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When the Politics of Anger Prevail
Why low wages in America are at the root of the Trump presidency
Visit any small town in the US, and you’ll no longer ask yourself why rural America bubbles away with resentment. People living in rural communities, on average, are poorer than they were a decade ago, when Wall Street plunged the global economy into chaos. And despite the ostensible economic recovery, the improvements haven’t really trickled through to small communities.
Nominal wage growth since the recovery officially began in mid-2009 has been low and has almost completely stalled. Indeed, the top one percent grabbed 95 percent of all the gains during the recovery’s first three years. And no, this crisis didn’t start under the Obama administration: since the early nineteen-seventies, wages began to stagnate or fall for the bottom half of the underpaid American workforce. Over three decades of decline have left the poor in America simmering with anger and frustration.
The story behind Trump’s rise to power is a tale of competing and contradictory narratives. Many low-paid workers opted to support Trump; millions of neglected Americans with no real economic prospects, like those I met in the downscale city of Steubenville, Ohio, opted not to vote. Older Americans with no real economic grievances openly support Donald Trump; younger Americans have been hardest hit by the crash and the subsequent cuts, but they broadly voted for Hillary Clinton.
But it is naïve to dismiss the role, in America’s unfolding political crisis, of the chronic wage squeeze . Imagine status quo campaigning while a good chunk of the population feels the economy is not working for them. People looked at their bank accounts, felt doused in anxiety, and avoided opening their bills. For the men and women who get up every morning and work for ridiculously long hours, only to find that they still can’t afford to cost of living, Trump’s talk of “draining the swamp” was extremely appealing. Why risk leaving the political class complacent, feeling that business as usual is acceptable, when you can send them a strong message instead?
Driving through Ohio, where I spent time talking to common working people, was a salutary experience. Ohio sets the trend for deindustrialized states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa, which switched sides and delivered Donald Trump an improbable victory. In Jefferson County, where I sought to understand how people are making sense of politics, that switch, and its result, was especially decisive: here was a county, which narrowly voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but shifted toward Trump in 2017 by a whopping 35 points. It’s difficult to untangle this result from the erosion of the steel industry in the Ohio Valley and from the subsequent loss of thousands of steady and well-paid jobs.
Jefferson County was once a thriving industrial region, one of the leading centers of the nation’s industrial strategy. It has never recovered from the decimation that occurred with the shift from industry and towards an aggressive free market — a system that rewards the winners and hardly notices the losers. In 2010, unemployment in the city of Steubenville surged to nearly 16 percent, and industrial hubs with vibrant workforces were reduced to wastelands of weeds and boarded-up buildings. The lack of decently paying jobs has often fueled anti-immigration sentiment across America — which is exactly what I found in these long-declining communities.
At the Duchess Shoppe, a truck-stop about an hour south of Akron, a 58-year-old trucker from Youngstown with a tattoo on his arm of crossed rifles over the American flag queues for a coffee. “There’s too much cheap labor,” he says as he explains why he voted for Trump. “It’s destroying the prospect of a meaningful life for our kids.” His grandson and children have all resorted to temporary work “because there aren’t any stable jobs with good paying wages.” The sense of unfairness in the economy is widespread — and so is placing blame on racial and ethnic minorities. “Of course, the foreigners and what have you are driving their wages down because they’re taking jobs at half the price.”
Why risk leaving the political class complacent, feeling that business as usual is acceptable, when you can send them a strong message instead?
Outside a bar, I meet 32-year-old Samantha Webster, who works in a restaurant, and 28-year-old bartender, Heather O’Hearn. Neither women voted in the election, but both agree that, for their age group, “the economy and politics are broken and no one’s got secure jobs with benefits anymore.” The role of immigration sparks a heated debate between them. “I’d stop foreigners coming in,” says Samantha, “because we need to take care of our own. Foreign workers are taking our jobs and work for less than the minimum wage.” Heather pushes back: “But is that really immigrants’ fault?” For her, the blame should be directed at employers and at structural injustice in the economy that empowers big businesses.
