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The bait and the switch

  • Published at 12:03 am December 7th, 2016
  • Last updated at 12:29 pm December 7th, 2016
The bait and the switch

Trump promised change, but is it going to be what his voters wanted?

Sometimes I use expressions that may be a bit antique (as I am getting to be), so let’s start with a definition.

Many readers may not understand why I am quoting John Cassidy who wrote in the New Yorker that the November 8 election was “the biggest bait and switch con” in US history.

Bait and switch cons are as old as human history. Think of a fishhook with a squirming worm; the worm is the bait, the switch is that the fish which takes the bait thinking it is dinner ends up becoming dinner itself.

This was a “change” election, and Mr Trump promised change, explicitly in his rambling speeches, and implicitly in his behaviour. In the exit poll questions about the character of the two candidates, Ms Clinton was the voters’ choice as the candidate who cared more, was more qualified, and had better judgement. But only 17% of the voters picked her as most likely to bring change. And the 83% who picked Mr Trump was probably right; he will bring change. But what kind of change? And will it be change that improves the lives of those many voters who now look to him for improvement in their otherwise bleak lives?

The feelings of the white working class core of Trump’s support -- that it has been abandoned by its own country, sacrificed on the altar of globalisation, deceived by the elites who have profited and benefited from globalisation, replaced in even low-wage jobs by immigrants -- has now been analysed, and re-analysed to the point of becoming a cliché.

There is more than a little truth in it, but a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation also.

In reality, the problems of this class began a long time ago and are the result of a failure of governance that goes back several generations. For example, the industries which gave them good jobs and a stable income began to disappear from the industrial Midwest in the 1960s.

The self-respect, propriety, and, to some extent the ambition of the working class white segment of the population has eroded over three generations because it saw its place in society in free-fall.

To blame globalisation and over-regulation is misleading and counter-productive.

Free trade agreements are not the basic reason why these jobs left; it is technological change that is the culprit in most cases -- automation, robotisation, increased productivity with fewer workers.

The claim that less regulation will restore the coal industry and restore many miners to new jobs digging for coal is to ignore the market forces that are suppressing the demand for coal -- cheap natural gas and much more efficient renewable energy, which have been the main factors behind in the swift decline of coal as an energy source.

It is politically easy, however, to blame others rather than to assume responsibility for not foreseeing the problem and constructing safety nets to take care of the victims.

Both the Democrats and the Republicans have had a “head in the sand” approach to this long-festering problem. The white working class which so strongly supported Trump has been persuaded to look backward to a “golden age” that never was so golden.

Astute political leadership might have faced this conundrum 20 years ago and tried to respond to it. But the division and partisanship that brought a gridlock to the US political system in the first two decades of the 21st century would have prevented any attempt to rectify the deep alienation of this large group of voters, in any case. It begged for a “strongman” who would sense this alienation and take advantage of it.

Such a strongman could cut the Gordian knot that blocks any change or progress simply by being an outsider, and that too as one who has little regard for the grinding work of bringing about democratically needed change.

In reality, the problems of this class began a long time ago and are the result of a failure of governance that goes back several generations

So the question is then, will Mr Trump fulfill his promise to bring the kind of change needed to begin the process of restoring the “amour propre” of a class of voters that still makes up a majority of the US electorate, even if a quickly diminishing one?

The answer that many economists would give is that Mr Trump’s policies, as proclaimed on the campaign trail and in the debates, will leave his election supporters the losers, not the winners, in an administration of change. Wall Street’s giddy reaction to the unexpected election results is sparked by the promise of tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations, including inducements to bring back large bundles of cash kept overseas to avoid taxes, which could send the equities markets into wild gyrations as investors and companies look for profitable places to store their cash.

Such tax cuts are dear to the heart of the Republicans who now control Congress, so these proposals have a good deal of lift under their wings.

However, the argument that tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations will spur investment in the real economy is a stretch given that they haven’t done so historically; such investment is usually a function of demand in the economy and of certainty in its stability.

Trump’s promise to withdraw from the TPP free trade agreement, and even perhaps from NAFTA, are as likely to spark trade wars and reciprocal tariff increases as they are to bring back manufacturing industries and jobs. Price increases for consumers, bearing heavily on the middle classes would be one result, and reduced US exports from our now healthy export industries the other, which would shed workers also, raising the unemployment rate.

Many other of his campaign proposals would have negative implications for the economy and ultimately for his supporters: Deregulation of financial markets provided by the Dodd-Frank legislation which was aimed at preventing a return to the financial sector abuses of the pre-2008 period, and which led to the financial/fiscal implosion of 2008-09; eliminating many consumer protections; rolling back environmental protections; and gutting the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) which extended health insurance and services to many of these supporters.

However, it is not clear whether Mr Trump could get those that need Congressional authorisation through Congress without major changes.

At present, the focus seems to be on getting the transition structured and a cabinet and sub-cabinet named.

In the case of his administration team, it seems also true that the promise of change is not a guiding principle as the names seem to come from some of the darker reaches of the Trump movement and/or from large donors to his campaign.

I know that many readers are more concerned about Mr Trump’s contradictory and sometimes radical proposals and statements about US foreign policy.

There is also the question of whether his apparent authoritarian sympathies will lead him into not only dubious foreign policy alliances, but whether these tendencies will lead him to act in extra-constitutional ways against it if he is frustrated by domestic opposition (which judging by his continuing rants on Twitter has not diminished despite his election victory.)

William Milam is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. This article first appeared on The Friday Times.