Monthly Archives: January 2017

Understanding Trump Voters

In the days after the November 8th disaster, Berkeley liberals shook their heads and muttered, “We must talk to Trump voters; we’ve got to understand them.”  But we faced a common problem, we didn’t know anyone that voted for Trump.  Fortunately, UC Berkeley Sociology professor Arlie Hochshild, did our work for us.  In “Strangers in Their Own Land” Hochschild details her five-year study of Louisiana Tea Party voters typical of those that carried Trump to power.

Hochschild had lengthy talks with a broad spectrum of voters in lived in some of the most polluted areas of Louisiana; for example, residents who lost their homes to a vast sinkhole created by a misguided effort to store pollutants in an underground salt dome.  It’s clear from her book that Hochschild didn’t talk down to her her interviewees; she reached out with empathy and made every effort to understand their perspectives.

What emerges in “Strangers in Their Own Land” are a series of surprises.  Understandings that are so startling that I’ve read the book more than once and I recommend that you purchase it and see for yourself.

1. Tea Party voters share a common narrative: Hochschild details the “deep story,” a shared narrative of her interviewees: “You are standing in a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage.  You are situated in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian, and predominantly male… Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line.  Most in the back of the line are people of color… Look!  You see people cutting in line ahead of you!  You’re following the rules.  They aren’t.  As they cut in, it feels like you are being moved back… Who are they?  Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers — where will it end?”

The Tea Party folks believe that, before Obama, they had been playing the game by the rules and then the rules shifted unfairly.

2. They feel they have been shamed.  Hochschild observed, “First, [her interviewees] felt the deep story was true.  Second, they felt that liberals were saying it was not true, and they themselves were not feeling the right feelings.”

Hochschild explained, “the far right felt that the deep story was their real story and that there was a false PC over-up of that story… So it was with joyous belief that many heard a Donald Trump who seemed to be wildly, omnipotently, magically free of all PC constraint.”  Liberals had shamed Tea Party voters; Donald Trump made them feel okay about themselves.

3. Tea Party voters blame government.  The interviewees in “Strangers in their own land” blame government for their lack of success.  Government has permitted “slackers” to “cut in line.”   In Appendix C, Hochschild lists and responds to the Tea Party voters most common erroneous beliefs.  Most appear to be fed by Fox News — the common news source.  For example, “A lot of people –maybe 40 percent — work for the federal government;” the reality is it is less than 17 percent.

4. Their hope for salvation is big business.  Hochschild observed, “Underlying all these other bases of honor — in work, region, state, family life, and church — was pride in the self of the deep story… What seemed like a problem to liberals — the fact that conservatives identify “up,” with the 1 percent — was actually a source of pride to the Tea Party people I got to know.”

The interviewees fervently believe that big business, not big government will provide the solutions to their problems, whether they are meaningful employment, healthcare, or environmental pollution.  It’s one of the reasons that most of them supported Trump for President.

5. To a surprising extent, these Tea Party voters minimize pollution.  The prevalent attitude among “Strangers in their own land” is: “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism.”

Hochschild observed, “I had imagined, before I came, that the more polluted the place in which people live, the more alarmed they would be by that pollution and the more in favor of cleaning it up.  Instead I found Louisiana to be highly polluted, and the people I talked with to be generally opposed to any more environmental regulation and, indeed, regulations in general.”  (In Appendix B, the author explores this paradox and comes to the conclusion that “Republican individuals tend to brush aside the environment as an issue, and to suffer the consequences by living with higher rates of pollution.”)

Conclusion: It’s certainly the case that the Tea Party voters interviewed by Arlie Hochschild are living in a different reality than that experienced by Berkeley liberals.  Nonetheless, it’s impossible to ignore their bravery in the face of extremely difficult circumstances.  The system isn’t working for them, but they haven’t given up.

It’s also impossible to ignore the racism and sexism in their deep story.

The Hochschild interviewees voted for Trump because they believed he understood their deep story and because they couldn’t stand Hillary Clinton, who represented the “big government” that most of them despise.  If there is one hopeful note in “Strangers in their own land,” it’s that several of these voters had positive feelings about Bernie Sanders — his “the system is broken” message resonated with them.

It’s Midnight in America

33 years ago, Ronald Reagan was elected President in large part because of his TV ad, “It’s morning in America:” “It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better.”  For many Americans, the inauguration of Donald Trump foretells a period of darkness, “It’s midnight in America.”

Here on the Left Coast, where Trump got roughly one-third of the vote, the prevailing emotion is depression.  My homies are split on what’s worse: the fact that lying bully Trump is President or that he got 63 million votes.

