We’ve pelted Donald Trump with all the withering humor we can muster, and even though it is hard to imagine an easier target for elitist humor, with his blustering narcissism, his intellectual inconsistency, his questionable business record, and his truly stupid television show, above all of which rages his ferocious hair, it’s been so frustrating. Although we have shown again and again that he is dishonest, unfit for the presidency, and incapable of office, not only has he been able to survive, but he actually seems to thrive on the relentless series of what for any other candidate would have been knockout blows. Donald Trump’s supporters are indifferent to our wit and to our arguments, and we’ve convinced ourselves that this only proves what probably didn’t need much proving, that his supporters are racist nitwits and that they support Donald Trump for reasons that are too trivial to matter. This frightens us because collectively they seem to be bringing something new to American politics.
But we are wrong on all counts. Most of Trump’s supporters are not racist nitwits, and not only do they have legitimate reasons behind their support of Donald Trump, in fact they are very important ones. We are finally starting to see this. We are wrong, however, to see recent events as some kind of turning point in American history. The outrage which the American political establishment is being rejected certainly brings dangers and risks, but much fewer than we think because in fact we’ve been here many times before, and by remembering our history we can make some pretty good guesses as to how this all of will evolve.
Trump’s supporters belong to what we sometimes call the Jacksonian tradition in American history, and their history, which of course pre-dates the presidency of the man who gave them their name, combines the impressive with the shameful. Like Andrew Jackson himself they have been the strongest defenders of some of our most fundamental American values while undermining others. While their social peers in Europe have largely accepted their limited role in politics, except from time to time when they rise up in sans-culottes rage, the Jacksonians always demand to be heard when they feel their rights are threatened.
But while he may count on the support of the Jacksonians, Donald Trump is no Andrew Jackson and soon enough, like most of his predecessors, he will abandon his followers or be abandoned by them. Because Jacksonians lack sophistication, and tend to be largely uneducated, at times when the small victories they have worked for are threatened to the point of creating deep-seated anxiety it has always been easy for scoundrels to exploit them, but as one of the greatest of their heroes reminded us, you can’t fool all the people all of the time. The Jacksonians have been the defenders of American democracy even when their history has been marred by misjudgment, and although Donald Trump’s time will be limited, the effect of Trump’s supporters will be far-reaching, and probably positive for the US in the longer term even if it risks foolishness in the short.
I won’t pretend I’ve ever been a Jacksonian. In the early 1980s, when I was getting my Ivy League education, my brother and I lived in Manhattan’s notorious Alphabet City and ran a music space on Avenue C and 3rd Street. One of the friends we made in that heavily Dominican neighborhood was Dani, a bright, uncontrollable but ferociously charming 15-year-old, who at some point within a few months of our meeting him suddenly seemed to have constructed us into his family. As we got to know Dani, we quickly learned about a life very alien to ours but which he took for granted. Dani’s daily life combined what to us was the romance of New York street hustling and the sheer awfulness of life for a kid living in one of the worst neighborhoods of the city. It consisted mostly of petty crime and street hustle, avoiding trouble with local gangs and only picking fights you knew you could win.
He didn’t stay often with his Dominican mother but, until my brother and I managed to get him a tiny apartment in the basement of our building, Dani usually slept in Lower East Side squats, friend’s apartments, and even sometimes in a wooden box tucked away on a side street. He went to school occasionally, and until we put him on an allowance he depended mostly on hustling, shoplifting and small burglaries to earn spending money (in fact we met him when he tried to charm my brother and me into not noticing as a friend of his made off with a crate of beer from our bar). When he was 16 he got caught up in the crack epidemic sweeping New York and it took us more than a year, and a tough year at that, to get him to stop.
Dani never knew his father but had been told that his father was half African-American and half Dominican, although if Dani wanted to seem white he easily could. Over time we met his two younger sisters, who both eventually became prostitutes and junkies, and both eventually died of AIDS before Dani turned 25. His older brother, with the very inappropriate nickname of Hippie, was a fairly scary guy, heavily scarred and stocky, who had been in and out of jail several times. He too died early, in his mid 30s, halfway through a 12-year sentence. Hippie had been convicted of a series of armed robberies at local ATMs, and because he had forced Dani to join him as lookout – and Dani, like most of us, was far too frightened of Hippie not to do whatever he demanded – Dani was himself sentenced to four years in jail.
