Donald Trump: Make America Great Again

By | February 21, 2023

This is some analysis way after the fact and therefore not timely. Nevertheless, I think it’s still worth exploring.

Trumpism… Donald Trump gained a more ardent following than any Republican since at least Ronald Regan. More than just a politician, Trump became a cultural phenomenon. I frequently heard evangelical Christians blamed for Trump. To be sure, they played their part. As close as presidential elections tend to be, Trump likely would not have won without their support (which is really a support for anti-abortion). However, evangelicals aren’t Trump’s real base and support for Trump was significantly debated in evangelical circles. To make matters more confusing, probably a lot of Trump’s core supporters would identify as Christians of an evangelical flavor. However, the reason they are such ardent supporters of Trump isn’t because of their religion (I’d argue many are only nominally Christian), it’s something else.

Trump’s well known slogan was “Make America Great Again”. For many of us, this may not make much sense. “Is America not great now? When was it so much better? Isn’t this just a conservative idealism of the past?” But once I considered this in terms of who Trump’s base is, it started to make a lot more sense. Trump’s core followers are, I believe, first and foremost rural, white, less educated, blue collar workers.

To understand their situation, we need to jump back in time to the mid-twentieth century. During World War II, the United States had maximized it’s industrial capacity in order to supply the Allies’ war effort, an effort which the U.S. of course eventually joined. After this, Europe was in ruins and countries Asia were either effected directly by the war or were still mostly agrarian economies. This left the U.S. as the world’s primary manufacturer.

Hand in hand with this, the U.S. now had massive industrial infrastructure. American companies sought to figure out what to make now that the war was over. Furthermore, the population of the U.S. itself had gone through the Great Depression followed by the second great war. Now that they finally had the ability, they began spending on themselves and their families. So a significant portion of the U.S.’ manufacturing capacity was retooled to make consumer goods. This was when the U.S. became one of the two great world superpowers. (U.S. and it’s mostly western democratic allies were the “first world”; communist countries were “second world”; everyone else was “third world”.)

The situation described above meant that there was plenty of demand for factory workers. Because of this, less educated, low skill workers enjoyed steady employment at a decent wage and often with pensions and benefits. They were able to afford a modest middle-class standard of living. During the early and mid-twentieth century, Democrats supported workers and unions whereas Republicans were more known for supporting business owners.

Over the course of decades, Europe rebuilt and no longer had to be as reliant on the U.S. Asian countries were modernizing and significantly boosting their own manufacturing capacity. These countries mostly had large and poor populations. This meant that there was a high demand for factory work when it came. Despite what could be seen as abysmal working conditions and pay, these opportunities were better than what they had.

During the 90’s, the U.S. entered into an agreement with Mexico and Canada called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This was one piece of a broader movement known as globalization where trade barriers were lowered between countries. Because low skilled workers made relatively high wages in the U.S., manufacturing here was considerably more expensive than in other countries. American businesses began to set up factories in Mexico and overseas where wages were lower.

The U.S. began importing more and more manufactured goods from abroad. The U.S. turned to more of a service and retail economy. This led to many U.S. factories being shuttered, raised, and not replaced over the past several decades. This in turn of course meant that the manufacturing jobs which many low skilled workers had enjoyed no longer existed. Families which had for several decades enjoyed a living wage were now unemployed. Furthermore, those jobs which did exist didn’t pay as well, had fewer if any benefits, and were less likely to be unionized.

So, what did “Make America Great Again” mean? It meant bringing manufacturing back to the rural U.S. so that unskilled workers could gain decent employment once again. This is why Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, negotiated a replacement for NAFTA, and enacted tariffs on imports from China. This was all about trying to prefer U.S. companies and disadvantage foreign companies.

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