Nonetheless, there is ray of hope in the darkness.  Trump is uniquely vulnerable by virtue of his personality and the nature of his appeal. Our challenge is taking advantage of this vulnerability.

Personality.  Thousands of pages have been written analyzing Trump’s personality.  He’s a narcissistic who lacks impulse control and lashes out at those who challenge him.  And he’s a pathological liar.  Nonetheless, Trump’s vulnerability is that he is a con man.  Time and again, in his business and personal life, he has proposed a grandiose solution and then produced something totally inadequate.  (For example, Trump University.)

Program.  Trump has made many promises about what he’ll do as President.  His “plans” can be factored into three groups.  Promises he made to the oligarchs — such as Robert Mercer and Charles Koch — who pulled him across the finish line.  He’s promised to reduce their taxes and roll back government regulations.  It’s likely Trump will deliver on these promises but they will not impact the average Trump voter.

Trump has also made foreign policy promises, the most prominent of which was to cozy up to Russia.  Trump will try to do this — it’s a big objective of his closest foreign policy adviser, Mike Flynn.  But Trump’s foreign policy plans will run into huge opposition from the Senate.  Whatever happens, it won’t impact the average Trump voter.  (Unless, of course, if Trump takes us to war, which he’s certainly capable of.)

Finally, Trump has made a series of domestic policy promises, the most prominent of which feature jobs.  This is what Trump voters care about and where he is most vulnerable.

Trump won the election because his supporters believed that an outsider could shake up the status quo and bring economic prosperity to America’s have-nots.  Trump’s jobs “program” has three components: spur employment by reducing taxes and regulations, threaten corporations who plan to move jobs out of the country, and institute a massive infrastructure program.

In his election night speech, Trump talked about his trillion dollar infrastructure initiative: “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals.  We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none.  And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”

What Trump has suggested is similar to the program that President Obama proposed after the initial recovery from the great recession.  Obama wanted a massive infrastructure-based jobs program financed by taxing corporations and the wealthy.  (Hillary Clinton proposed something similar.)  Congressional Republicans squashed it.

Trump has proposed a similar infrastructure-based jobs program but with a different method of financing: “The American Infrastructure Act leverages public-private partnerships and private investments through tax incentives to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over the next ten years.”  For example, in Trump’s plan, America would finance new highways by giving construction companies tax incentives up front and, after the highway was completed, letting the builder charge tolls.

Trump’s jobs initiative faces two obstacles.  First, congressional Republicans are unlikely to approve the taxes required to fund a trillion dollar program and less likely to approve an unfunded initiative.  Second, Trump doesn’t understand the nature of America’s unemployment problem.

In his January 11th news conference, Trump claimed that 96 million Americans are unemployed; a typical misstatement.  96 million adult Americans are not in the labor force mostly because they are retired, sick, going to school, or running a household.  Only 7.4 million are officially unemployed (4.6 percent).  However, another 7.6 million are not fully employed because they are involuntarily working part time or “marginally attached to the workforce” — such as “discouraged” workers who have quite looking for employment.  Thus 15 million Americans are unsatisfactorily employed — a rate of 9.4 percent.

But the plight of these workers is not easily remedied. Some, like coal miners, worked in industries where the jobs have disappeared because the industry has been depleted.  Economic forces have determined that coal is yesterday’s fuel source.  Thirty years ago there were 175,000 coal miners; today there are less than 50,000.

The larger problem is that Trump assumes he can make good-paying manufacturing jobs reappear.   However, there’s compelling evidence that these jobs, for a variety of reasons — such as advances in robotics, aren’t coming back. (  Writing in 538 (, Ben Casselman observed, “Like it or not, the U.S. is now a service-based economy. It’s time candidates started talking about making that economy work for workers, rather than pining for one that’s never coming back.”  But Trump is extremely unlikely to tackle the structural changes that would make the current economy “work for workers.”

Trump’s jobs plan is a con.  What he’s proposed won’t get America working again; it won’t magically conjure up 15 million meaningful jobs.

Trump’s obvious con job is the one ray of light shining on an otherwise black scenario.

Lessons Liberals Learned

It’s been over two months since the devastating presidential election; time enough for liberals to ask each other, “what lessons did we learn?”  Four come to mind.

1.Initially, Democrats had the right message.  Americans of all political persuasion believe “the system is rigged.”  Democrats started off with this message and then frittered away their advantage.

