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What anti-Trumpism is missing

Dec 04,2023 - Last updated at Dec 04,2023


BOSTON — These are unique and troubling times for the United States. A twice-impeached former president who now faces four separate indictments for serious crimes is the de facto leader of one of the two main political parties. Having remade the Republican Party in his image, Donald Trump will almost certainly be its nominee in the 2024 presidential election, despite mounting evidence of his financial misdeeds and role in an attempted coup. While Democrats fared well in various elections this month, polls show Trump leading US President Joe Biden in key battleground states. Clearly, something is rotten in the American Republic.

A second Trump presidency would be a much greater threat to democracy than the first. Trump’s own outlook and rhetoric suggest that he has been radicalised further, and his supporters have now learned from their failed attempt to overturn the 2020 election. Friendly think tanks are drawing up plans to dismantle the US government’s checks and balances, allowing Trump to usher in a police state targeting his political opponents. The Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 aims to “create a playbook of actions to be taken in the first 180 days of the new administration to bring quick relief to Americans suffering from the left’s devastating policies”. Central to that effort will be to staff key positions with Trumpian cadres.

While Trump and his enablers in the political establishment obviously bear the blame for this dire state of affairs, so do the American left and the fact-based media, which have failed to develop a well-calibrated response. Reactions vary from implicit normalisation (who can deny a major party’s choice of nominee?) to showing zero tolerance toward Trump’s supporters. But a practical blueprint for addressing the situation is missing, even though the future of American democracy is at stake.

The most promising response would feature two seemingly contradictory stances. First, the center and the left must unite in declaring Trump and his inner circle a mortal threat to the American Republic. His top lieutenants should be treated as such, rather than as ratings-boosting talking heads. Trump’s clearly stated plans for destroying American democracy must be highlighted constantly.

But the centre and the left also must recognise that most Trump supporters have legitimate grievances. This is the part of a successful response that has been lacking. While there are undoubtedly strong white-nationalist and racist elements in the MAGA movement, they are far from representing most people who will be voting for Republicans in the next election.

A significant share of the US population has suffered economically over the last four decades. Real (inflation-adjusted) earnings among men with only a high-school degree or less have declined since 1980, and median wages had all but stagnated until the late 2010s. Meanwhile, incomes for Americans with college degrees and specialised skills (such as programming) have risen rapidly.

There are many reasons for this labour-market transformation, and several of them are rooted in economic trends that establishment politicians and the media long sold as benefits to workers. The wave of globalisation that was supposed to lift all boats has stranded many. The automation that was supposed to make US manufacturing more competitive and help workers is the biggest factor in declining earnings among workers without a college degree. Meanwhile, labour unions, minimum-wage laws, and norms protecting low-pay workers have weakened.

Many workers who have suffered from these trends also sense that they have lost ground socially. Legal, political and cultural changes that have helped previously disadvantaged groups have flustered others. In the process, many Americans have grown resentful as they feel their viewpoints and grievances are being ignored by the mainstream media and the educated, technocratic elite.

In a recent paper, the economists Ilyana Kuziemko, Nicolas Longuet-Marx and Suresh Naidu document a divide between the economic preferences of less-educated workers, on one hand, and the well-educated and the Democratic Party, on the other. Whereas ordinary workers have a strong preference for minimum wages, job guarantees, protections against trade and stronger unions, elites oppose such programmes as unwarranted interference with the market. The Democratic Party’s preferred method for helping the less advantaged has been to push for redistribution via the tax and transfer system.

This disconnect between workers and centre-left policymakers is not confined to the US. As the economists Amory Gethin, Clara Martínez-Toledano and Thomas Piketty show, a similar political realignment has occurred across 21 Western democracies. In the 1950s and 1960s, the working class reliably voted for centre-left and socialist parties, while wealthier and more highly educated citizens voted for the right. But by 2010, the more educated were voting overwhelmingly for centre-left parties, and workers had shifted to the right, partly because centre-left parties had moved away from policy positions aligned with workers’ material interests and other priorities.

Reversing this trend requires changes not just to the specific policies that centre-left parties endorse, but also to the language they use. It also may require proactive efforts to promote workers to leadership positions within parties, rather than letting highly educated elites capture most top positions.

In the US, bringing workers back to the Democrats is not just an imperative for defeating Trump and the acolytes who will do his dirty work. It is also essential for America’s economy. Regulating the tech industry and supporting workers will be key issues in the coming decade and beyond. A centre left that is devoid of workers’ voices cannot hope to rise to the occasion.

Americans who still support democracy must expose Trump for what he is and work hard to prevent him from returning to power. But to do that, they also must be more accommodating and responsive to workers, including those who have not benefited as much from globalisation and technological changes and may not share all their positions on social and cultural issues.


Daron Acemoglu, professor of Economics at MIT, is a co-author (with Simon Johnson) of “Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity” (PublicAffairs, 2023). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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