Monday, November 14, 2016

A Bitter Harvest

By Reginald Johnson  


  It was last April 24, the day Donald Trump came to Connecticut during the Republican presidential primaries, that I realized something unusual was going on in this country.

 That was the day Trump visited Bridgeport and Waterbury, two once powerful industrial centers that have been struggling for years to recover after a succession of companies closed down their factories and left town.

  The lines of people waiting to get in and see Trump at two rallies --- many of them waiting for hours in a light rain --- was amazing.  In Waterbury, the line to get into Crosby High School stretched along one building, down a hill and up along another building. In Bridgeport, people queued up through the length of the parking lot outside the Klein auditorium where Trump was set to speak.

   Something about Trump’s message and persona attracted these people, in both cases, a mostly white, middle-aged crowd. “He does something to me, I don’t know what it is,” said one woman waiting in Waterbury.

 As I watched these people line up both in person then on the news, and then heard Trump speak at the Bridgeport event recorded on You Tube --- an absolutely raucous rally (what else in Bridgeport?) with Trump blasting away at a “60 percent loss of manufacturing”  in the region and denouncing NAFTA --- it occurred to me that Trump had really hit on something.

People lining up to see Donald Trump in Bridgeport last April. Trump decried the loss of manufacturing and blamed trade deals like NAFTA.

 For the past 40 years, the middle class in this country --- mostly white --- has been sinking.  You can tie that decline very much to the disappearance of manufacturing.  People with only high school educations back in the day could walk into the GE plant in Bridgeport, or the Uniroyal plant in Naugatuck, or Scovill in Waterbury, and get a decent paying job, with medical benefits and a pension. But those plants are long gone.

  Try and find a quality job today with just a high school diploma. Forget it.

  The process of plants closing and corporations fleeing overseas to make more money didn’t just happen back in 1970s and 1980s. It has continued into the 1990s and 2000s’ courtesy of the pro-corporate North American Free Trade Agreement --- promoted by leading Democrats like Bill Clinton and Al Gore --- which laid out the red carpet for companies to leave the country.  And leave they did in droves, from the Northeast to the northern Midwest.
  People’s lives have been ruined in the process and communities devastated.

  I got the feeling that day back in April that many of the people going to hear Trump either had worked in now closed factories or maybe their parents had, and their lives were better then, and their communities were stronger. They were also likely upset over the hollow  “economic recovery” since the 2008 Wall Street bank crash. They came believing that Trump could turn this sorry trend around, and Trump --- though a billionaire capitalist --- knew what they were thinking and catered to it.

  Except for Bernie Sanders, no one else among the presidential contenders saw this major undercurrent in the electorate --- the rage of the middle class. I don’t think too many people in the media saw it either.


 While I felt blue collar anger would be a powerful force in Trump’s favor, I never thought it would be enough to overcome Hillary Clinton’s advantage in key battleground states like Michigan and Pennsylvania. So I was shocked, as many were, by the result last week, with Donald Trump capturing the presidency by winning the most votes in the Electoral College, copping 290 votes to Clinton’s 228. (Clinton won the popular vote.)

 When Tuesday’s election results first came in, I thought for sure the Democratic ground game and union power would be enough to give Clinton the edge in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. But it wasn’t. It turns out there was a “Brexit Effect” going on --- a lot people angry at their economic status declining , angry at the Establishment, angry at being ignored --- turning out in surprisingly large numbers to say “enough.”

   When I related what was happening in the Rust Belt states with what I saw earlier in Connecticut, it all made sense. The white working class was pissed off and making their feelings heard.

  Was race a factor in the election? It might have been for some voters. There’s no question that Trump demagogically played on voters’ fears about job loss and terrorism/security by engaging in constant immigrant bashing and slamming Muslims.  Some Trump backers, particularly the rabid followers at his rallies, responded to this.

  But I do not think that all the 60 million voters or so that voted for Trump in the end were racists and xenophobes --- an argument some liberal commentators seem to be making. Most people voted for him due to anger over their declining economic fortunes and the perception that Trump, and not the Democrats, had some kind of answer for the malaise: rewriting trade treaties, stopping the corporate exodus, lowering taxes, as well as restricting immigration.

  As the old saying goes, people vote with their wallets.

A Trump banner hangs on a tractor trailer in Skowhegan, Maine. The area of central and northern Maine, which voted for Trump, has been hit by plant shutdowns and a general economic slowdown.

 This is not to imply that Trump’s prescription for an economic recovery is the right one. While rewriting the trade deals is a good idea, other ideas of his are the same old Republican bromides --- like cutting corporate taxes and lessening regulations --- that have been tried before and don’t work.

  Trump is basically a populist demagogue. While he has correctly identified some real economic problems, he’s mixed his message with hateful and divisive rhetoric. This is to be condemned.

  Since the election, numerous acts of bigotry directed against minorities have been popping up around the country. Trump needs to come out and make a firm, public statement renouncing this behavior.

  It needs to be recognized that it is the U.S. economic system --- corporate capitalism --- that is the real reason why an irresponsible candidate like a Trump can succeed. The system --- with corporations dumping millions of workers as they relocate to other countries to gain higher profits and with big banks engaging in risky investment schemes that crash the economy --- has created masses of people frustrated with their lives and resentful towards government.

Desperate for answers, they fall prey to someone like Trump.  


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