In her 2012 Democratic Convention speech, Senator Elizabeth Warren said, “People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here’s the painful part: They’re right.”  When Warren chose not to run for President in 2016, Bernie Sanders launched his “A future to believe in” campaign.  Sanders also argued that the system is rigged: “Enough is enough.  This great nation and its government belong to all the people, and not to a handful of billionaires, the super PACs, and their lobbyists.”

Relatively late in his campaign, Donald Trump adopted “the system is rigged” message.  In his address at the Republican convention, Trump said: “I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens.”  (Trump used the fact that no charges were brought against Clinton — over her email scandal — as evidence the system was rigged in her favor.)

One of the revelations in Arlie Hochschild’s “Strangers in Their Own Land” is that some Louisiana Tea Party voters resonated with Bernie Sanders campaign because they believe the system is rigged.  However, they differ from liberals because the Tea Party voters feel that government is the sole problem: the system is rigged because the Obama Administration favors women and people-of-color over hard-working white men.

“The system is rigged” message never worked for Hillary Clinton.  For conservative voters, she was seen as part of the “big government” problem.  For many Sanders supporters, Clinton was seen as inauthentic.

2. Economic Inequality didn’t work as a replacement message.   Instead of “the system is rigged, Clinton opted for “stronger together.”

The economic component of “stronger together” focussed on strengthening the middle class with Clinton’s jobs program and emphasis on the value of economic equality.  This value resonates with the Democratic base but not voters in general.

Voters believe that the system is rigged but they don’t agree on why that is; conservatives and liberals have differing internal stories about why US democracy isn’t working.  As Arlie Hochschild illustrates, Tea Party voters believe the system is rigged because government has intervened on behalf of “slackers,” Americans who receive preferential treatment but don’t deserve it.  As a consequence, Tea Party voters believe that only big business can fix the broken system.  (Typically, these voters admire those who belong to the one percent.  They voted for Trump because he was perceived as a successful businessman, who “can fix things.”)

Conversely, liberal voters believe the system is rigged because of the influence of big business.  They are suspicious of the one percent.  (Liberals didn’t vote for Trump for many reasons; one of which was that he was perceived to represent the moneyed elite.)

Liberals and conservatives agree that America needs better paying jobs. And, they agree that the system is rigged; that it’s not working for the average American.  But they disagree on the first step to take; conservatives want to start by dismantling government, liberals want to strengthen it.

Conservatives and liberals live in different media silos. Conservative views of the world are heavily influenced by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.  Liberal views are shaped by Rachel Maddow and The New York Times.  Nonetheless, Hochschild suggests that a critical difference is that conservatives don’t differentiate between “main-street capitalism” and “wall-street capitalism;” they don’t understand the impact of multinational capitalism and monopoly capitalism.  Tea Party voters still believe that all capitalism is good.

3. Democrats didn’t build the necessary grassroots infrastructure.  As the presidential battle raged, Democrats comforted themselves with the (false) belief that their vaunted ground game would secure the Presidency.

Hillary Clinton was the Democratic presidential candidate so it’s easy to blame the debacle on her.  But the reality is that since Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, the national Democratic Party has weakened.  This has produced a situation where Republicans control Washington as well as a majority of state governments.

Some blame Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was head of the Democratic National Committee from 2011-2016, but the problem is much deeper.  It’s symptomatic of the Democratic malaise that the presidential candidate who drew the most grassroots enthusiasm was Bernie Sanders, who wasn’t really a Democrat.

Sanders believes that the Democratic Party has to be rebuilt from the ground up.  He’s right.  There’s a strong populist base that needs to be harnessed before the 2018 mid-term elections.

4. Racism was a powerful factor in the election.  When Barack Obama was elected President, liberals hoped that we’d moved to a “post-racial” society.  Conservatives responded by fanning the flames of racial animosity and, as a consequence, Republicans elected a white supremacist, Donald Trump.

If Democrats are to recover from the debacle of 2016, they need to go back to their central message, “the system is rigged,” rebuild the party from the ground up, and counter racism.

Meet Trump’s Politburo

For your convenience, here’s a guide to the working relationships that will guide the Trump presidency:

1.Donald Trump, Supreme Leader.  Although Trump gets the lion’s share of press attention — what else would you would expect from a flaming narcissist — once he gets into office, Trump will likely retreat into the background and become a “figurehead” President following the model of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.  He’ll be active on Twitter and make appearances on Fox News and political rallies.  But don’t expect Trump to be accessible to the press, in general; he hates the mainstream media.  He’ll rely upon his subordinates, particularly Kellyanne Conway, to deal with tough questions.

