Catastrophe

Scott Sommerdorf/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP

People react to the announcement that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has carried another state, while gathering at a Democratic election night party at Sheraton Hotel in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, November 8, 2016. 

It wasn’t James Comey who did her in. It sure wasn’t Jill Stein or Gary Johnson. It was her husband.

No, not because of Bill Clinton’s personal financial dealings or sexual behavior. Because of his economic policy, which was the establishment economic policy.

NAFTA. Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China. Signing financial legislation that crucially omitted any regulation of derivatives.

Last night, the Rust Belt—whose rust buildup Bill Clinton signally contributed to by signing deals that offshored millions of decent-paying jobs—revolted. Last night, from Pennsylvania in the east to Iowa in the West, one formerly-solid Democratic state after another saw their white working class, their small town and rural voters, get vengeance against an establishment that had left much of their economy in ruins. In many of those small towns, left all their economy in ruins. (That President Obama persisted in his campaign for the Trans-Pacific Partnership—a move that may end up nullifying much of his legacy—surely didn’t help Hillary Clinton, either.)

Last night’s was the vote of people who felt left behind and displaced. The vote of people who were terrified at the shrinking of the white majority and the dominance of white males, many of whom rejoiced in Trump’s attacks on immigrants, minorities, and women. Ironically, precisely because the Rust Belt was rusting, and had fewer good jobs to offer, these were states to which few immigrants actually moved, and from which many minority voters had fled. Detroit, once a city of two million, is now a city of roughly 675,000, and hundreds of thousands of the people who left were African Americans, who moved to more prosperous cities like Atlanta. 

But if the demographic changes that made much of the post-industrial Midwest disproportionately white hurt the Democrats last night, the growing diversity of the Sunbelt had yet to achieve the kind of critical mass that could turn Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona Democratic. What confounded the Democrats last night was that the Rust Belt white working class outnumbered the New South Democrats—millennials in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, former Puerto Ricans in Orlando—at the polls.

There’s one other crucial factor in the revolt of the Rust Belt: deunionization. Exit polls going back to the Nixon presidency have shown that white working-class union members have voted Democratic at a rate roughly 20 percent higher than their non-union counterparts. In two decades following World War II in many of those states, close to half of white working-class men were union members. But deindustrialization, offshoring of jobs, shuttering of factories, and four decades of nearly fanatical opposition to unions from Republican politicians and most American employers took a huge toll on Rust Belt unions. Today, the rate of unionization among private sector workers is under 7 percent, and it’s not much higher in the Rust Belt states. That explains how such former union bastions as Michigan and Wisconsin could, at the prodding of their Republican governors, adopt the anti-union right-to-work laws that had been previously confined to the South. That also explains in good measure why Donald Trump carried those states last night. And with Donald Trump now poised to appoint the tie-breaking justice to the Supreme Court, it’s likely that the Court will deliver a body blow to what’s left of America’s unions through decisions that weaken the public-sector unions that up to now have been able to represent majorities in their particular sectors.

What else the Trumpified Court may do, Lord only knows. Voting rights, reproductive rights, immigrant rights, human rights will all, to some degree, end up on the chopping block. Instead of the right worrying about the Second Amendment, we all need to worry about the First.

The other thing that commands our immediate worry is the economy. The markets are already starting to tank as I write this, and who knows what longer-term havoc a Trump presidency may inflict on an increasingly shaky global economy. Even if Trump brings some manufacturing back, modern factories are automated past the point where they employ more than a small fraction of the workforces they once needed. Even if Trump persuades Congress to boost infrastructure spending, construction is similarly a sector that needs far fewer workers to build or repair what once required far more. (A few years ago, one California building trades leader told me that it now takes four electricians to wire a new school; when he first went to work as an electrician 25 years ago, it took 20.) The possibility of a major recession—which could start in Europe or China and quickly spread to us—cannot be dismissed.

In voting for Brexit this summer, just enough Britons rejected the globalized, financialized, more racially diverse and more economically unequal nation that Third Way Prime Minister Tony Blair had helped create. In voting for Donald Trump last night, just enough Americans rejected the globalized, financialized, more racially diverse and economically unequal nation that Bill Clinton had helped create. Hillary, your problem began at home. And it’s our problem now. 

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