Donald Trump appears likely to be the Republican candidate for president. This does not mean that he will become president, but it does mean that he might. It also means that the basic dynamic of the American political system has shifted, suggesting the behavior of the United States might change. And that makes Trump a matter of geopolitical interest.
These geopolitical consequences cannot be considered until we have looked at how and why Trump differs from other candidates and why he has emerged as a political power.
Let’s begin with a criticism that has generally been made of him. His supporters tend to be less educated, less well-off, and white. This has become a central, disaffected class in the United States, and while focus has been on other groups, Trump has spoken to this one. He has addressed their economic and cultural interests, and no candidate has done that in a long time.
This strategy is what has made him effective. Yet it also poses a challenge, as this class by itself isn’t large enough to give him the presidency. And it generates an almost unanswerable question: Did Trump plan this strategy or did it just happen? But let’s begin with why poorer, less educated white voters have flocked to him.
The Invisible Man—The White Lower-Middle Class
In the United States, the median household income is about $51,000. In California, a state with high taxes, the take-home pay would be about $39,000 a year. That translates into about $3,250 a month in take-home pay for living expenses. If we assume that a home in an inexpensive suburb, a car, and some limited annual vacation is what we mean by middle class life, it is hard to see how the middle class affords that life today.
The fourth quintile, the heart of lower-middle class, earns about $31,000 a year before taxes per household. I grew up in a lower-middle class household (my father was a printer, my mother a homemaker, and there were two children). We owned a house and a car and took a vacation.
Today, people in the lower-middle class are bringing home, at best, $2,000 a month, and they will not own a house but instead pay $1,200 a month to rent an apartment, with the rest going to food and other basics. The lower-middle class can no longer afford what used to be a lower-middle class life.
The Democrats have made a huge case about inequality, assuming that the problem is that the rich own too much. American political culture has rarely been triggered by inequality, but by the inability to acquire the basics of American life. The problem with the Republicans is that they have not noticed that the defining issue of this generation is the collapse in the standard of living of the middle and lower-middle classes. This is part of what brought Trump to where he is today, but only part.
The deeper problem was the perception of the white segment of the lower-middle class that their problems were invisible. They heard talk about African-Americans or Hispanics and the need to integrate them into society. However, from the white lower-middle class perspective, there appeared to be little interest in the challenges facing their demographic. Indeed, there was a perception that the upper strata and the media not only didn’t care about them, but had contempt for their beliefs.
The white lower-middle class is divided into two parts. One part has already been shattered by economic pressures, family fragmentation, drugs, and other forces. Another part is under equal economic pressure but has not yet fragmented. It retains values such as religiosity, traditional sexual mores, intense work ethic, and so on.
This is the class that has been deemed pathological by the media and the upper classes. Its opposition to homosexuality, gay marriage, abortion, promiscuity, and the rest (which was the social norm a generation ago) is now treated as a problem that needs to be overcome, rather than the core of a decent society. The speed of the shift in the values of dominant classes has left this class in a position where those values taught at home and at church are now regarded by the broader society as despicable. Repercussions are bound to happen.
The simultaneous economic disaster and delegitimation of their values marginalized this class. When Mitt Romney referred to the 47% who were parasites in our society, he was referring to these people. When Barack Obama was elected, this group felt that the focus had shifted to the black community and saw itself as invisible (and to the extent seen, contemptible). Economic, social, and cultural evolutions had bypassed them.
Their perception of the political system has become intensely cynical. They see the political elite, bankers, lawyers, and lobbyists as a near criminal and entirely incompetent class. We speak of unemployment after the 2008 recession in terms of numbers. These are the people who were unemployed. They view this elite as claiming rights they haven’t earned. The lower-middle class can tolerate earned wealth, and even respect it, but cannot accept what they see as manipulated wealth and power.
They also see politicians as being dishonest in other ways: saying whatever they need to say in order to be elected. This is not a new view of politics. However, in this case, what the politicians have said is neither in the language of the white lower-middle class, nor does it address any of their issues. It is not only indifference to the economic problems of the white middle and lower-middle class, but obeisance to a political correctness that delegitimized their values. The politicians are implicitly and explicitly rejecting lower-middle class values.