“Money On My Mind” is a monthly column by Jay Mandle. The views expressed here are those of the author (not necessarily those of Democracy Matters) and are meant to stimulate discussion.
By Jay Mandle
If Trumpism is to be prevented from imposing a reckless authoritarianism on the American people, more White workers will have to become part of the resistance than is the case to date.
Donald Trump became President because the political Right was able to convince large numbers of White men, primarily those with less than a college education, that a zero-sum game is underway: that the gains secured by Blacks, women, gays, immigrants and others have been achieved at their expense. Though patently false, for many White workers this claim possesses plausibility. Since movement gains represent the triumph of identity politics, it has been an easy sell for right-wing politicians to paint those victories as costly to individuals who are not part of those movements.
Now however, there is ample opportunity to erode support for Trumpism. The Trump Administration cannot deliver on the promises made to the White working class. Trump is unable to prevent globalization and technological change from creating job losses and stagnant incomes. Dismantling the Affordable Care Act will increase the cost of health insurance, and “tax reform” will almost exclusively benefit the rich. With all this and more, there is an opening to persuade White workers that their alienation does not result from advances secured by other groups. Rather, it is the greed of the country’s moneyed elite, epitomized by none other than Donald Trump, that is at work.
While identity politics has been successful in making America more inclusive, it is not suited to the task of moving White workers away from racist demagoguery. A White identity movement is available only to retrograde operators such as Stephen Bannon. What is needed instead is a politics of inclusivity. Such a politics would continue to address issues of discrimination. But it would also emphasize the commonalities that exist among Americans across race, gender, sexual preference and immigration status.
The problem is that most progressive activists lack experience in crossing identity borders. The limitations associated with the legacy of identity politics become obvious when trying to construct an anti-Trumpism platform. The grievances that animate identity movements concern issues of discrimination. The remedies that were demanded were by definition not universal; they did not extend to all, or even most, Americans. In each case, the goal was to end practices that placed specific groups, like women and people of color, at a disadvantage when competing with White men. That approach obviously will not be adequate in the effort to win White men away from Trumpism.
But the White working class can be won over. There is reality to their economic frustration, but that frustration has nothing to do with the scapegoating that Trumpism promotes. Its real source lies in the power exercised over them, and everybody else, by the political hegemony of the superrich. That power has resulted in the fact that though the American economy in recent years has grown, almost none of that growth has gone to the majority of Americans. The income of the typical American household has hardly increased at all. Although between 1999 and 2016, the country’s gross national product, adjusted for inflation, increased by almost forty percent (38.5%), median household income barely budged, up only 0.6 percent ($58,665 to $59,037).
Very wealthy people exercise political power by paying for election campaigns. Their power is particularly clear when it comes to economic issues. Thus it is that labor law is hostile to trade union organizing. By weakening worker bargaining power, donors benefit in their roles as business executives. Elected politicians serve their donors’ interests by adopting tax policies that permit the rich to shield their incomes from the effects of progressive taxation. The resulting loss in government tax revenue allows the Right to disingenuously argue that there is a need to reduce government spending. The claim is then made that level of resources needed to provide all Americans with the means to achieve their potential is more than the government can afford.
The point that has to be emphasized is that the pattern of income distribution emerging from the economy is a political issue. Government tax and expenditure policies can either increase or decrease the level of society’s economic inequality. When the ultra-rich exercise political power, as they do today, office holders do little or nothing to enact policies to lessen inequality. But such indifference is not inevitable. If politicians were able to fund their political campaigns with public financing, allowing them to escape deference to their wealthy patrons, the resulting distribution of income would be made much more fair.
Seen in this perspective, a publicly funded political system should be the foundation upon which an inclusive anti-Trumpism political movement is constructed. With that as a springboard, it would be possible to demonstrate that the interests of the White workers overlap with those of people in identity movements. A demand for the removal of private wealth from the political system – so that we all can share in the country’s prosperity – could be the way to defeat Trumpism.