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Season of the demagogue

Stephen Menendian, assistant director, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society | November 8, 2016

Americans head to the polls today in what is likely the most important and consequential election in more than a generation, and certainly the most fraught since 1968, which followed the assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon B. Johnson’s unexpected decision not to run for re-election. The 2016 presidential campaign has scrambled traditional political lines and nearly detonated both political parties with insurgent populism. On the right, Donald Trump has thrown out traditional Republican dogma on trade and the post-war international order. On the left, Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Democratic nomination campaign very nearly toppled the party’s establishment and the Clinton restoration.

More deeply, there is a political realignment underway. In 2012, we saw the most extreme racial polarization in voting possibly ever seen since the Reconstruction period. This year, the electorate remains racially polarized, but there are new dimensions of polarization, such as education and class.  Traditional Democratic blue-collar strongholds such as Youngstown, Ohio, are now Trump country. And traditional Republican strongholds such as suburban Columbus now appear trending Democratic. Rustbelt states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan are getting more Republican votes than recent cycles, and southern states such as Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia are getting more Democratic votes. For the first time in a very long time, the Democratic nominee is projected to win a majority of college-educated whites.

At the heart of Trump’s appeal is not merely nationalism and incipient populism, but a series of attacks on “the other.” Trump is a demagogue of the first order, railing against Mexican immigrants, Chinese trade deals, Islamic terrorists, African-American neighborhoods and many other groups. A full litany of his attacks on other groups is beyond our scope, but he has mocked the disabled, bragged about sexual assault towards women, and demonstrated unrestrained misogyny. Donald Trump is the ultimate “otherer.”

His attacks on women have proved so repugnant that many traditional conservative Republicans have gone out of their way to condemn Trump, and perhaps none more vociferously than Mitt Romney, who gave a speech in in the spring that made clear that Trump was an unacceptable candidate. Even the Republican speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, was forced to condemn Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslim immigrants and refugees.

Political pundits ascribe Trump’s rise to a failure of the Republican Party to address the economic insecurities of its base, and a rebellion against the Republican political and economic elites. But there is more to it than that. Although the failures of the political class to protect workers from economic dislocation and address growing inequality are surely part of the equation, there is something deeper afoot. Economics alone cannot explain the current moment.

As many economists point out, by many traditional economic indicators, America appears to be doing well. Although GDP growth is not strong, it’s not as anemic as critics point out. Unemployment is relatively low, job growth is steady, and the stock market has continued to break records in the Obama years. And although most of the gains of economic growth have been directed upward, toward the top income earners, there is evidence that trends may be reversing somewhat.

The missing factor in this analysis is identity.  The centerpiece of the Trump agenda — a border wall — is not simply an economic policy, targeting undocumented workers to preserve jobs for American citizens.  It is also a cultural and ethnic project, underpinned by concerns of demographic and linguistic change in a browning America.

Similarly, the Brexit vote this summer was not just about trade and commerce with Europe. It was also a question about national identity, especially during a massive refugee and migrant crisis from the Middle East and North Africa. Brexit supporters not only voted to exit a European economic and political arrangement, but were focused on slowing the flow of migrants and even refugees to their shores.

The dislocation of the white working classes in the United States and Europe are not just economic matters. They are cultural and ontological. In Hillbilly Elegy, author J.D. Vance describes the unfolding of this dislocation. In Strangers in Their Own Land, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild describes the feeling in white working class communities of being passed over by people of color, recent arrivals, and coastal elites. Or, as Lawrence Rosenthal describes it on this blog and in our recent journal, “Trump’s followers’ strongest feeling is being dispossessed of the America they have known.”

It is not simply a matter of doing poorly.  It is a question of relative performance, where expectations and reality sharply diverge. Ross Douthat, a conservative commentator for the New York Times, frames the matter this way:

This sense of dread, in turn, bleeds easily into ethno-racial anxiety when the benefits of that imagined future seem to belong increasingly to people who seem culturally alien, to inheritors who aren’t your natural heirs. For this reason mass immigration, the technocratic solution to the economic problems created by post-familialism — fewer workers supporting more retirees — is a double-edged sword: It replaces the missing workers but exacerbates intergenerational alienation, because it heightens anxieties about inheritance and loss.

Demagogues like Donald Trump stoke anxieties of demographic change by tapping into these economic dislocations. Make America Great Again is not simply an economic message; it is a message of identity. A majority of Trump supporters feel that America was better in the 1950s, before civil rights and women’s rights.

Demagogues are winning across the world. Turkish leader Recep Erdogan carefully organized against Kurdish separatists after a parliamentary defeat last year to rebuild his political base, which he has since consolidated after a recent coup attempt. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi rose to power as an economic reformer, but has stoked Hindu nationalism to reinforce his support and expand his political power.

Part of the answer to these demagogues and their appeals must be to rebuild the structures of opportunity that have frayed, fertile ground for such messengers. We must do more for those who are left behind by economic and technological change.  But we must also resolve to build more inclusive societies that are inoculated from the appeal of the demagogue.

We must design and implement policies that build inclusivity into the fabric of our societies. (Our recently released inclusiveness index allows us to measure national and state-based progress on this front). And we must also disseminate messages and supporter messengers, like Khizr Khan, the father of the fallen veteran who spoke so movingly at the Democratic National Convention, that promote inclusion rather than fall prey to the siren call of the demagogue.  As Mr. Khan recently said in a speech:

“Would my son, Captain Humayun Khan have a place in your America? Would Muslims have a place in your America? Would Latinos have a place in your America? Would African Americans have a place in your America, Donald Trump? Would anyone who isn’t like you have a place in your America? Well thankfully, Mr. Trump, this isn’t your America.”

Walls are not a solution to the problem of “the other.”  In fact, the opposite is true: erecting a wall is an act that tacitly admits a problem is not solvable, and should be avoided by isolating one people from another, or should be left for someone else to solve.

Stephen Menendian is the assistant director at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley.

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