America’s Post-Industrial Decline Made Trump, and His Presidency Possible
Since 40+ years of economic statistics and elected representatives couldn’t “Make America Great Again,” Trump’s pitch in 2016 and 2020 was that he’s America’s best bet.
I was a congressional campaign advisor, speech writer, and consultant to Democrats and Republicans before turning my career trajectory away from communications. In 2016, I moved to Taiwan. I was surprised to discover local and European support for Trump.
- This is Part I of IV, noting some long-term, under-appreciated trends in the United States that led to Donald Trump’s fame and presidency.
- In Part II and III, we’ll discuss how Trump lost. Character, domestic and global Nationalism in Part II, then in Part III, some considerations his Policy agenda missed.
- Part IV, what makes Taiwan’s support for Trump different.
I hope this provides a rational, dignified, and (mostly) impartial short version for what happened.
Americans Who Hate Politicians Love Trump
Donald J. Trump, global real estate developer, promised to put ‘America First’ and bring manufacturing back to ‘Make America Great Again,’ by using his business experience to negotiate better foreign trade deals. Many Trump voters were hurt by the departure of manufacturing and mining industries to developing nations, where the same goods could be produced at a lower cost. This includes China.
- Americans who were negatively affected, and their politicians, did not adapt from a manufacturing-based to service economy. Service sector growth happens as countries become more developed.
- As the overall economy and service sector grew wealthier, job opportunities and earnings fell in abandoned industrial areas.
- Politicians traditionally bring job growth. Instead of effective government initiatives, this was left to corporations — who served their own interests. Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously said, “Corporations are people.” Yes. People who vote and advocate for themselves.
Factory jobs disappeared and displaced Americans did not retrain for new types of work. These voters developed a whole mistrust of politicians, and many of them link economic decline with other societal progress (culture wars). It furthers racial discrimination and xenophobic attitudes towards immigrants and other demographics.
“I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed or humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed.” ― ‘Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic,’ James Gilligan
Politics as Usual Cleared Trump’s Path
The Trump voting bloc is not about Trump, whether or not he believes that. Trump voters are a support group for people left out of opportunity structures that no longer exist in America.
Trump’s redemption became their redemption.
Post-industrial America’s problems won’t be solved right away. But, Trump animated voters that his over-qualified opponent, Hillary Clinton, wasn’t paying enough attention to. Also:
- Despite being fundamentally honest, Clinton was considered dishonest and untrustworthy by 68% of Americans.
- A CNN / ORC poll found only 30% of Americans considered Clinton honest and trustworthy, while 43% said the same of Trump.
- “Are Clinton and Trump the biggest liars ever to run for president?”
Voters weren’t thrilled about Republicans, either. Trump ran past a gauntlet of 16 other candidates, then declaring, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it” in his victory speech at the Republican National Convention. If Republicans couldn’t slow the Trump momentum, what chance did Hillary Clinton have?
“I think electing Donald Trump would be the second-worst thing we could do this November, better only than electing Hillary Clinton…” —former Louisiana governor and presidential candidate Bobby Jindal, Wall Street Journal
The Folk Legend of Donald Trump
Scripted Television Made Trump a Bigger Star
Trump squared his appeal as an abrasive self-made billionaire underdog who faced off against enemies of working people, and won. Other businessmen like Ross Perot and Steve Forbes had ran for President, but none had the Trump brand or larger-than-life swagger. Not to the degree where either earns a licensing fee for having their names on buildings.
A former Trump White House staffer called him, “A WWF (World Wrestling Federation-figure in politics.” And because American politics are stranger than fiction, it’s worth noting Trump regularly appeared as himself on World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) scripted television programs in the late 2000s as a billionaire rival of WWE founder Vince McMahon — even though both are friends in real life. It’s an act, but it’s a curation many Americans want to believe! And a role people enjoying seeing Trump play.
The Comeback Billionaire
Going through tough times is a wonderful thing, and everybody should try it. Once. — Donald Trump, Esquire
On television, Donald Trump was best known for ‘The Apprentice,’ a reality television show pitting contestants against one another to win the prize of a one-year employment contract with Trump’s real estate development company. It may have saved him, financially.
