Home > Uncategorized > The rise of Donald Trump

The rise of Donald Trump

from Dean Baker

It is undoubtedly scary to many people living outside the United States to see Donald Trump as the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. He has repeatedly made xenophobic and racist comments and promises to deport 11 million people who immigrated to the United States without proper documentation. This should provide cause for concern, but it is important to understand the basis of Trump’s appeal.

First, Trump’s support is coming overwhelmingly from white men with less than a college education. These are people who likely see themselves as losers in the economy over the last few decades. While an earlier generation of non-college educated white men could count on a reasonably good paying job in manufacturing, trucking, and other sectors requiring limited education, this is no longer true. Pay for men without college degrees has been largely stagnant over the last thirty five years.

These men are angry about not enjoying the living standard and economic security that their parents could largely take for granted. This leaves them looking for villains to blame, real or imagined.

Immigrants figure high in the imagined category. While there are undoubtedly narrow categories of native-born workers who have seen a drop in their wages and job prospects due to immigration, most research shows that immigrants overwhelmingly compete with other immigrants.

Much of Trump’s appeal has been his hardline stance on immigrants. Everyone seriously thinking about immigration policy recognizes the implausibility of Trump’s mass deportation strategy. Many of these immigrants have lived in the United States for decades. They have held jobs, bought homes, raised children and started businesses. While Democrats have generally supported an approach that allows undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, so have prominent Republicans like President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. Trump obviously rejects this approach.

Trump’s agenda is a bit more grounded in reality when it comes to trade. There is now substantial evidence that trade has been an important factor in depressing wages for large segments of the workforce, so Trump and his supporters are on the right track in complaining about the pattern of trade over the last three decades.

However Trump is wrong in his analysis of the problem. He argues that the United States has essentially been ripped off by China and other U.S. trading partners because the people negotiating the trade deals are stupid. He claims that his experience as a successful businessman will enable him to negotiate deals with China and other countries that actually benefit the United States.

In fact the U.S. trade negotiators are not stupid; they just have a different agenda. Low cost imports from China and other developing countries allow Walmart and other large retailers to undercut competitors that are more dependent on domestic producers. U.S. manufacturers also have taken advantage of low cost labor to reduce their production costs.

For this reason, U.S. trade negotiators are not focused on reducing the U.S. trade deficit in manufactured goods. Instead they are concerned about extending patent and copyright protection and opening markets for the U.S. financial industry.

Trump’s positions on immigration and trade are not the only places where he departs from the mainstream of the Republican Party. He also strongly defends Social Security and Medicare. Republicans have long sought to cut and/or privative these programs. Trump insists that we can afford these programs if the economy was better managed. This position is hugely popular with the bulk of Republican voters, who are disproportionately older, even if it goes against the views of its leadership and its large donors.

As the race moves along, Trump is increasingly well-situated to be the nominee. When he first entered the race, few analysts took his campaign seriously. He had long been a prominent public figure, first because of his high profile real estate deals and then for being the star of a reality television show. While this gave him an enormous advantage in name recognition, it was generally assumed that voters would not take him seriously as presidential candidate.

To the surprise of the experts, Trump surged to the top of the polls and stayed there. This was in spite of the fact that he repeatedly made comments that would be considered horrible gaffes, in which offended one group of voters after another. Remarkably, after each comment his standing in the polls did not change. Apparently many Trump supporters admire him because of his willingness to be offensive.

With the primaries now underway, Trump is rapidly accumulating Republican delegates and still has a strong lead in all national polls. It is difficult to see a scenario in which he does not get the Republican presidential nomination.

The flip side of Trump’s strong position for getting nomination is that it still seems unlikely that he will win the presidency. He is hugely unpopular among Democrats and people who consider themselves independents.

Whatever the final outcome of the presidential race, Trump has exposed a sense of extreme anger among large segments of the population. These people are unhappy about economic policies that have undermined their financial security. Their anger may be misdirected towards immigrants or other countries, but it is not about to go away unless the policies the change.


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  1. Dave Raithel
    March 2, 2016 at 1:21 pm

    Briefly put, “Economic Populism + Xenophobia = Fascism.” Or maybe it’s just “Economic Populism & Xenophobia -> Fascism.” In either case, it’s fascism.

  2. John Hermann
    March 2, 2016 at 1:52 pm

    According to reports that I have read, the leading Democrat candidate – Hillary Clinton – is not trusted by a large number of Americans. In such circumstances, Trump could gain office by default.

