It was a better day in a brutal week for American politics. In local elections, the Democrats held, and gained ground. Abortion rights were defended at a grass-roots level, and Virginia's state legislature flipped and turned Democratic. Good news, at least if you're not a fan of authoritarianism. And yet the bigger question, the more troubling one, remains. Trump. Trumpism. Here's how the Post put it.
And here's how the Post put it a day or two before that: How in the world is Trump winning? If the election were held today, there's a good chance that Trump would...prevail. Despite it all. Jan 6th, the panoply of charges, the open conspiracy against democracy, and so forth. The Economist sums it up: "Trump looks terrifyingly electable: if America's election were held tomorrow, he'd probably win."
Meanwhile, Trump used his trial as a brand-building exercise in martyrdom and victimhood, raging at the judge, who struggled to control him, garnering headline after headline, making a mockery of the process, turning it into Yet Another Spectacle. Misdirection, achieved.
What's really going on here?
It's the economy, stupid. I know, I know. Many of you don't like to hear that. But hear me out for a moment. What's going in American politics at a micro level is this. Swing state voters—and this by now is a trend—trust Trump more on the economy. Again and again and again and again. This fact is real, and it's absolutely crucial.
Those numbers are even starker for Biden when zeroing in on the independent voters, who could be the determining factor in the 2024 presidential election. About 47 percent said they trusted Trump more, and 25 percent said they trusted Biden more.
The respondents — from Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — selected the economy as the most important issue heading into the next presidential election. Eighty-three percent said the issue was “very important,” and 13 percent said it was “somewhat important.”
The Bloomberg research is excellent—I highly recommend you read it.
But it's not really just the micro trend you should see. It's the macro forces at work. Time and again, and this has been true for decades and generation, Americans list "the economy" as their top priority. How could they not? America's a hypercapitalist society, and the economy's everything—survival, prosperity, what little is left of stability, a desperate hold on the shaky ladder of mobility. America's not Europe or Canada, where "the economy" is something that matters a little less to people, because they're shielded from its depredations and downturns and ravages. Americans are exposed to it, ruthlessly, to the point that it consumes their lives.
So Americans put the economy at the top of their list of priorities for a reason, habitually. In such a dog-eat-dog society, little matters more. And that means that politicians have to get it right. Not just their policies, but their messaging, too.
What do we know about the economy? It's in dire, dire shape. I just discussed with you startling stats that reveal 70% of people are "financially traumatized." Think about that for a second. That's the kind of thing that makes the economist in me have a full on teeth-chattering meltdown. We should never see numbers like that outside war, natural disaster, or some untold calamity. And those numbers are backed up by untold statistics, about majorities struggling to make ends meet, climbing levels of debt, and so forth.
All of that leads to profound levels of pessimism, distrust, and a shattering loss of faith and confidence in institutions and systems. All of which is how demagoguery emerges. So if you want to know why Trumpism's still alive and well, the answer's right before your eyes—it's the economy, stupid. Of course, sure, bigotry and prejudice and grievances play a role, but it's economic woes that light the fuse of old hatreds, as they always do, from Nazi Germany right down to today.
Now. Look at the Democrats. What situation are they in? They're failing to connect. They're failing to connect with swing state voters. Also with young people. There are troubling signs that minorities are defecting too. Why is all that happening? There are plenty of reasons, sure, from Biden's age, to the fact that many on the left don't appreciate Biden's foreign policy at the moment. But again, there's a deeper truth here.
The Democrats are out there telling everyone, over and over again, that the economy's doing fantastically well. Their central pitch is about Bidenomics, and Bidenomics is smart and wonderful and clever, but it's a long term strategy, an industrial policy for a nation that'll take a decade to really yield fruit, at least in the sense of everyday life feeling a bit more stable again.
Right now? Let me sum up for you what's happening. The Democrats are telling a nation in which 70% of people are "financially traumatized" that the economy's doing fantastically well. For most of those people, the economy is their number one priority. How does that come off? Tone-deaf. It leads to a lack of credibility, trust, confidence, and faith. If I come along and tell you, while you're being traumatized by the economy, that the economy's doing amazingly well, wouldn't you roll your eyes at me, too?
This is a real problem. I don't mean to be reductive. I want you to see the macro forces at play here, because they're what shape the destinies of nations, really. This approach isn't working for the Democrats, and it only allows more superficial concerns, like those about age, to gain strength, because of course distrust yields caution and hesitancy.
The Democrats are in a trap, and it's not just the Democrats. We see this problem around the globe, in fact. Parties on the center and left keep on claiming that the economy's doing well, that there's nothing to worry about, just look at indicators like growth or job creation. Meanwhile, people are in dire straits—serious, historic ones.
Let me put that to you another way. Every single good economist in the world, not to mention the IMF, World Bank, and every major financial institution, will talk these days about the global "cost of living crisis." It's real. But when center and left parties go out there and preach the line that the economy's roaring, booming, and so on, based on numbers like growth and job creation, they're ignoring the biggest issue in society.
Maybe even minimizing or denying it. That's not good. You can't earn trust that way. You'll come off as...at best...clueless...and at worst...not credible. People will walk away and shake their heads at you. How is it that the cost-of-living crisis is something that's not even mentioned? That a statistic like 70% of people are traumatized by their economic lives is ignored?
This is a losing approach. That doesn't mean "Biden's going to lose." But it does mean that the approach isn't working. It's not working self-evidently—that's not my opinion: those crucial swing voters don't trust the Dems on the economy, and the reason for that is exactly what I've sketched out above. Why would they? Should they? When the most basic facts about people's lives aren't really being acknowledged or addressed?
This ham-fisted approach needs to change, and it needs to change ASAP. The Dems need grown-ups in the room when it comes to "messaging," which is a word I don't like, because this cuts deeper than that. Things aren't OK in America. The core of Trumpism's appeal is exactly that, and the reason that Trumpism's still so powerful is that Trump, sadly, is the only figure really saying it. That, too, is true across the globe—the center and the left are leaving room open for demagogues to emerge, consolidate power, and seize control, by repeating the Pollyannaish line that things are fine and great, when they're nothing of the kind.
The demagogue's appeal, remember, is always cataclysmic—and then the finger's pointed at innocent scapegoats for the cataclysm, they're taking our women-land-jobs-kids-virtue-blood, etcetera. It doesn't work if things are really OK. That it is working tells us prima facie that things are not OK—that people feel afraid, weary, desperate, afraid, angry, and bewildered.
The Big Question, then, remains. As the Post said, how in the world is Trump winning? By now, the answer to that's should be more painfully clear every day. When the majority of people are traumatized, but the incumbents go on saying everything's fine, great, the economy's booming, what's there to worry about—the demagogues have half their work done for them, because now all they have to do is point out it's not true, and then point the finger at scapegoats, and all that makes them look the credible ones. It's a ham-fisted strategy, approach, model—and the Democrats need to fix it, ASAP. Because in the end? This shouldn't be the pitched battle that it is.
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