Why Have So Many Americans Succumbed to Trumpism?

Robert Reich

Today, in the sixth essay about the loss of America’s sense of common good, I want to summarize where we’ve come by focusing on one of the worst consequences of the loss: The emergence of Trumpism, and of the despair that has led so many Americans to give up on democracy. 

Starting next week, in the seventh essay of this series, I’ll talk about what I believe we can and should do to resurrect the common good.

It is easy for many of us to condemn fellow Americans who have succumbed to the lies and thuggery of Donald Trump. It’s convenient for us to assume they’re ignorant, or racist, or gullible fools. 

But what if their willingness to believe and support Trump is understandable, given what has happened to them? I’m not suggesting it’s justifiable, only that it may be explicable. 

As we have seen, many of the key political and economic institutions of our society have abandoned their commitments to the common good — and along the way, abandoned the bottom half of the adult population, especially those without college degrees. 

The consequence has been a catastrophe, especially for the bottom half. The erosion began 40 years ago. By 2016, when Trump was elected president, the typical American household had a net worth 14 percent lower than the typical household in 1984, while the richest one-tenth of 1 percent owned more wealth than the bottom 90 percent put together. 

Income has become almost as unequal as wealth: Between 1972 and Trump’s election in 2016, the pay of the typical American worker dropped 2 percent, adjusted for inflation, although the American economy nearly doubled in size. 

Most of the income gains have gone to the top. The 2016 Wall Street bonus pool was larger than the annual year-round earnings of all 3.3 million Americans working full-time at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Whereas 90 percent of American adults born in the early 1940s were earning more than their parents by the time they reached their prime earning years, this proportion steadily declined. Only half of adults born in the mid-1980s are now earning more than their parents by their prime earning years.

Average weekly nonsupervisory wages, a measure of blue-collar earnings, were higher in 1969 (adjusted for inflation) than they are now.

Most Americans without college degrees are working longer hours than they worked decades ago and taking fewer sick days or vacations, and they have less economic security.

Nearly one out of every five American workers is in a part-time job. Two-thirds are living paycheck to paycheck. Along with pay, employment benefits have been shriveling. The gap in life expectancy between the nation’s most affluent and everyone else is widening, as well. 

Increasing numbers of working Americans have been succumbing to opioids. Death rates have been rising for Americans with no more than high school degrees, due to suicides, chronic liver cirrhosis, and poisonings, including drug overdoses.

Americans who for decades have been on a downward economic escalator have become easy prey for demagogues peddling the politics of hate. 

THE STANDARD EXPLANATION for why America has become so economically lopsided is that most Americans are no longer “worth” as much as they were before digital technologies and globalization, and therefore must now settle for lower wages and less security. If they want better jobs, they need more education and better skills.

But this account doesn’t explain why other advanced economies facing similar forces haven’t succumbed to them nearly as dramatically as has the United States. 

Or why America’s U-turn from broadly shared prosperity to stagnant wages for most and great riches for a few occurred so quickly in the late 1970s and 1980s. 

It doesn’t clarify why the pay of top executives at big companies has risen so dramatically since then, or why the denizens of Wall Street are now paid tens or hundreds of millions annually.

To attribute all this to the impersonal workings of the “free market” is to be blind to the political power America’s economic elites have gained over the rules of the market — and their failure to use their power to deliver rising or even stable incomes and jobs to most of the rest of the nation. 

Since 1971, when Lewis Powell urged the leaders of American corporations to devote a portion of their profits to politics, America has witnessed the largest and most entrenched system of legalized bribery in its history. 

This money — supplemented by additional money from the super-wealthy — has rigged the “free market” for the benefit of large corporations and the rich. 

And what have they gotten for their money? 

— Lower trade barriers have enabled corporations to outsource abroad, making more stuff in low-wage nations and then selling it back to Americans, who get the benefit of cheaper goods but also lose higher-paying and more secure jobs. As a result, entire sections of America have been denuded of manufacturing jobs. 

— The deregulation of Wall Street has enabled corporate raiders (now dubbed shareholder activists and private-equity managers) to force CEOs to abandon all other stakeholders except shareholders. 

— Deregulation of finance also allowed high-paid bankers to pocket huge sums while exposing most Americans to extraordinary economic risks, culminating in the Wall Street crisis and the taxpayer-funded bailout of large Wall Street firms. Americans who subsequently lost their jobs, savings, and homes were understandably outraged — especially after these same bankers were never held accountable. Within a few years of the financial crisis, most bankers returned to pocketing vast fortunes, but most other Americans were still living with the consequences. 

— Weakened unions, causing the unionized portion of the workforce to drop from 35 percent of all private-sector workers in the 1960s to just 6 percent today, and wages to stagnate. 