  3. March 2, 2016 at 3:16 pm

    Liberals have had their heads in the sand regarding Trump. He is tapping into the anger and frustration you mention. I don’t think Trump would be as dastardly as many on the left imagine, nor do I think he’d be as successful as he thinks he would be. The problem for Trump or whomever becomes president is that capitalism and socialism no longer work in high tech advanced economies. There needs to be a third and unifying theory based on a new concept that resolves the conflicts and apparent impasses these two theories embody.
    All present cutting edge economic theories and reforms unconsciously have the same underlying concept as the basis of their theory/reform. Making this concept more conscious is the way out and the way home for not just the US, but every advanced economy. You can read about this new and completely relevant concept in my soon to be published book Wisdomics/Gracenomics: The New Economic and Monetary Theory For The Modern Age or get a sense of it at wisdomicsblog.com

    • graccibros
      March 2, 2016 at 10:08 pm


      I’m glad you cleared your comment up a bit at the end with the forthcoming book announcement…for a moment there I thought you were going to plug a revival for “social democracy,” or a new New Deal, the way Yanis Varoufakis is doing, saying Europe is not moving to socialism, acceptance of a New Deal there would be an advance, which must be confusing to a lot of Americans since they think Europe is already heavily social democratic if not “socialistic.”

      I call myself a green New Deal social democrat to distinguish my ideas from those of the Clintons and President Obama, Tony Blair and German bankers, who are moderate neoliberals, except the bankers who are more full bodied austerians.

      You know for all the wonders of high tech and worship of Silicon Valley, our national productivity numbers stayed pretty low, or low enough to serve as a foundational excuse not to give workers a larger share of GDP, their share having declined 8.1% since 1970 according to someone at the U of Chicago Business School, and Thomas Edsall marshalls the other compelling reasons for working class anger in the US here at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/02/opinion/campaign-stops/why-trump-now.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=span-abc-region&region=span-abc-region&WT.nav=span-abc-region

      The problem is – and no I haven’t read Gordon’s book yet, it’s on my list to persuade the local college to buy so I can borrow it – that no one has been able to hot-house or force feed the magic of the valley, same in biotech, where every state with a major college and a few bio labs wants to shout “Biotech!” from the steps of the state capitol.

      At the same time, social democracy has always been a fairly unstable compromise between capitalism and socialism, and maybe it endured so long in the U.S. largely because of the collapse of major rivals in the wake of WWII.

      I’m one of the few on the left who calls for a little economic nationalism for the U.S. because I hate to disillusion free traders even further, but I’m not sure China is going to “play nicely with others” once it fully realizes how much power it has accumulated – if it can survive its coming crisis, proof still that no major power has industrialized without going through one…1840’s, Panics of 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893…1929…

  4. graccibros
    March 2, 2016 at 3:29 pm

    Thanks for this Dean. I don’t think I disagree with a single thrust of your observations. I would – will be – tougher on the Democratic Party for their failure to have a full discussion about the U.S. trade deficit and the policies behind it. You named the reason why it hasn’t happened: because both Clintons are vulnerable to “probing” about a basic fact of economic life: U.S. trade policy is about doing what are large multinationals want in a particular context. And this also would involve a close look at how energy policy, especially for fracked gas became a major operation in the H. Clinton State Department, was meshed into the new Cold War with Russia and America “energy independence.”

    And the press which has been asking the questions at all the primary debates has been abysmally shallow on the issue of trade deficits and the causes.

    I would add a another foreign policy/military dimension to our trading decisions: the rise of China to a leading economic power, with military power just behind – and sure to follow. I’ve stated it before in other forums: has any other leading economic power in history ever so facilitated the rise of a rival, rolled out such a red carpet? And had that rival then turn around and hack every major institution of the power that helped to enable them? (Or their earlier technological equivalents. I don’t take hacking as lightly as the f.p. establishment seems to. It’s as serious as the Watergate Burglary turned out to be.) Americans are proving that they can’t think clearly about foreign policy – the new Cold War proves that, because we would never allow another major power to “adventure,” whatever the “cover story” as close to our borders as we have done to Russia’s. And the proof of that is all the regimes we toppled or blocked coming to power in South and Central America for the crime of…sometimes just “social democracy” potential.

    Trump mines the anger, to be sure, but he doesn’t get at the basic dynamics behind trade and foreign policy. We are going to be living with the not very happy consequences of these policies towards China and Russia for decades to come.

  5. March 2, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    Trump reminds me of trolls I run into on the internet! They are likely supporting him?!

  6. paul davidson
    March 2, 2016 at 6:36 pm

    Dean, I disagree with your championing the free trade advocates in the USA to help provide Walmart with “cheap labor” produced goods.
    We believe we are a civilized society and require our domestic located factories to tried labor in a civilized manner where (1) child labor is prohibited, (2) workers are entitled to occupational safety working conditions, (3) if they work more than 40 hours they should get aid overtime, (4)our workers are entitled to a minimum wage of ???. and (5) factories should not pollute the environment.
    Unfortunately the cheap labor nations shipping “inexpensive” products to be sold by Walmarts, violate all these requirements that we believe are requirements necessary for making us a civilized society.
    If China set up a factory in California and operated it the way they do in China US law would shut down this factory and prevent any products to be sold in Walmarts or anywhere else in the USA. Dean our laws also abolish slavery; should we permit slave products to be sold in Walmarts?

