Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Literati for Trump

By Finbarr Curtis

This week's election of Donald J. Trump did not surprise me as much as it did those who predicted an easy win for Hillary Clinton. The county in which I live voted 59.9 percent for Trump and so I had some idea of the intensity of his support. I watched the final debate next to a man who said he liked Trump because he "talked like a regular guy" and a few seats down from a woman who exclaimed that anyone who didn't vote for Trump was an "idiot" and yelled "You killed those people in Benghazi" as Clinton appeared on the screen.

The Saturday before the election, I was talking to someone who didn't meet the profile of the archetypal Trump supporter from the rallies. He was a financially successful college graduate who was well-traveled and happy to engage in conversation with African Americans, Latinos, and liberal college professors.  He agreed that Trump was a horrible person and had no interest in fabricated scandals about Benghazi or emails. Mainly, he liked Trump's tax cuts and promises to deregulate banks. I asked him if he was such a free trader, did he worry about Trump's call for a 40 percent tariff on China and trade wars against Mexico. He responded: "Trump cannot actually do any of that stuff. There is no way that he could get that through Congress. That's just what you tell the illiterates."

After hearing this characterization of the mass of Trump supporters as "illiterates," I realized I was talking to someone who echoed the views of the Southern bourbon aristocracy that maintained power in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through a divide-and-rule strategy.  In towns in the South, you still meet these members of old families whose names you recognize from the local streets named after their grandparents. Wealthy southerners discouraged economic populism across racial lines by helping to persuade working-class white voters that the greatest threat to them was posed by African Americans, and that big government was a tool of northerners who used minorities to exploit southern white men and women.

My interlocutor's conviction that Trump would not actually do most of the crazy stuff he promised appears to have been the conventional wisdom of Wall Street in the week after the election. In an election night post, I had attempted to imagine the economic effects of a Trump presidency if he enacted his policy proposals. But investors are gambling that this will not happen. If the markets believed that Trump would follow through on his protectionist platform, they would have plummeted. Instead, investors are convinced that Trump will be good for business. After all, Wall Street denizens are well aware of Trump's decades of outlandish promises. Trump financed every building project by making fantastic claims to rope people in and then daring his investors to sue when he did not deliver. Wall Street might be okay with this approach to the American voter

The "it will be fine" rationale for a Trump vote might have been overlooked in the analysis leading up the 2016 election. I am not a financier, but if I had to reconstruct the thought process of big-business Trump supporters I imagine that they are expecting some scenario like this:
The basic bet is that Trump won't do that much. He will be more like Berlusconi than Mussolini, and they can live with that.

Trump won't repeal the Affordable Care Act right away, but will make incremental changes that might lighten the load on employers. It is not good for business for insurance companies to lose 20 million customers. Trump might even be able to fix the ACA in ways that Obama could not. One of the biggest obstacles to the ACA's success is that red states have refused free money to set up the exchanges. If Trump can rebrand Obamacare as Trumpcare, states like Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia would go along with it. While a reversal this radical might seem unthinkable, it is exactly the kind of logic bending move Trump has made countless times. You can imagine Trump on television when reminded of his promise to repeal the ACA on his first day in office. He will say: "I never said that. I said I would fix it. And I fixed it."

On the economy, Trump will for the most part leave well enough alone. Unemployment is at 4.9 percent, which is about as low as it can go under capitalism. He'll lower taxes and get rid of banking regulations Wall Street never liked. This might even create a little short-term economic stimulus. The Paul Krugmans of the world will warn that these short-term benefits will be negated in the long term as they will necessitate budget cuts that will further erode American public infrastructure and that cutting public sector jobs will only further shrink the middle class and continue the decades-long expansion of the gap between rich and poor, but this is not a lesson that investors have ever learned or cared about anyway.

On foreign policy, Trump will also leave the Obama status quo in place. Few Americans seem to be aware that ISIS is losing territory, and if ISIS continues to lose Trump can simply take credit for Obama's strategy as his own. Trump also appears willing to cede Syria back to Bashar al-Assad. That is bad for human rights and human decency as he will be rewarded for genocide, but it might stop the flow of refugees and that was the only reason investors ever cared about Syria in the first place.
On the environment: it will be completely destroyed. Whatever.
Now that Trump has won, he will quietly drop calls to lock up Hillary Clinton or other political opponents. The vaunted Wall was always a metaphor for xenophobia rather than a practical proposal. Maybe Trump will build a few miles of wall in the Texas desert someplace, but there was never any timeline. Finally, while TPP might be dead his proposed tariffs that would limit global trade will never get through congress. Business, as always, will be fine.
For the hard-core, rally-attending Trump supporters who were looking for a takedown of the establishment and now realize that their votes were the virtual equivalent of giving their bank account and social security numbers to a Nigerian prince, they were just a bunch of illiterate racists who don't matter anyway.
I have no idea if any of this will take place, but for Trump to have won a lot of people must have made this bet. In the focus on Trump's working-class appeal, what was left out was the banker making a six-figure salary and living in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Detroit, or Philadelphia. These voters' usually reliable GOP support might have wavered as they felt embarrassed by the excesses of Trump's racist and xenophobic rhetoric, his fights with military families, and his misogyny and history of sexual assault. As the election drew closer, however, they decided that these were not their problems. One of the privileges of whiteness is that racism and xenophobia are not felt as existential threats. While liberals worried about the vitriol of Trump's rallies, the GOP's electoral victory depended upon the broad willingness of white people to benefit from racism. This is not to say that suburbanite voters completely rejected Trump's appeal as it resonated with their sense that Black Lives Matter disrespected American law enforcement, that political correctness had gotten out of hand, or that they were sick and tired of corporate mandates to consider "diversity" in their hiring practices.

The literati for Trump came around because, in the end, they realized that his presidency might not be such a departure from American norms. Structures of racial and sexual inequality have always coexisted with the electoral strategies of both conservative and progressive movements in the United States. To call the rise of the Trump movement "unprecedented" simply because of the obviousness of its racism and sexism ignores this political reality. The precedent for the Trump presidency is the entirety of American history.

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