I was glad to see Hippie in jail because of the way he had dragged Dani into dangerous crime, but my brother, both tougher and less judgmental than I was, would send him care packages six or seven times a year. After Hippie died my brother’s girlfriend showed me some of the letters Hippie had sent my brother from jail: badly written, misspelled, with the most hackneyed expressions of emotion, which conveyed nonetheless an almost heartrending gratitude for packages that were the only evidence Hippie had during his final years that anyone on the outside cared or ever thought about him.
With that kind of background it was easy to assume away any useful future for Dani, but he had always been bright and ambitious. I think I may have been the first person ever to tell him how smart he was, some time when he was still 15, because when I did, and then had to insist that I wasn’t just making fun of him, his mouth fell open with surprise and he began beaming cockily when he realized that I was probably right. He certainly was bright, and while in jail, Dani decided he would complete his high school education. We spoke by telephone nearly every week so that he could brag about his progress, and about the facility for computers he discovered he had.
How to succeed
Over the next few difficult years after his release Dani made an amazing recovery. He got a job working in some computer capacity, and then another job driving a truck. After a lot of oats were sowed, mostly with the arty white girls who had begun moving into the neighborhood in the mid-1980s, he suddenly fell in love with a working class girl of Irish descent, and decided he had to marry her. He did, and they are still married nearly three decades later.
A few weeks after the events of 9/11, an event that shocked him terribly, I happened to meet Dani for beers when he told me, very casually and without the least sense of having done anything praiseworthy, that beginning two or three days after the Trade Center disaster, every morning he had joined the hundreds of volunteers working downtown to dig up bodies and clean up the rubble of the devastated Twin Towers. I didn’t know what to say when I heard that except that I felt very proud of him, which surprised him. After a moment of confusion, he suddenly figured out why his volunteer work was indeed sort of an impressive thing, and he beamed, realizing that he had just hustled some big points with me.
Around that time I left New York to live in Beijing, but from there I learned that Dani’s knack for computers paid off. A few years after 9/11 he wrote to me to say that he had started a small computer consulting business and had moved to the Midwest. He had three daughters, of whom he was inordinately proud, and joked about the dictatorship his wife exercised within the family. He was now a member of the middle class, and although he was much closer to the bottom of the middle class than to the top, he had achieved a social standing almost unimaginable for anyone in his family. He was very clear that his adored daughters were never going to be given the chance to return to the place from which he came.
Over the years during trips back to the US I saw him from time to time, although rarely, but I got emails and later was able regularly to check his Facebook page. His page consisted of the expected combination of family pictures, silly animal videos, and the corny jokes he had always been famous for, along with dutiful messages about the various volunteer work he and his wife (and the kids) were doing as community members and as a family. He had determined to become “normal”, as he saw it, but of course far from being normal what he had become was the result of extraordinary effort and determination.
Late last year I noticed for the first time on his Facebook page that he had taken an interest in politics, and this year I could see that the candidate of whom he seemed most to approve was Donald Trump. I sent him a joking Facebook message about his new-found interest in politics and asked him if he really was a Trump supporter. He wrote back, a little sheepishly, knowing that I was unlikely to be impressed, saying that yes, he was going to vote for Trump if he got around to voting.
After a few more kidding messages back and forth, as I expected, I could see that Dani didn’t know much about Trump’s policies and his background, even though many of his friends also supported Trump, and he didn’t mind that he knew so little. To the extent that he and his friends even noticed it they dismissed the controversy around Trump as noise, and probably to be expected by anyone who had decided to take on the establishment, which he believed Trump to be doing. He had never paid attention to politics before because he had never thought any of it mattered, but he had some idea that Trump was a successful businessman determined to toss out a political establishment for whom Dani had always seemed irrelevant.
Few people who follow the Trump saga will be surprised to learn that Dani never really was able to explain to me very clearly why he supported Trump, except to the extent that he felt a vote for Trump was a vote against everyone else, and that rather than be swayed by the howls of liberal or conservative anti-Trump rage, which he barely followed, he thought that every time some over-educated pundit attacked Trump it only reinforced his sense that Trump was probably taking on the Washington establishment. Democrat or Republican, Dani wasn’t able to distinguish among the Trump critics, and we shouldn’t be too quick to take that as evidence of how hopelessly naive Dani is when it comes to politics. As fas as he and his family were concerned there really was little to distinguish the two.