  7. Michael Kowalik
    March 2, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    Whatever Trump says (but probably does not believe nor intends to do) is still infinitely better than what Hillary does not say but very much believes and intends. The choice is between a radical entertainer and a known psychopath, so perhaps there is hope that the entertainer (behind his stage persona) is still human. But hope was the platform of the Obama campaign, and it has fooled many. So perhaps the lesson is that there is no hope, at least not in voting. The much quoted words of MarkTwain come to mind, that if voting made a difference they would not let us do it.

    • blocke
      March 2, 2016 at 7:18 pm

      Most of your comments are based on a total misunderstanding of American politics and how it works. One example, “hope was the platform of the Obama campaign,” means nothing in American politics when the Congress is controlled by Republicans. Don’t you know this means that Obama cannot be blamed for the failure to put through his policies. He can’t even nominate a supreme court judge, which is his constitutional responsibility, with any hope of a Republican dominated senate honestly vetting his nominee. Trump is blaming Obama for failures that Republican obstinacy in the Congress created, and in the Supreme Court. As President , Trump would, if he wanted to adopt a policy of economic nationalism, face the same obstacles in a Republican dominated Congress wedded to global financialization.

  8. Lord
    March 3, 2016 at 12:34 am

    Trump’s blustery style allows him far more freedom than conventional politicians since no one knows how much to take seriously and leaves him able to walk back anything he says and be all things to all people. He is very media savvy. At the same time, this leads him to be untested against real policies and specifics and extremely vague. Who would he appoint and who would he listen to? What would he support and how flexible would he be in attaining what he wants? He is more popular among moderates which is noteworthy since the party has done nothing but chase conservatives.

  9. March 3, 2016 at 6:15 pm

    Sadly I think Trump is like Ronald Reagan. He’s likely to win, and if he does he’ll provide rhetoric and an ideological figurehead while other unelected people will be calling the shots. I don’t know who, but some think-tank or conservative clique will be setting policy and running the administration. Just like with Reagan, the rest of the world will be thinking that guy isn’t actually in charge, for the good of us all, but we wonder who is.

    • March 3, 2016 at 6:43 pm

      OMG, maybe,perhaps it could turn out great. What if he “unelected people” that actually will work “for the betterment “of the people” ? OMG !!!!

      • March 3, 2016 at 8:34 pm

        I wonder if that’s how the Germans thought of Hitler?

      • blocke
        March 3, 2016 at 11:45 pm

        Hitler’s acquisition of power, through so-called constitutional means, is one of the most analyzed subjects in German history. Suffice it to say that the Nazi’s at their highest vote-getting point, after Hitler was named Chancellor only got 37.1% of the vote, before that in a series of election, the Nazi total was never more than 33.+ %. Hitler came to power because German Middle class did not support the parties that supported the Weimar Republic, which enabled people in the Hindenburg government to do a deal with the Nazis that made Hitler Chancellor in a government in which Monarchists predominated. The Monarchists totally misjudged the ruthlessness of Hitler, who moved quickly to dissolve the civil institutions in Germany through a process of Gleichschaltung, through which the Nazi’s absorbed the nation instead of the other way around. Up to 1940, the German people watched Hitler undo the German defeat of 1918 and restore full employment in the economy, with everybody singing from Hitler’s Hymn book. Afterward, with all the levers of power in the Gestapos hands, it was dangerous to speak out against him. It was a great show of racist scapegoating until the incompetence of the Nazi leadership brought on the German catastrophe. Trumps ethnic and religious scapegoating and nationalistic economic slogan mongering reminds people of the German National Socialist, but history never repeats itself.

      • March 4, 2016 at 7:17 am

        Thanks for that, Bob, and agreed, history never repeats itself exactly. However, your story and the voting proportions sound worryingly like Britain’s Lib Dems misjudging the ruthlessness of the Tory’s Chancellor Osborne: the latter quickly dissolving the civil institutions in Britain via a process of imposing austerity on opposition and local government, while “Foreign Secretary” Cameron demands Toryization of the EU, promoting economic competition rather than sensible cooperation amid fearful scenes of self-destructive military opposition. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”? If I’ve put this too starkly, that emphases how right Lucky is: we can but pray [for the “conversion” of our leaders?] and live in hope.

    • March 3, 2016 at 8:07 pm

      Portland Maine, Maybe,perhaps a New Better TRUMP !!!

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