There is a saying that goes, there is a time and place for everything, but I am not sure that should apply to a Trump presidency. Still, you only have to be in America for a day or two to get an understanding of why the stars could still be aligned in the property tycoon’s favor. For one, there is another saying: timing is everything and, much to everyone’s surprise – including business leaders in the Middle East – there has been a lot of rain this year for the umbrellas Trump is selling. Sitting in upstate New York 50 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan with five white Americans who don’t have a university degree, you quickly get a front-row seat to the rich vein of frustration that the Trump juggernaut is trying to mine to reach the swing voter who could tip this election. The good news is that not all of these typically blue-collar Democratic voters are buying his “amazing” umbrellas – not yet, but they are certainly tempted because they’re fed up of getting drenched by their perception of the growing inequity in the division of the American pie.
There are many reasons why Trump has traction amongst this constituency and they all revolve around one theme: exhaustion. Eight years after the global credit crisis – the Great Recession – there is exhaustion about the fact that the wellbeing of the working middle class isn’t improving – and an ever-increasing rising tide of belief that it never will as real wages flatline.
The taxi driver who picked me up from John F Kennedy Airport, who is a union bartender two days a week and does the odd driving gig on the side for cash to make ends meet, is ready to vote Trump into office because he is vein-popping angry at the too-big-to-fail crowd who were bailed out by the Federal government and are now rewarding each other with multi-million-dollar bonuses, while he can’t get a full-time job.
The “too big to fail” theory asserts that certain corporations, particularly financial institutions, are so large and so interconnected that their failure would be disastrous to the greater economic system and that they must therefore be supported by the government when they face potential failure. Proponents of this theory believe that some institutions are so important that they should become recipients of beneficial financial and economic policies from governments or central banks.
“We need to clean out the place…” was a recurring declaration of frustration amongst the five New York residents and, if one was to extrapolate that anger for another decade or two, you could see things getting a little bit ugly in the great heartland of America.
People are also exhausted with the political correctness of never telling it like it is. The neutrality or opaqueness of language has paralyzed too many from diagnosing the socio-economic illness, never mind treating the ailment. One way to understand Trump’s success is the fact that he is perceived as someone who states things as they really are, without the filter of establishment jargon and what some denounce as “political correctness”.
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I have been challenged so many times on political correctness and, frankly, I don’t have time for political correctness. To be honest, this country doesn’t have time either,” Trump said during the Republican Primary process to select a candidate.
In other words, Trump is giving voice to opinions that have only rarely been overtly adopted by influential Presidential candidates or Presidents. This ultra-frankness, perceived by many as rude, is resonating with a demographic that is feeling marginalized and sidelined, left without a voice.
“It is about time we told the Chinese and others what to do. We need someone in the White House that is going to speak his mind to those getting away with taking advantage of America all the time,” said a part-time minimum-wage worker who manages an amateur Ultimate Fighting Championship gym in Peekskill. “I have never voted Republican and I have always insisted my family do the same, but on this occasion I am going with the person – Trump – and not the party.”
The Democrats will have to hope that there are not too many of these defectors. In the unscientific poll of the five working middle class with no third-level education whom I met with, those with the more stable full-time union jobs remained unconvinced that a billionaire real estate developer from New York was the answer to their ailments, but they are getting sweaty palms from the frustration of waiting for Hilary Clinton to articulate.
First woman President?
The $3 billion question – the total amount both campaigns are expected to spend – is: will the first African-American President be followed by the first woman President in this 240-year-old Democracy, or be followed by the first property mogul reality TV host?
In many ways, the US finds itself, once again, at the crossroads of choice between progressive reinvention versus retrenching to some fictional past of glorious isolationism. The rest of the world stands in trepidation that the latter may emerge as the winning message, but we would be well-placed to look beyond the loud noise of minority populism to pay attention to the former, which would represent a powerful resurrection of liberal democracy as a robust political system.
There is no doubt that, coming out of the rancorous primary battles through which the US selects its two candidates to contest the general election, the dominant narratives were populist slogans about all that is wrong with the Republic – the hollowing out of the middle class is a challenge that must be tackled with much greater intent – but America electing its first female President eight years after electing Barack Hussein Obama could once again truly refresh American democracy as the beacon on the hill and bolster an emerging global emancipation of women.
As the long hot summer passes, I suspect the attraction of the exciting new idea will once again prove too tempting for the innate American optimistic appetite for tomorrow, rather than the tired old white man of yesterday, as it did for the first African American Presidential nominee eight years ago.
It won’t hurt that, under the watch of the Democratic Party’s President Obama, the economy has added more than nine million jobs and the unemployment rate has dropped to below the historical median. That compares with the nearly 23 million jobs gained during the booming years of Democrat Bill Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s and the fewer than 1.3 million added during Republican President George W Bush’s eight years, which were plagued by two recessions.
While the reality is that the “Trumpet” slogan of Make America Great Again fired up the economically disenfranchised white male citizens during the Republican primary season, seeing off formidable establishment candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, it is unlikely to resonate with a general election majority audience who believe the US doesn’t need to be made great again because it has never stopped being great.
As one blue-collar maintenance worker who will be voting in the swing state of Florida told me: “We do not need to ‘Make America Great Again’. America has always been great and is welcoming to all!” After driving across America for three weeks from New York to Wyoming, I suspect that there are more people who echo this mindset than those who don’t, much to Trump’s chagrin. One Montana mountain man even told me he “would love to vote for Obama for a third time”.
And the economic stats appear to support the narrative. The recent low inflation has helped the buying power of weekly paychecks. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ measure of average weekly earnings for all workers, adjusted for inflation and seasonal factors, was 3.4 percent higher in November 2015 than it was when Obama first took office at the start of 2009.
The number of long-term unemployed — those who have been looking for work for 27 weeks or longer – had dropped to less than 2.1 million in December, which is 614,000 fewer than when the president first took office, but it is still 761,000 higher than it was in December 2007, at the start of the Great Recession – more work to do!
If I had a dollar for every time I heard the phrase “I would love to vote for a woman President; I just wish it was someone other than Hillary”, I would be as rich as the million-dollar Saloon in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. And there lies the rub for the Democrats, as the enthusiasm gap for the historic leap has been subdued by what is often described as a trust deficit left by the 30-year political legacy of the Clintons.
As one of America’s greatest Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, once said: “This too shall pass!”
Sean Evers is managing partner, Gulf Intelligence