Why do so many people support Donald Trump? For a long time, I couldn’t figure it out — and I pride myself on understanding alternate political viewpoints.
Oh, I can understand some elements of it. In a world of extreme political correctness, I can understand why Americans would cheer for someone who says what he truly believes and refuses to apologize. After eight years of passive-aggressiveness from Obama, I can understand why Americans would gravitate toward a strong alpha male figure. And in light of the recent ISIS attacks, I can understand why Trump’s hard-line stance on Islam would appeal to many frightened people.
But the main thrust behind Trump’s popularity eluded me, until I had a conversation with a friend of mine who happens to be a Trump supporter, and then it all became clear.
Yes, Trump’s support base is full of angry white reactionaries, but the true roots of their fear are a lot more sympathetic than you might expect.
To understand Trump a little better, let’s go back two hundred years to the start of the Industrial Revolution. The invention of the power loom put an entire industry of skilled weavers in southern England out of work. These disgruntled weavers organized into a sort of terrorist group known as the Luddites, which routinely sabotaged the industrial power looms and which eventually had to be put down by the British army.
Of course, the Luddites were misguided. Industrial weaving technologies were a net positive for the economy, allowing fabrics to be produced more easily and sold more cheaply than ever before. But none of this meant anything to the Luddites. All they knew was that their way of life was under threat, and they had to fight back.
Now, fast forward again to 2016. We live in an increasingly globalized world. Most economists agree that free trade is a good thing … but even if free trade is a net positive, there are entire industries that stand to lose from it, just like the Luddites stood to lose from the advent of the power loom. In America, many of our low-skilled manufacturing jobs are being outsourced overseas, leaving millions of American workers vulnerable.
Donald Trump has only released five position papers on his website. Three of these — VA reform, tax reform and gun rights — take fairly standard conservative positions. But the other two — immigration reform and U.S./China trade reform — are the really interesting ones. Trump promises to close the border with Mexico and protect American workers from Chinese trade manipulation.
Why are there so few Trump supporters at UCSB? Because his message resonates with so few of us. Most of us are on track to work as white collar professionals once we graduate. We have no reason to fear our jobs being outsourced to China, or taken by Mexican immigrants. But for millions of working class Americans, the situation is very different.
I would contend that Trump supporters are a sort of modern-day Luddite movement. Just as the Luddites took out their anger on the power looms that posed a threat to their livelihoods, Trump supporters are taking their anger out on the foreigners who pose a threat to theirs. Yes, they are angry, and yes, their anger expresses itself partly through xenophobia. But even xenophobia can serve as a mask for a legitimate fear of undesirable circumstances.
In modern American politics, neither party has fully addressed the concerns of the working class Americans who stand to lose from free trade. Democrats openly disparage working class white men. Republicans preach the benefits of capitalism. This leaves a constituency wide open to be energized by a figure like Trump. Indeed, Trump is only following in the footsteps of other successful populists such as Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan.
Trump is no idiot. He knows how to tap into an untapped market, and he knows how to play to an audience. By giving a voice to populist fears, he is taking advantage of the silent frustration of millions of Americans.
The Trump neo-Luddites are wrong, just like the original Luddites were. Free trade will be good for America in the long run. Free trade will lower prices, and the surplus consumer money will fuel new industries to take the place of the old. In a capitalist system, desire is the engine of production, and human desire is endless. But so are the fears of the Luddites and all their kin throughout history.