Trump will be a typical Republican President who likes the idea of being bloviator-in-chief but doesn’t actually want to do the day-to-day heavy lifting Americans expect of their supreme leader.  Trump will delegate most of daily grunt work to his subordinates and members of his family.

To get elected, Trump made a deal with ultra-right-wing power brokers Robert and Rebekah Mercer.  (The deal that brought Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon onto the Trump team.)  The terms of the Faustian bargain were that the Mercers, and other GOP oligarchs such as Sheldon Adelson and Charles and David Koch, would use their resources to get Trump into the oval office; in return, Trump would adopt their extreme right-wing agenda.  For example, on the campaign trail, Trump never advocated privatizing Social Security; that’s part of the Mercer agenda currently being pushed in Congress.

Trump will glory in the day-to-day pomp and circumstance of being president while, behind the scenes, his subordinates will push extreme changes to domestic and foreign policy.

2. Mike Pence, Prime Minister.  Day-to-day political power will rest with “the crazy Mikes,” Mike Pence and Mike Flynn.  Pence will handle domestic policy and it will be extremely conservative.  (Welcome to “The Handmaid’s Tale.”)  For example, the Trump-Pence team will call for the repeal of Obamacare and drastic revisions of Medicare and Social Security.  In addition, they will push to abolish the IRS and adopt a radical tax system — designed to benefit the ultra-rich — such as a flat tax.  Trump-Pence will push to eliminate the Departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, and Housing & Urban Development.  They will take a hard-line on immigration.  Pence is virulently anti-abortion and also opposes marriage equality — and rights for LGBTQ individuals, in general.

3. Mike Flynn, Foreign Minister.  As if Mike Pence weren’t bad enough, the other Mike is even crazier.  Mike Flynn wants a war with Islam; he thinks all Muslims hate us.  Flynn has supported the notion that it’s not just undocumented Hispanic immigrants that sneak across the southern U.S. border but also Islamic terrorists — Flynn claims there are road signs in Arabic at the border.

Flynn has nurtured the idea of a U.S. partnership with Russia. Noting that America ‘beat Hitler because of our relationship with the Russians,” Flynn suggested that we renew that partnership in the new world war against “radical Islamism.”

In the past, Trump has made cavalier statements about nuclear weapons, “Why do we have them if we’re not going to use them?”  It’s not comforting to know that when the subject of nuclear weapons arises, Mike Flynn will be by Trump’s side.  (If Trump is Nero, Flynn is Voldemort.)

4. Steve Bannon, Political Strategist.  The GOP is now Trump’s Party.  And the person directing the overall Republican strategy is Steve Bannon, Trump’s alt-right-hand man.  After Trump’s coronation, look for Bannon to push a two-prong strategy.

With his tweets and bizarre public utterances, Trump will be featured most every news cycle.  Much of this will be fluff, “Trump threatens [fill in the corporation].  Make it in America or face new taxes.”  But the constant news churn will enhance the perception that Trump is doing something about jobs or public safety or immigration or whatever.

Meanwhile, under the direction of Bannon, the two Mikes will be doing the heavy lifting.  Particularly on Capital Hill, Republicans will press forward with their radical conservative agenda. (Bannon is the equivalent of Martin Bormann in Hitler’s inner circle.)

5. Kellyanne Conway, Minister of Propaganda.  Day-to-day responsibility for managing Trump’s public image — “putting lipstick on a pig” — will fall to the indefatigable Kellyanne Conway.  No matter how outrageous Trump’s tweets or public statements are, Ms. Conway can be counted on to go on TV and say things like, “President Trump’s statement today is a reflection of his disdain for political correctness.  He has brought new vitality to the office of the President.”

Conway’s job is to normalize crazy.  No matter how bizarre a Trump action may be, Ms. Conway will try to make it appear part of a well-thought-out plan to “make America great again.”  (Conway is the equivalent of Joseph Goebbels in Hitler’s inner circle.)

6. Jeff Sessions, Minister of Enforcement.  Of course, part of Trump’s appeal to his base is his lack of political correctness; his capacity for mobilizing resentment.  Trump’s campaign succeeded because millions of white men believed that he would represent their (aggrieved) perspective.  Jeff Sessions is the “enforcer” for the Trump team.  He’s responsible for punishing those that oppose Trump orthodoxy.

When there is a national roundup of undocumented immigrants, Sessions will lead it.  When there is a roll back of voting rights, Sessions will be in charge.  (Sessions is the equivalent of Heinrich Himmler in Hitler’s inner circle.)

Meet Trump’s Politburo determined to “blow up Washington.”