Dani’s success in life was tenuous enough that he was unwilling to admit that his middle-class life was threatened in any way by financial difficulties, but from the way he talked about how the government had mismanaged the economy, and his concern about illegal immigrants taking jobs, I suspect that things weren’t always easy financially, and the educational needs of his daughters would certainly be creating pressure for him. The things that worried him seemed to be the things that were weakening his grasp on the edges of the middle class.
Trump and the dummies
Dani clear doesn’t seem to most of us to be an obvious Trump supporter. Given his background he is clearly a tough guy who can handle himself in a fight, but I know him well enough to know that if he ever actually attended a Trump rally, which I doubt, there is no way he would be one of the trouble-makers that joined the mobs looking to beat up protesters. He probably wouldn’t have any sympathy for the protesters, but in Dani’s world you mind your own business.
So how does Dani fit in? Clearly he isn’t a racist, and just as clearly he isn’t one of those losers who flock to Trump campaign events to get reassurance that their failures are caused by someone else. He is a successful, middle-aged, middle-class family man, not terribly educated but smart, of black and Latino descent, who participates and volunteers in community events (grumbling just enough to be good-natured about it), and who cannot hide the sense of joy and even surprise whenever he looks at his daughters.
And yet he supports Donald Trump, a man who probably isn’t especially racist himself but is distressingly reluctant to reject racism, and who is so intensely narcissistic that the idea of his volunteering to help some abstract community, and for no reward, wouldn’t even register with most of us. It is almost impossible, for example, to imagine Donald Trump working shoulder to shoulder with Dani, digging through the fetid ruins of the World Trade Center to pull out bodies, simply because, as Dani tried to tell me that night over beers, he felt there was an obligation to show respect to the bodies of the people who had died there, especially the cops and firemen.
It is also hard to imagine that Dani could have much sympathy for someone who inherited a fortune. He came from a wholly dysfunctional family, and shortly after he turned 18 he was in jail for violent crime, had almost no education, and a history of crack addiction, and yet he was able to turn himself around through hard work and a total lack of self-pity. Even Donald Trump might agree – or perhaps he is narcissistic enough not to – that Dani’s pitiful success is heroic in a way that Trump’s magnificent success isn’t.
But in fact Dani’s support for Donald Trump isn’t any more surprising then the fact that Dani is almost completely ignorant of anything Trump has done or said. His support for Trump simply reflects a recurring and predictable feature of American history. There are so many historical precedents for anyone willing to read American history in light of the Trump campaign that it should have been obvious from the surge in recent years in immigration and, even more so, the surge in income inequality, that sooner or later someone like Trump was going to emerge and someone like Dani was going to support him.
In fact what is important about Dani’s support of Donald Trump is what it says about the bulk of Trump’s supporters and what it says about the ignorance of the opposition to Trump. The political establishment in the US, the press, and much of the huge anti-Trump constituency loves the excitement of the Trump campaign because Trump has given America and much of the world a wonderful gift whose value we are too embarrassed to acknowledge. He allows us to feel the thing that we most eagerly want to feel: unified and justified outrage.
Nothing seems to make us happier than when we are able to join hands to recoil together in outrage at some thing that is unambiguously detestable. We count with delight the racists who flock to Trump’s campaign speeches as fodder for our outrage, we quiver with an almost delicious anger as we note the redneck shit-kickers who show up hoping that some raghead will allow them to unleash their hatred of Muslims, we recoil when Trump measures his penis, we are enraged when Trump has the effrontery to contradict today what he said only yesterday, and then we damn the sheer stupidity of anyone who is unable to see the contradiction. We are certain that Trump’s supporters consist of the worst people in America, and there are enough of them to make him president.
