Democratic leaders aided Trump by failing the working class

Racism and sexism have always been features of American politics.  Still, it’s shocking to see a man who proudly embraces our worst impulses and ugliest traditions elected president.

To his supporters, Donald Trump’s biggest selling points were his opposition to “political correctness,” immigration and “globalism.”

“Political correctness” is a pejorative term referring to sensitivity to the feelings of people of color and women.  You could instead call it a form of civility that values the diversity of our society.

But for many, especially older white working-class and rural folks, the term has become associated with their sense of being left behind in an age of economic dislocation.  The last era of strong economic growth and full employment was also the era before white male privilege was challenged.  Some see cause-and-effect in that relationship. In fact, it’s classic scapegoating.

Among Trump supporters who talked with reporters, his political incorrectness correlated with “straight talk.”  His opposition to political correctness covered a multitude of Trump’s sins, from bragging about sexual assault to serially attacking people on the basis of their ethnicity.  For neo-Nazis and other white nationalists, his attacks on Latinos, Muslims, and others revealed a kindred spirit, and “alt-right” conspiracy-mongers rose to the top of his campaign.

Progressives now face the problem of breaking this connection tying concerns over economic issues, deindustrialization and job loss to racist appeals, opposition to immigration and nostalgia for the “good old days” when people of color and women had fewer rights.

The Democratic establishment helped foster that connection.  In the 1990s, then-President Bill Clinton (aided by Rahm Emanuel) figured he could appeal to white blue-collar voters by echoing Republican dog-whistle racial politics. Clinton cut welfare and got tough on crime, but stiffed those voters on economic issues.  Over the past two decades, the leadership of the Democratic Party supported job-killing trade deals that guaranteed investor rights with only rhetorical feints to worker protections, and ignored labor reforms desperately sought by the union movement.

Earlier this year, Bernie Sanders showed that white working-class voters can be brought into a multiracial, multigenerational coalition with an appeal to progressive economic populism.  Sanders was the first major presidential candidate to demonstrate that since civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson. Recall, too, that the Clintons, and Emanuel, rose to power with the Democratic Leadership Council that was formed explicitly to counter Jackson’s influence within the party.

On the economy, however, Republican Trump is going to come up empty. He may cancel NAFTA and other trade deals, but that won’t bring back jobs that have been shipped overseas.  He could reduce the nation’s trade imbalance by addressing foreign currency manipulation (something President Obama hasn’t done), and perhaps his campaign rhetoric about China “killing us” hints at this.

But to really grow America’s industrial base, we need an industrial policy, such as every successful industrial nation from Germany to South Korea has, with government intervention and investment to foster higher-paying jobs.

Yet Trump’s program for job creation includes none of that. Instead, he offers up the biggest tax cut for the wealthy in history.  The experience of the past three decades, when steady erosion of progressive taxation has accompanied paltry job growth and wage stagnation, shows that “trickle-down” economics does not work.

So the basic issue of jobs could be very much in contention, if Democrats are able to shift their loyalties from Wall Street to the rest of the country.  The pro-investor rights elite of the Republican Party has been displaced, at least for the moment. The Democrat counterpart also needs to go.

Beyond jobs, there’s also an urgent local concern. Trump actually answered a debate question on how to bridge racial divisions by saying, “Law and order.” He won the endorsement of the national Fraternal Order of Police, which has opposed civilian oversight of cops, and he actually called for unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policies in Chicago (where they haven’t worked to reduce crime or violence).

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice has spent most of the past year investigating racial bias and excessive force in the Chicago Police Department.

Let’s hope they will wrap up their report by January 20, when Trump takes office.  A Trump administration could cancel efforts to complete the process by negotiating a consent decree with CPD, but a thorough report laying out the issues and recommendations for policing reform would be invaluable.