“The Apprentice premiered in 2004. That year, according to the Times, Trump reported $89.9 million in net losses on his federal income tax return. But Trump made an estimated $197 million over the lifespan of the show, plus an additional $230 million “from the fame associated with it.” — ‘How The Apprentice Brought Donald Trump Back to Life,’ Vanity Fair
2004–2017’s ‘The Apprentice’ cemented a rebirth from financial ruin in the 90s following several bad business deals. This came after anchoring them to the brand he built for himself as a real estate mogul, playboy, and pop culture figure in the 80s. No one is born a winner, but Trump was born a very wealthy man, and developed a persona around his “comeback.” Downplaying his advantages (calling himself a self-made man), and leveraging that story to create a reputation. Trump used this to stay relevant by owning cultural moments across the 80s, 00s, and 10s.
1980s: How Trump Created Trump
Even though Trump sometimes seems like he’s sometimes shooting from the hip on the campaign trail, it’s all part of a…
Trump had more than a few high-profile failures like the U.S. Football League, Trump Shuttle, and Trump Steaks, although no business person can be counted on to always make good decisions, and The Trump Corporation is not in the football, airline, or meatpacking business. Real estate and personal branding is the domain of Trump’s management and survival skills.
Trump’s Popularity is Based on Emotions
Trump didn’t base his candidacy on established, verified statistics. Facts, which suggested as the American economy grew, many Americans didn’t feel better off… Especially those in post-industrial areas. “Alternative facts” arose from this, false or unverifiable claims playing up to the frustrations of people who have an emotional need to believe them. Creating alternative facts is unnecessary because there are real facts that support the plight of post-industrial America.
The Hamilton Project, a think tank founded by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin (and noted antagonist of Donald Trump), found in 2010 that: Median earnings of American men ages 25–64 fell 28% between 1969 and 2009. Those who completed high school but not college saw their earnings drop 47%. In this study, even college graduates saw their earnings decline by 12%.
Worst of all, post-industrial society felt ignored. A 2005 article in The Economist was subtitled, “Factory jobs are becoming scarce. It’s nothing to worry about.” What could happen after decades of telling these workers their disintegrating means and way of life is nothing to worry about?
“Humiliation is the most underestimated force in international relations and in human relations. It is when people or nations are humiliated that they really lash out and engage in extreme violence.” — Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat
Donald Trump welcomed these Americans, and they rewarded him with momentum. His campaign had a cultural message that incorporated:
- Voter frustration (reminding supporters of “do nothing Democrats” and “these people do nothing” in campaign speeches).
- A reputation as a winning negotiator and comeback billionaire.
- A desire to be associated with his legacy. Trump invited Americans to be part of his next chapter where he would use these talents to ‘Make America Great Again.’
And it worked. The below chart illustrates a large demographic, white voters without a college education, that became more entrenched after Trump’s 2016 victory. Trump’s redemption became their redemption.
The essence of Trump’s popularity is it is based on emotions, making people feel good about their way of life. No humiliation, no judgment. Instead of frustration, a promise to take action (or a lot of tough talk). Since 40+ years of economic statistics and elected representatives couldn’t “Make America Great Again,” Trump’s pitch in 2016 and 2020 was that he’s still America’s best bet. In 2020, many Americans were still willing to take that wager, despite Trump’s clear motive to not only dramatize the failures, but undermine everything else his predecessors did to Make America Great.
No one is born a winner, but Trump was born a very wealthy man, and developed a persona built around his “comeback.”
Don’t Bring Data to a Values Fight
Trump’s 2016 victory resulted from long-term socioeconomic and structural deficiencies accelerated by a post-industrial collapse, converging into a moment that became a movement. So strong that Trump’s schemes to beat the tax system only made him a greater folk hero. Where others were humiliated by changes in America, Trump became President of the United States.
Joe Biden’s victory over Trump in 2020, in some part, is due to fighting fire with fire. Positioning his emotional appeals as the reverse of his opponent. As the saying goes, “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight” — an idiom for entering a challenging situation without being adequately prepared— no real effect can be had by bringing data to a values fight, either.
Much of America’s working class still takes pride in supporting Donald Trump, whom he began advocating for in the 1980s. Long after the 2016 election was over, Trump supporters kept displaying their Trump pride through campaign mementos like lawn signs, bumper stickers, and yes, ‘Make America Great Again’ hats. In 2020, over 47% of American voters, more than 73 million people, voted for Trump in the presidential election. Still, Donald Trump’s biggest problem, it turns out, is himself.
The 2020 U.S. presidential election showed us that sometimes, the worst and most important thing you can do is to just be yourself.
In Part II, we’ll discuss Character, Nationalism, and the Folly of America First. Policy, in Part III. And then finally, why Taiwan supports Trump in Part IV.