But Trump’s supporters are not the worst people in America, and they will never make him president. Of course it is true that many of the worst people in America do support Trump. Why wouldn’t they? There is no doubt that if you think black people have slyly and unfairly, and no doubt at the connivance of the Jews, gained the upper hand in America and deserve to be knocked down a notch or two, or that the only important decision that must be made by the mob of which you are a part is whether to beat up the Mexican first or the Arab, or if you loathe foreigners but aren’t really sure where you stand on people from Oregon because you can’t remember whether or not Oregon is a foreign country, then of course you are going to attend a Trump rally – which gives you the comfort that a homogenous crowd grants itself – and roar with approval every time Trump says something outrageous.
But who cares about whether or not these people attend Trump rallies, except for those who are eager for the excitement and danger of showing up to protest? We must remember two things. First, these people, the dumb ones, are not the ones who are going to win Trump the presidency, or even the Republican nomination, because these people don’t vote. They aren’t smart enough to vote. They find voting to be too complicated and confusing.
Second, the dumb ones and the thrill seekers who attend the rallies only because they are cheap entertainment have locked Donald Trump into an unwinnable position. If he wants to keep them roaring their approval at ever-larger rallies, and his narcissism makes him want it desperately, Donald Trump must be outrageous every day. But our standards of the outrageous adapt so quickly that this only means that every day Trump must do or say something more outrageous than he did yesterday, or he risks losing his momentum. The whole penis incident only makes sense when you recognize the pressure under which Trump has placed himself to remain outrageous.
But if you have to be more outrageous every day than you were yesterday, and the election is months away, it is certain that at some point you will become stratospherically outrageous, and you will have gone way too far. This is when Trump’s real supporters will begin to get over their intoxication, as they eventually almost always do, and this is why it is probably only a matter of weeks before the whole Trump phenomenon begins to collapse. You cannot easily maintain a geometric progression when it comes to outrageousness.
Because while the dummies of America may indeed flock to Trump’s campaign speeches in order to enjoy the spectacle, it is unfair to dismiss Trump’s supporters as if they are all the same. Many people who support Donald Trump, and Dani is an obvious case, are good people, honest, hard-working, perhaps not especially well-educated, but they are often the backbones of their communities and their country.
And they are not as stupid as we want to believe. Does immigration hurt them? Yes it does, and while I believe that immigration has always been one of the greatest and most powerful sources of American success, and will continue to be for decades, if not centuries, I also fully understand that only someone who treats trade as a matter purely of ideology can deny that there are short-term costs. But Dani and millions of Americans do risk paying these costs, and it is unnecessary and even stupid to point out the irony of Dani’s own immigrant background as if this conclusively proved anything because it is wholly besides the point. When Dani worries about immigration it is because he is worried about his daughters’ education, and not because he has forgotten that his mother is Dominican. Trump’s supporters know that some of them may end up paying the short-term cost for what many of them even know is America’s long-term benefit, and they know that they do not have enough slack in their incomes and savings to afford it.
And what about their fury at what they believe to be unfair international trade? While there may well be global benefits to free trade, and almost certainly are, it isn’t so incredibly hard to recognize that the global trading environment is systematically gamed by many countries – and yes, sometimes by the US too – and that they do so because there are gains to be had at the expense of other countries. The global trade regime has undoubtedly benefitted certain constituencies in the US, but it has also created significant costs for the US and, more importantly, has resulted in a redistribution of income, and while the hard-working if uneducated millions who support Trump may not be able to explain the costs to them as glibly and as self-confidently as they are denied by bankers and other winners from free trade, they are right to complain. Trade is undoubtedly a complex issue, but there is a real case against the current system of free trade that must be addressed in a way that makes sense to Trump’s supporters.
And finally Trump’s supporters are enraged by the inexorable rise of income inequality. The only response they have been offered is that this rise in income inequality is natural, probably the result of technology, and cannot in any way be reversed, so we might as well get used to it. This response is so profoundly untrue that it can only be seriously proposed by someone for whom American history is a total mystery. We have had periods of rising income inequality before, and they have always been reversed once there was a political determination to do so. Dani, and the millions like him, have every right to be enraged by the past three decades of rising income inequality, and if they dismiss every anti-Trump witticism as completely irrelevant until it addresses income inequality, they are right to do so.
