Dare I say it: Donald Trump might have a point about free trade

There’s something remarkable about Donald Trump, and I don’t just mean his preposterous hair. The racism, the bravado, the outrageous comments; they’ve all joined together to create the most globally despised, and absurdly successful, Republican primary candidate that we’ve seen in a long time. But behind the KKK-endorsements, the outrageous headlines, and the lack of coherent policy pronouncements, is a candidate who is saying something that just a year ago would have seemed unthinkable from a Republican – hell, an American – politician. Yet somehow this has gone almost ignored by the media. Donald Trump is taking on neoliberal capitalism.

Now I would never for a second want to have this article misconstrued as an endorsement for Trump. Nothing could be further from the truth. Trump is a nasty, sexist, racist demagogue, and no part of me is convinced that his criticism of neoliberal capitalist policies has any basis in his own deeply held beliefs. This is opportunistic politics at its most impressive, and most cynical. Yet, while the Republican establishment attempt to take him down by insulting his penis size, they are totally ignoring a far more crucial element of Trump’s success, and one that speaks far more about their own failings than Trump’s particularly explosive brand of bottom-of-the-barrel politics.

White working-class America has been in terminal decline for decades. Neoliberal capitalism and free trade have sucked the core straight out of American industry, leaving barren industrial wastelands, crime-ridden ghettoes and staggering levels of poverty. America’s middle classes are shrinking. Almost all good jobs created since the recession have gone to college graduates. Economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case have pointed out that between 1998 and 2013 suicides among white Americans and fatalities related to drug and alcohol abuse were so prevalent that they overwhelmed the dependable modern trend of steadily increasing life expectancy. At the base of this is a statistic so staggering it almost impossible to comprehend; the top 0.1% of Americans control the same amount of wealth as the bottom 90%.

A Youtube video currently circulating shows the victims of neoliberal capitalism that American policymakers have totally abandoned. In it, 1400 workers at the Carrier air conditioning plant in Indiana are told they are all being made redundant and their factory moved to Mexico, because “the extremely price sensitive marketplace” means the business needs to “stay competitive”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a worker shouts back, “fuck you”. Free market ideology has become such an orthodoxy of America that, in political circles, to question it was considered political suicide, so no-one did. But while American businesses (like Donald Trump’s as it happens) have been packing up their factories and moving to Mexico or China or wherever, and reaping ever more ridiculous profits, the average wage in America hasn’t grown since 1979 in real terms.


In fact, the average wage peaked more than 40 years ago, when the $4.03 recorded in January 1973 matched the purchasing power of $22.41 today. For those factory workers losing their jobs on the altar of capitalism, it’s hardly surprising that Donald Trump’s two-fingers-to-China approach is resonating. In fact, Trump’s support is correlated overwhelmingly with areas of post-industrial death and despair. In short, the ‘fuck you’ screamed by one of the Indiana factory workers is a vote for Donald Trump.

On Trump, the Republicans have been the authors of their own doom. They have been convinced that no matter how much contempt they showed for America’s working poor, loud pronouncements about capitalist freedoms and stalwart support for religious conservatism would keep American voters sweet, a perfect storm has been brewing. So far, this storm has been kept in check by America’s destitute democratic system, with the two party system leaving no realistic alternative for the voters they have been ignoring for decades. But Trump has planted a grenade right at the centre of their ideology, a brash, screaming manifestation of the contempt and anger abandoned Americans feel for the political establishment that stopped caring about their interests long ago. The more the Republicans try and dismiss Trump as not credible, as not one of their gang, the more they sink into the quagmire. Working class voters are furious, and they’re baying for blood.

So what are the lessons for liberals? Well, it’s easy to dismiss Trump as a racist; he is one, or at least is pretending to be, and that’s the same thing in my eyes. But popular ‘racist’ issues like immigration, forever the nightmare of liberal political parties trying to gain broad appeal, are far less important to Trump supporters than a genuine fear for jobs and security. Banning Muslims from America might have grabbed all the headlines, but left-wing parties must take note that embracing the free market, as they have done unquestionably since the Blair/Clinton capitalist bonanza of the 90s, is the main driver behind working class anger as the parties that were supposed to support their interests long since abandoned them. Of course the Left should be fighting Trump on Islamophobia, on bigotry and hate speech. But it’s time for the neo-Left movement to accept that the casualties of free market ideology have been too high, that big business has become a vast uncontrollable hydra, and that inequality is a global scandal of truly epic proportions. As Trump has shown, we have ignored this to our peril.

It might seem almost ridiculous, but Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage all represent the same political phenomenon. Across Europe, unexpected triumphs on the “far” left and right are shaking political establishments to their core. A populist backlash against the neoliberal consensus is growing. It’s too early to tell whether the people can take down the establishment. But if they can, a world controlled by Donald Trump is a terrifying one. In a battle for hearts and minds, it’s time for the Left to take the concerns of Trump voters seriously. Moderate left-wingers must present a new vision for Western economies; one not built on corporate greed, inequality and plummeting working conditions and living standards. This doesn’t mean turning back the clock to the socialism of the 1970s. It means positively addressing the failures of the current system with a vision of fairer, more equal world. We ignore Trump at our peril. Failing to listen to the concerns of his voters could see us waking up in an even more terrifying world than the one we currently inhabit.


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