One of the central rallying cries of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was the slogan, “make America great again.”
While some of this statement’s meaning is undeniably a dog whistle, harkening back to a whiter and less secular America, it is also intended as a promise that jobs, ostensibly good paying ones with benefits, will be plentiful.
There are a few reasons, some looking to the past and at least one looking to the future, that Trump, the GOP ( and Democrats, for that matter) will not be able to keep this promise in any meaningful way.
When speaking publicly about this, Trump frequently mentions manufacturing, steel production and coal mining. These industries loom large in the memory of Americans who have grown up in the post WWII era. Writing this from Pittsburgh, formerly a steel hub and surrounded by coal country, one can still see the fingerprints of a bygone era. A few years ago, I was working with someone who had recently moved to Pittsburgh from another state. He was struck by the fact that a lot of middle aged males had mustaches that were stylistically more at home in the 1970s than the early 2000s (though Brooklyn and Portland changed that) and wanted to know why. I was initially dumbfounded, but it seems the reason may have something to do with he fact that the mid 1970s in Pgh was the last part of what many here see as a golden age, before the decline of steel manufacturing and when the local NFL team was in it’s prime.
The target era of greatness envisioned by Trump voters likely varies due to each individuals age and experience, but I suspect that for most it would be no later than the 1970s or perhaps the early 1980s, the dawn of Reagan and, ironically, the beginning of the end.
While Reagan was elected in a huge landslide over the unpopular Carter, his presidency began to usher in the changes that would, for the most part, do away with the jobs that Trump voters are counting on as well as the erosion of the middle class.
Under Reagan, regular income taxes on high income individuals and well as capital gains taxes were cut drastically. The upper bracket tax rates have been manipulated since then, but are still lower than at any time since the 1930s. In 1986, rates on lower income individuals were raised and rates again fell for taxpayers in the top brackets. This essay is not intended to be a full analysis of Reaganomics, but one can easily research this to find out more for yourself.
On top of the tax burden shifting to lower and middle income payers, other forces worked to chip away at the high paying, secure jobs that voters are hoping for. Perhaps the biggest irony when considering that Trump and the GOP are selling a vision of an ideal past is that these golden era steel/coal/manufacturing jobs were union jobs. While Democrats in the modern Clinton-esque mold bear their share of the blame, Republicans, especially from Reagan onward, have been openly hostile to unions. How does the working class Trump voter think those good jobs of the past got to be so good? Do they think it was out of the kindness of CEOs and other management? Those jobs were good because people were willing to fight for their rights and strike when they had to. To an extent, the fact that modern first world workers have benefits like health care and vacation are traceable to efforts by unions, which have been in decline since the Reagan era.
When Trump and the GOP promise to bring back these good jobs from pre-1980s era, but are promising even a more hostile-to-the-working-class tax policy(look it up, more cuts to top bracket, higher taxes on low income single parents) and haven’t changed their hostility to unions, they are lying or mistaken. If this kind of tax policy is such a great idea, why didn’t it work in Kansas?
Aside from economic policies hostile to workers, other factors contributed to the decline of steel and other manufacturing jobs. Perhaps the single greatest factor has been the rise of automation. Not only did the US steel industry decline from the mid 1970s through the 1990s, but so did the steel industry worldwide, due to more efficient factories. More automation meant that fewer employees were needed to make the same amount of steel. The same is true in any industry, from building cars to making toasters.
Automation is not going away and it is the elephant in the room that not enough people are talking about. What will politicians, Republican or Democrat, do for workers when self driving trucks appear, or robots start stocking the shelves at Wal Mart?
Providing people with better access to a good education without incurring crippling debt will help, but the effects may be so drastic and rapid that we can’t educate our way out of it.
On top of making promises they can’t keep, Trump and the GOP also, whether explicitly or with dog whistles, throw blame at minorities (racial/religious/sexual preference) and want their supporters to do the same. What a lot of the white working class who voted for Trump may not realize is that the enemy is not the other folks at the bottom. The working class in cities and the rural working class have the same concerns. What benefits a black worker also benefits a white one. What benefits a millionaire does not necessarily benefit someone making $30k a year.
On top of all this, Americans have developed an insatiable appetite for imported goods. While many of these goods are useful and necessary, much worthless junk is purchased. Have you been inside a Five Below lately? People have always bought knick knacks (see collectors of chalk sculpture carnival prizes) but one need only to watch the checkout lanes at any big box store to see constant flow of disposable goods.
It seems to me that the acceptance of the transition from durability to disposability in the marketplace can’t help but accelerate the race to the bottom.