Trump’s followers may not articulate it very well, and they may too easily allow their anxiety about immigration and trade to spill over into nativism and hatred of foreigners, but they do have a strong case that makes them in fact part of a venerable history. Trump is almost certainly not going to resolve any of these issues for them – the historical precedents are pretty clear on that point – but it isn’t stupidity that drives them anyway to Trump. It is the recognition that because anyone that belongs within the political establishment has clearly proven himself unwilling or unable to resolve any of these issues, then gambling on someone “outrageous”, who they identify as outside the political establishment, is perfectly reasonable because it has no possible downside. Their logic is the logic of successful hedge funds: when there is no cost to being wrong, then you must gamble, no matter how small the chance of being right.
The Jacksonians ride again
The Jacksonian tendency in American politics has existed throughout American history. Their first flag bore the motto “Don’t tread on me”, and all of their subsequent flags have retained that message in one form or another ever since. Their often-admirable self-reliance, however, comes with other qualities.
They are often ferociously nativist, i.e. anti-immigrant, and while we think they are always foolishly unaware of the irony of their provenance, in fact they understand that irony to be irrelevant. They know that the filthy immigrants that thirty years ago threatened to corrupt the American ideal are today the nativists that are determined to protect American purity, but the fact remains that they often have too little slack in their daily lives, and those of their families, to afford any financial interruption. Perhaps that is why they seem so unimpressed with irony and it is probably only arrogance on our part that assures us that they are too stupid to see it. Dani and I have spoken about his family background many times, and he knows full well that his American genealogy is shallow, but he grew up in the streets of New York and he is convinced that he is as full-blooded an American as any one else, and of course he is.
Jacksonians can shift their views haphazardly. In modern times, for example, they usually support states’ rights, although during the 19th century, during Andrew Jackson’s campaign, they demanded a much stronger presidency. But there are also rock-hard consistencies. Jacksonians romanticize the common man, whether he happens to be at the time the frontier settler, the homesteading farmer, or an employee of the Ford Motor Company in the 1920s, in the same way that Dani spoke feelingly about the police and the firemen whose bodies he felt obliged to dig up after the tragedy of 9/11. They have always fulminated against anything resembling a hereditary aristocracy, and instead admired or even worshiped, sometimes with astonishing foolishness, the nouveau riche that displaced them because these men made their own way. Trump has convinced them, in spite of the truth, that he is one of these self-made men, and as long as they believe him they will forgive his clownishness and his self-importance.
This is because Trump has positioned himself well, if dishonestly, among people who have a long history of loathing monopolists and big city bankers. Jacksonians have always despised New York and Washington (and now Los Angeles too) as the homes and headquarters of all that is wrong with the Republic. They value fair play and a level playing field as the highest aims of government, and oppose on principle government actions that attempt to redress social wrongs by favoring any group – and while this hatred of government redress can very easily slide into racism, it is unfair to dismiss it as only racism, especially when many conservative and religious but often silenced African-American and Latino families scattered around in cities, small-towns and farms across the country share the same feeling. In fact if someone were ever able credibly to overcome their fear that nativism leads automatically to racism, many of these blacks and Latinos would quickly join the Jacksonians.
Jacksonians include the original tea-partiers and the Sons of Liberty, who despite their subsequent glorification included hooligans and sometimes-vicious mobs who were often revolutionaries less for love of liberty than for hatred of the rich. They included the Know-Nothings of the 1850s, nativists who rose up in anger to purify an America that was likely to be overrun by filthy Irish Catholics, along with the Locofocos of the 1830s, who rose up in anger to protect workers from the depredations of rich monopolists. William Jennings Bryan counted on them in his crusade against gold, and even more against the New York City bankers who backed the gold standard. His followers were known as the progressives, and their racism and nativism was largely romanticized out of history, but they were no less Jacksonian than those who say they support Trump today, something Harvard historian Niall Ferguson has already pointed out.
The Jacksonian fury with the changes brought about by rapid industrialization and the monstrous Second Bank of the United States, around which the new country suddenly saw individuals of once-unimaginable wealth emerge, put Andrew Jackson in the presidency, and it is unfortunate that the real concerns many Americans had in the 1830s have been subsumed by the racism of Andrew Jackson and his followers – both against black slaves and against native Americans – but we do no favor to our understanding of American history if we allow racism to be the whole story of Jackson’s presidency, any more than if we forget that people like Dani, who is not a racist, comprise a larger share of Trump’s supporters than the racist fools we love to mock.