— Laws against monopolies have been weakened. 

— Laws that prevent corporate insiders from getting rich in the stock market by using confidential information have been negated.

— Laws that prevent the wealthy and big corporations from bribing politicians with campaign donations have been weakened or repealed. 

IT HAS BEEN A VICIOUS CYCLE. Each change in laws has ratcheted wealth and power upward, making it easier for the wealthy and powerful to gain further legal changes that ratchet even more wealth and power upward. 

All of this has taken a profound toll on public trust. Much of the public no longer believes that the major institutions of America are working for the many; they are vessels for the few.

When the game is widely seen as rigged in favor of those at the top, society shifts from a system of mutual obligations to a system of private deals. Rather than be founded in the common good, political and social relationships increasingly are viewed as contracts whose participants seek to do as well as possible, often at the expense of others (workers, consumers, the community, the public) who are not at the table. 

When it’s all about making deals, one “gets ahead” by getting ahead of others. Duty is replaced by self-aggrandizement and self-promotion. Calls for sacrifice or self-denial are replaced by personal demands for better deals.

SOME CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATORS seeking an explanation for the decline of the working class and the rise of Trumpism have turned to social Darwinism. They assume that struggling white people, like poor Black people, are simply losing the race to survive. 

In his 2012 book Coming Apart, sociologist Charles Murray, the darling of conservative intellectuals, attributed the demise of America’s white working class to what Murray described as their loss of traditional values of diligence and hard work. 

He argued they brought their problems on themselves by becoming addicted to drugs, failing to marry, giving birth out of wedlock, dropping out of high school, and remaining jobless for long periods of time. Government has aided and abetted their decline, he argued, by providing help that encourages these social pathologies.

Murray and others of his stripe — such as J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy(and now a Republican senator from Ohio) — seem not to have noticed that the wages of the white working class have stagnated or declined for the past 40 years, steady jobs once available to them have disappeared, the economic base of their communities has deteriorated, and their share of the nation’s income and wealth has dramatically shrunk. 

These are the underlying source of the social pathologies Murray chronicles. The drug addiction, out-of-wedlock births, lack of education, and unemployment are its symptoms, not its cause. 

AS BERNIE SANDERS CHARGED in the 2016 Democratic primaries, “This type of rigged economy is not what America is supposed to be about.” Hillary Clinton noted at the start of her 2016 campaign that the “deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top.” 

Donald Trump proclaimed that “the system is rigged against the citizens.” Trump added that he was the only candidate “who cannot be bought”— a refrain he repeated all the way to the White House. And in his inaugural speech in January 2017, he charged:

“The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.”

Trump’s attempted coup could not have gotten as far as it did — and it continues to this day — without the deepening anger, despair, and suspicions that have subsumed a substantial portion of the American population. 

This is especially true of Americans without college degrees, without good jobs, whose pay has stagnated, who have little or no job security, and whose adult children are no longer doing better than they did — in places that have been hollowed out and economically abandoned.

It’s a mistake to assume that their anger and despair are rooted mainly in racism or xenophobia. America has harbored white supremacist and anti-immigrant sentiments since its founding. The anger and despair come as the consequence of four decades of widening inequalities and political corruption. 

Trump has responded to this by portraying himself as a strongman who would fight for the “forgotten Americans.” He has responded to their suspicions by giving them a set of villains who, he claims, have conspired to keep them down — the so-called “Deep State,” the cultural elites supporting it, and the political establishment guarding it.

And now, in his third run for the presidency, he is casting himself as a martyr on their behalf — fusing his identity with theirs. When he announced his candidacy in March 2023, he told supporters, “In 2016, I declared: I am your voice. Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.

Last June, after being charged with retaining government secrets, he told a Republican gathering in Michigan: “I’m being indicted for you.” On August 3, the day of his indictment for seeking to overturn the 2020 election, he posted, in all caps, “I AM BEING ARRESTED FOR YOU.” A week later, at a campaign event in New Hampshire, he said, “They want to take away my freedom because I will never let them take away your freedom. They want to silence me because I will never let them silence you.”

In his 2024 campaign, Trump is using the criminal proceedings against him as a means of fusing his own identity with that of millions of Americans who have felt mistreated and bullied by the system. He is them. This fusion is a hallmark of authoritarian fascism.

Hopefully, democracy will survive the 2024 election. The longer-term challenge for America will be to respond to the anger, despair, and suspicions of those who have been left behind, with hope rather than neofascism. We must assert a common good based on democracy, the rule of law, and a system that works for the good of all. 

How and where do we begin? In the chapters ahead, I will offer some ideas. Thanks, once again, for joining me on this journey.

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