California vs Trump

On election day, Californians favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a near 2 to 1 margin — 61.7 percent to 31.6 percent.  Now, faced with a President many of us detest, California’s best stance is to become a model of Democratic principles.  But the Golden State faces intriguing challenges.

California is not an independent state; we’re not going to be able to secede from the union.  Nonetheless, we are the 6th largest economy in the world and Trump is not going to be able to ignore us.

California can have the most impact on the national political environment by demonstrating that the best way to grow good jobs and provide a healthy democratic environment is by a judicious combination of taxes and regulation.  The Golden State can serve as a vital alternative to the Republican model: minuscule corporate taxes and zero governmental oversight, which has turned states like Louisiana into sewer pits with deplorable public health, while failing to create the promised jobs.

On November 8th, Trump prevailed because many Americans believed that he, rather than Clinton, would create good jobs.  At this writing, Trump’s jobs program is a composite of an ill-defined effort to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure, threats to force manufacturers to “make it in America,” and, primarily, tax cuts and deregulation.  The Trump infrastructure plan will probably bog down in Congress, where GOP “deficit hawks” are understandably wary of a trillion-dollar unfunded initiative. Meanwhile, California has its own $12 billion  infrastructure initiative to modernize our water-distribution system.

Obviously, corporate tax cuts would benefit all US companies not just those in California.  However, threats to “make it in America” could have a major impact on California technology companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Apple.  Both corporations have a substantial overseas manufacturing presence.  If Trump took steps to ensure that final assembly of  most products was done in the U.S., his actions could have major consequences for California corporations — for example, the Apple iPhone contains parts from all over the world and final assembly happens in China and other countries.

After jobs, the Trump policies having most impact on California are immigration, climate change, and health care.  Trump’s immigration policies will be hotly contested by most Californians.  However, Trump’s plan to build a wall along the southern border isn’t going to affect Hispanic immigration; last year more Chinese immigrants came into California than did Mexican immigrants.

A national roundup of undocumented immigrants would primarily impact California’s agricultural sector; it’s the nation’s largest but represents only 2 percent of the California’s economy.  (Ironically, California’s farmers, typically Republicans, were strong advocates of the “pathway to citizenship” initiative that Trump’s GOP has abandoned.) Many agricultural workers are undocumented but typically have been in the state at least a decade. A national roundup would drive up agriculture prices.

Of course, a national roundup of undocumented immigrants would be a huge political issue in California.  The Golden State’s population of 39 million includes 15 million Hispanics (the largest group).  There are an estimated 2.67 million undocumented immigrants in California; about 1 million of these live in Los Angeles County.  (By the way, there are roughly 250,000 “Dreamers” in California.)

Across the board, California public officials have pledged to protect undocumented immigrants.  However, Trump has promised to punish those who oppose his initiative; for example, by penalizing sanctuary cities which include Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Oakland. Theoretically, this could have a major financial impact on the Golden State.

After immigration, California’s biggest conflict with Trump will regard global climate change.  Trump is a climate-change denier and appears ready to gut the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies that fund climate scientists.  Meanwhile, California leaders such as Governor Jerry Brown take climate change seriously and have led multiple initiatives to protect the Golden State’s air and water and natural beauty.  (California is the number one U.S. tourism destination.)

Finally, millions of Californians depend upon Obamacare.  If Trump repeals affordable healthcare, this act would present a huge challenge for the Golden State.  It’s likely that some residents would lose coverage. For example, 3 million low-income Californians are covered by Medicaid, which is entirely paid by the federal government.

As strong as the California economy is, the Golden State each year depends upon the federal government for approximately $96 billion — 36 percent of our budget. (By the way, California is “a giver” not “a taker;” we contribute more than $300 billion in federal taxes.) Of the $96 billion, $69 billion goes for health and human services, primarily insurance coverage for the poor, children, and seniors.  Trump could impact this directly by repealing Obamacare or indirectly by withholding federal funding, on the basis that California is not in compliance with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement policies.

If the Trump Administration threatened to withhold some of the $96 billion, the Golden State would have to make tough choices: comply with Trump policies to keep the $ flowing, cut services, or increase taxes to offset loss of Federal funds.  It’s possible that Californians could raise their own taxes to thwart the Trump Administration.  But probably not income taxes.  Californians could repeal the notorious Proposition 13, which would raise $ billions in property taxes.  In addition, the Golden State favors carbon taxes; a variety of these taxes (for example, taxing transport of fossil fuels such as coal) could erase much of the $ billion potential deficit.  Another possibility is a “tourism” tax.

The battle is joined: the Trump resistance begins in California.