Heather is right, of course. A 2017 study on trends in CEO compensation by the Economic Policy Institute found that “the pay of CEOs in the largest firms has grown multiple times faster than the wages of other very high earners and hundreds of times faster than the wages these CEOs provide to their workers.” For those at the bottom end of the labor market, depressed wages can be traced back to the nineteen-seventies, and the 2008 financial crash has only worsened their situation. Meanwhile, Trump’s regressive tax reform is designed to cut the corporate tax rate by more than half while blowing a hole into the already crumbling social safety net.
Deindustrialized regions such as the Rust Belt also showcase the need for a new industrial strategy. Advanced economies, such as Germany’s, are spearheading a new form of national strategy by retooling the economy, promoting local business and renewable energy, and creating hundreds of thousands of secure, decent jobs backed by the public sector.
In cities such as Steubenville, low-paying and precarious work have filled the vacuum. A young man talks with me as he is waiting at the bus stop. He is a cashier at a supermarket. Despite taking double shifts, often on multiple jobs, he is struggling, languishing in this economy that is fueled by low-paying jobs. “I’m constantly getting squeezed. It seems my pay gets lower and my costs get higher with each passing day,” he tells me. “They make a lot of money, these big grocery stores, but they start you at minimum wage with no benefits, and working people are getting screwed.”
Fifty-two-year-old Bruce, who voted for Trump, works in a furniture store. Before that, for over two decades, he worked in the Jefferson County coal industry. “Much of the coal industry is gutted now,” he says in a voice drained of energy. His 38-year-old colleague, Margret, has spent her whole life in Steubenville. She is a single mom of three kids and is currently struggling to keep up with the bills. “I voted for Trump after having twice voted for Obama; things had to change, we need real jobs again in this country.” If there had been more secure jobs, decent wages, and more affordable housing, would people have been less likely to vote for Trump? That triggers a passionate response from Bruce. “You tell me: would you want a radical shake-up if you had a dignified job, a roof over your head, and didn’t struggle to put food on the table for your kids?”
In cities such as Steubenville, low-paying and precarious work have filled the vacuum.
Trump’s rise to power is a puzzle with many scattered pieces, but deindustrialized regions like Jefferson County are an integral part of his success. “There’s nothing particularly unique about Steubenville,” says Anthony Thompson, an energetic local volunteer for the Democratic Socialists of America. “Sure, it’s bottom of the pile in terms of attention from the federal government, and there’s a feeling of frustration and wanting to give the establishment a body blow.” Of course, the upswing in anti-immigration mentality can’t be attributed to just the growing anxiety over low-paying jobs, but lack of income certainly explains, in part, the widespread intensity surrounding the issue.
But what now? Those who voted for Trump will soon notice that their wages are shrinking again. Outside the bar, Samantha and Heather have already pointed to the familiar trends. “I don’t think Trump can bring back factory jobs — the cost of living is only going up, at least if you’re standing where I’m standing,” she tells me.
Trump’s brand of politics is, most of all, the consequence of the economic arrangement struck in the early nineteen-eighties, whereby we dismantled the security and certainties of the postwar settlement pioneered by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. That system was replaced by an economic model that has served only the wealthiest parts of the country while leaving too much of the rest on a downward trajectory.
Without a radical, inspiring message from the Democrats, the danger is that anti-immigration sentiment will intensify. Blaming the foreigners for stalled wages, after all, has always been the oldest trick in the political playbook when things go wrong in a country. Whatever the Democratic Party’s future, it surely isn’t going to be a return to the stale centrist politics of the nineties — we already know that those choices don’t offer a sturdy alternative.
“The Democratic establishment abandoned these people a long time ago. All those people who voted for Trump weren’t doing this as a one-time thing because, however misguided, this was their big opportunity to be heard, to let the political class know that they also have a share in this country,” Anthony tells me. “If Democrats fail to listen, they’re done among these folks.” And he’s right.