My Turn/Singleton: Sanders and Trump

  • singleton

Published: 12/6/2016 6:09:27 PM

One of Donald Trump’s final campaign ads highlighted the decline of America and its middle class. Wall Street and politicians (paid off by Wall Street) are to blame. Free trade agreements, apparently engineered by this elite conspiracy, are blamed for the decline of American manufacturing. Only Donald Trump listens to “the people,” who are invoked throughout the ad. He is the only force standing between American and the apocalypse.

It occurs to me that this ad, perhaps toned down a bit to avoid some of the “end of days” imagery, could have been run by Bernie Sanders in his own campaign against Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Sanders to his credit rejected the sentiments of many of his supporters and endorsed Clinton. Sanders does not scapegoat immigrants and Muslims for the nation’s woes. That is certainly a huge difference.

But when you travel through Michigan, Ohio and Western Pennsylvania blaming free trade agreements, engineered by “corporate America” or the top 1 percent, for the country’s problems, you are paving the way for Trumpism. There are several reasons for this.

First there are the facts. It is simply not true that free trade agreements caused the decline of, say, the auto industry in, say Michigan. That was the result of complex factors that can be traced to the late 1960s, well before the North American Free Trade Agreement. These factors included the failure of the auto industry to produce well-made, fuel-efficient cars, high wage and particularly benefit costs in the American industry and, most importantly, the modernization of Asian economies in the ’70s and ’80s.

Let us look closer to home. The town of Montague had at least six large manufacturing establishments at the end of the World War II. It now has only one, Paper logic. Can one really blame this on free trade agreements or corporate America? And are the Montague working and middle classes that much worse off than their counterparts in 1955?

But my argument here is not mainly about the history of American manufacturing. My argument is primarily over the politics of the history.

Does anyone really believe that suddenly in 2016, the white middle and working classes in Ohio and western Pennsylvania started to feel anxious about their economic and political status? Why were they not “angry” in 2012, when the Democrats won both these states. After all that was the tail end of the “Great Recession.” Certainly the conspiracy of economic and political elites was in full force back then.

The difference of course was that we had Obama and Romney back then, as opposed to Sanders and Trump. I am not arguing that the latter two men created the legitimate anxieties reflected in the last election. But they certainly encouraged a certain paranoid, conspiratorial reaction to them which in the end elected Trump.

My argument of course will no doubt be rejected out of hand by the majority of “progressive” Democrats. First of all, they will tend to agree with the Sanders-Trump analysis on key points, which I most certainly do not. They will point out the very real differences between Sanders and Trump. Fair enough but there is far too much overlap for me.

More importantly, they will argue that if progressive Democrats do not address the economic anxieties of the white working and middle class, “reactionaries” like Trump will win, as in 2016.

In other words, their political analysis is precisely the opposite of mine. Today’s progressive movement believes Democrats need to articulate a left-wing version of Trumpism (or Tea Partyism). I believe that such a strategy only encourages Trumpism.

This gets you into a broader, but very important, discussion of the history of kinds of populism which both Trump and Sanders articulate. As a professional historian, I can tell you that this has been a debate among academics who have studied populism since at least the 1950s.

Will progressive Democrats have this debate? Will those who supported Sanders do their homework and have an open mind about the history and virtues of populism? I have serious doubts given the current culture on the political left. But maybe those who so enthusiastically supported Sanders will prove me wrong. I hope so!

Jeff Singleton lives in Montague.

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