Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Plight of the Trump Supporter

This blog has spent many words demeaning and dismissing Donald Trump and his supporters. Trump is a reprehensible megalomaniac worth no sympathy, but his supporters are real people. They are numerous enough that it would be foolhardy to dismiss them all as lunatics or idiots (although some of them surely are). So let us examine the plight of the Trump electorate.

Feel free to skip to the TL;DR Summary if you like.

Economic Plight of a Trump Supporter

Much has been made of the racism and xenophobia of Trump's base, but they have real economic grievances. They are disproportionately uneducated and poor in an age of rapid globalization, technological advancement, and increasing inequality. They are also largely white and male—two classes which confer some privilege, but much less than in the past. In short, they are doing badly and wish for a time when they did better. Trump's slogan, "Make America Great Again" appeals to them on a personal level (whereas it insults those who never had such privileges).


Donald Trump and his base are staunchly anti-immigrant. This is often attributed to racism. That a factor, but it isn't the only factor. Lower skilled individuals are likely to oppose immigration especially in high-GDP countries. Labor mobility may help the broader economy, but lower skilled people compete more directly with immigrants for jobs. Trump's anti-immigrant stance resonates with these people.

Other impacts of immigration are more positive. Immigrants consume goods and services just like those born in the U.S. This consumption boosts the economy and job growth. Immigrants keep the U.S. younger, helping it avoid the demographic cliff.

The flow of illegal immigration has declined significantly. In fact, many illegal immigrants have gone home. The cost of building Trump's wall would likely be around $20 billion with around $750 million annual maintenance costs. It wouldn't slow down illegal immigration much. It would be a nuisance locals. Trump's wall is a pointless boondoggle. If he makes good on blackmailing Mexico to pay for the wall, it will only serve to piss off our neighbor to the South.

Trump has said he'd deport all of the illegal immigrants already here. The cost of said deportation would be $114 billion. Of course, most of that cost would be in feeding and housing immigrants while giving them due-process. Trump might be able to reduce the cost, by denying immigrants due process, but I doubt the judiciary would allow that.


During the Republican primary, Donald Trump mouthed the standard party lines ("stop abortion", "lower taxes", "legalize assault weapons", etc). Trump did manage to distinguish himself in one area: Trade. Trump opposes the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade deal negotiated between many Pacific rim nations that would lower trade barriers such as tarrifs among the signatories. The TPP is one of the few bills Barack Obama supports that has more support among Republicans than among Democrats. Trump has even threatened to end NAFTA. (Interestingly enough, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both oppose the TPP and question want to renegotiate NAFTA.)

The simplest effect of trade is that provides American consumers a greater selection of goods at lower prices. After that it gets complicated. The country gains some jobs (in export industries) and loses others (when imports replace domestic production). There is some evidence, that it may help other industries by driving down interest rates. It increases employment and income for those involved in the import/export business. Wages may be depressed beyond the industries directly affected (by affecting the supply of labor at a given skill level).

The effects of trade are complex, but we can be confident of three things:

  1. Trade increases the output of the American economy-it makes us richer in the aggregate
  2. There are winners and loses when trade increases
  3. Lower skilled workers are more likely to lose

The majority of jobs lost are manufacturing jobs. China has been a primary beneficiary, but there are others. Here's the thing: those jobs aren't coming back-at least not all that were lost. Trade has increased employment, wages, and costs for manufacturing firms there and some production has returned to the America, but it has returned in a higher tech form. More machines, more computers, fewer workers. Technology has likely killed more manufacturing jobs than trade, but you can't ban automation as easily as imposing a tariff.

Trade deals are not necessarily a good deal across the board. There are severe problems with the TPP (most notably, its intellectual property provisions). However, Trump's claims that he will bring back manufacturing jobs is bullshit. Trump will more likely start a trade war which will hurt all countries involved.

What to do?

Trump's supporters have legitimate economic concerns that should be addressed. However, we shouldn't just deport 3.5% of the American public or enact illegal tariffs. Rather we should take advantage of the positive economic effects of both trade and immigration while helping out those at a disadvantage. Bernie Sanders has things partially right. Single payer healthcare would help (even if Bernie's plan is flawed). A layoff shouldn't mean loss of health care. Bernie is also partially correct on the education issue. However, four year college wouldn't help most of the victims of globalization and increased automation. Vocational training would help more. Most importantly, we need a more progressive tax structure. The biggest winners from globalization are wealthy people who own corporations that reap the revenues from increased trade. We need to increase tax rates and close loopholes so that the wealthy pay their fair share. That includes TV preachers.

Of course, Trump's message resonates with these people more than a balanced progressive message. Why? It's a simple message. "US vs. THEM" is easier to understand than "globalization is an unstoppable force and that we simply need to adapt". "I'm a great businessman, I've made billions of dollars, and I can fix the economy" is easier to understand than "no you're not, you under-performed financially, and anyway managing an economy is different than branding golf courses".

So how do we tailor a message that the Trump demographic can understand? Bernie Sanders has done that better than nearly anyone else Bernie has said that Wall Street has been preying on the working class for years, that the system is rigged against common people, and the wealthy and corrupt politicians keep the system rigged. Bernie leaves out the racism, hatred, and war-mongering that Trump brings. Hopefully, future candidates will adopt much of Bernie's narrative. Of course, they give us a plan where the math works.

TL;DR Summary

  • Trump supporters tend to be poor and uneducated
  • They are at an disadvantage in the modern job market
  • They oppose immigration (partly) because they compete with immigrants for jobs
  • They oppose trade because they have disproportionately lost jobs as trade has increased
  • Social welfare policies can help to bring up the poor and uneducated
  • Prospective leaders should adopt a populist narrative similar to those espoused by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump

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