Dirty rotten scoundrels
The strength of the Jacksonian tendency has waxed and waned depending on American conditions. It is during periods of especially heavy immigration, and during periods in which income inequality is especially deep, that they have come out in force, so much so sometimes that they rock the political establishment to its very bones, and usually none too soon. But with very few exceptions the Jacksonians have almost always chosen as their leaders the worst and most hypocritical of scoundrels, scoundrels who nearly always betray them once they’ve pocketed the millions they’ve obtained from thrashing the old elite.
When we tremble at the idea of Trump as president, we should remember their weak track record in putting presidents into office (even William Jennings Bryan for all his oratorical brilliance got trounced). Perhaps their only triumph was Andrew Jackson himself, but his success in no way suggests that Trump can do the same. Andrew Jackson, for all his barbaric treachery towards native Americans, was no hypocrite and no opportunist, and his accomplishments, especially as a soldier, put in him in a category that is wholly out of Trump’s reach, so much so that to compare the two is meaningless.
But while they have nearly always been unlucky or foolish in who they end up choosing as their leaders, the Jacksonians have still managed to disrupt the political establishment in ways that proved pretty permanent, and they are doing so again. As absurd as Trump may be, he channels their sans-culottes hatred of the elite in ways that might actually strengthen democratic institutions. Trump’s supporters might be why the US has never developed a European-style permanent aristocracy or its institutionalization of power. And perhaps it is not just coincidence that any period in which there has been a significant downward redistribution of wealth seems to have been preceded by a period in which the Jacksonians have done well. For better or for worse, Trump is not exceptional in American history and the good news is that even though he will never win the presidency, he has made it clear that future presidential candidates have no choice but to address income inequality and the anxieties of the Jacksonians if they want to keep the likes of Trump out of office.
Even if Trump does get the Republican nomination, the only effect might be to destroy Abraham Lincoln’s party forever, and the Democratic candidate, almost whoever it is, will win by an historic landslide. And for those who need the bogeyman of a possible Trump presidency in order to maintain that delicious feeling of justified outrage, so what if Trump becomes president? That is not the end of the world, or even close to it. The first thing every American president learns is how little he is able to do, and President Trump will be in office for four years, with a Congress in which both parties despise him, and he will accomplish nothing, after which he will exit office with among the lowest popularity ratings ever recorded.
And about that wall, how many times have we heard our liberal friends threaten that if Trump becomes president they will give up their US citizenship and move to Canada? What idiots. In the incredibly unlikely circumstance that Trump becomes president, the very first decision he will make, because he has no choice but to make it, and probably the last he will ever implement, is to build the wall between Mexico and the United States that he has promised. But anyone whose has followed Trump’s business career knows damn well what will happen. He will indeed build the wall, but inevitably he’ll build it on the wrong side of the country – perhaps out of incompetency or perhaps because there is a lot more money to be made with a longer wall. Those liberal idiots can talk all they want about going to Canada, but they won’t be able to get there. There’ll be Trump’s wall in the way.
P.S. I don’t really write about political events on my blog, but after a discussion about Trump with an English friend during one of my business trips, I wrote this on the flight home with some vague idea of perhaps submitting it to some publication. However I didn’t want to spend too much time on this as I am swamped with other commitments and so have decided to publish it here. By the way I wrote this just before the horrible events Tuesday in Belgium, which reminded me that while I dismiss the chances of Trump ever making president, or even of lasting much longer as a candidate, there is a fly in the ointment that will give him a few more weeks purchase. Terrorist organizations seem to know that we are in a period of elections in the US and Europe, and that to the extent that they can affect the election process in the West – and clearly they can – they must do what they can to ensure that the extreme parties of the right perform well. The two are in a self-reinforcing loop. The awful events in Brussels will not only strengthen Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin and a host of others, but their increased strength will raise the number of domestic recruits for terrorist organizations. It is a maddening process.
About The Author: Michael Pettis is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a finance professor at Peking University. Michael is a highly influential speaker and writer on global economic growth. He received an MBA in Finance, and an MIA in Development Economics, both from Columbia University. Michael is also the author of Avoiding the Fall: China's Economic Restructuring, The Volatility Machine, and The Great Rebalancing. He writes at china financial markets. (EconMatters author archive Here)
The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.
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