in the White House and the unending gibberish on twitter confirm a president who will live from one crisis to another, but may survive his term. That’s what I am coming to next.
The Approve-Disapprove spread
It is no surprise that nationally, Trump’s disapproval ratings exceed approval, and that in the New England states, California and New York approval is less than one in three. What is surprising is the fine grain, the results in nine other states. I believe these reflect generic trends. The cases include both minuses and some remarkable pluses. The notation in the graphics is as follows: A score of +10, for example, means that approvals exceed disapprovals by 10%; say 53% approve, 43% disapprove and 4% ‘don’t know’. The findings are from the aforesaid Gallup Poll:
The graphics were prepared by NBC television.
The first graphic shows a remarkable countertrend. Trump has secured a huge approval over disapproval margin, in excess of 20%, in West Virginia, North Dakota and Wyoming. What on earth do these three have in common apart from being over 80% non-Hispanic white? (Hispanic is Spanish speaking people of Mexican, Cuba, Porto Rican and Central American origin). But there are lots of predominantly rural and non-Hispanic-white states! The secret is that big time fossil fuel production and Trump’s “damn global warming” anthem resonates in these states. Wyoming and West Virginia are first and second in coal production and North Dakota is second in crude oil production. A sad takeaway from this is that the masses, in bulk, are attuned to their wallets and damn the planet and the rest of the human race. Trump won these three states with over 60% of the vote in November 2016.
More important is that this selective endorsement of Trump in certain regions and lobbies indicates that the energy, old-technology and protectionist business sectors, and to a degree banking, thanks to the promise of dismantling regulations, are aligning themselves with him. Trump is not going to be a pushover unless the Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who has now impanelled a Grand Jury, unearths financial corruption, tax evasion or brazen dealings with gangland – collusion with Russia even if established will not be fatal. The strength of American democracy and its institutional supports, as opposed to the frivolous and debased nepotism and bias of ours, does make a contrast.
Equally remarkable, but for an opposite reason, are the solid Republican states of Arizona, Texas and Georgia; Trump won all three by over 7% in November. Now he is underwater by 7 to 9 points. This dosen’t make sense does it? It is known that though he is scrapping the bottom of the barallel nationally, his base is holding up well. It is estimated that about 85% of Republicans are still behind him. These three states are all politically backward Republican happy hunting grounds. But, there is a demographic shift taking place in parts of the south including these three. Non-Hispanic whites are less than 55%, and Hispanics, who may have been carried away by neo-populism last year, seem to be having second thoughts. These demographically determined voting patterns could have a long term impact. Hispanics are about 14% of the population now, the second largest but fastest growing ethnic/racial minority – nationally blacks are 15% and non-Hispanic whites 63%. Native Americans, Chinese and Indians make up the sediment.
Is the working class returning?
Another and more significant finding lies the heart of industrial America – Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa. Trump carried all in 2016. Ohio and Iowa are flip states between Democrats and Republicans, not hard-core working class like the first three which the Republicans last won 30 years ago in 1988. Ohio and Iowa are more rural than industrial and it is not surprising that neo-populism is holding up better than in the Hispanic influenced south. It is good news for Trump that his disapproval margins are small.
Let me lead into the critical group, the last three states, with a quote from the NBC report. “Trump won the presidency with narrow victories in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Democrats thought these three were a great wall around the Great Lakes, but Trump smashed through and won where no Republican has since 1988. Now the Gallup data says the bricks are falling; he is underwater by 9 or more points in all three. Despite his strength among blue-collar workers there are factors working against him. All three have long histories as union strongholds and big urban centres that are very sour on Trump”.
Trump won these important, white, traditional working class states, by a small total majority of 78,000 votes. If the Gallup Poll findings are reliable this majority is evaporating and workers in the rust belt are drifting away from the neo-populist agenda; nothing that was promised has materialised, and the President is locked down in time-wasting squabbles. Since recent experiences have shredded the credibility of opinion polls I am cautious about getting my hopes up, but a little optimistic that neo-populism of the American variety is withering. I hope a social-democratic current, to the extent that Bernie Sanders was a manifestation of social-democracy, will emerge in the Democratic Party under a younger fresher leader. A Labour victory in Britain however is a prerequisite.