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The Great Divergence and Trumpism’s Undying Appeal

The Great Divergence and Trumpism’s Undying Appeal

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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Now, it’s official. Crushing the competition in Iowa, Trump’s rocketing towards the Republican Presidential nomination. And while it’s not a surprise in the moment, think about how recent history’s played out. Here’s a figure who not so long ago led a coup, and attempted to overthrow democracy—now the front-runner for President. While we’ve grown inured to such wearying, topsy turvy twists of fate, history will surely regard all this with wide eyes.

This arc of a story, the opposite of a redemption narrative, from insurrection to leading Presidential candidate in the blink of an eye—is one for the ages.

Yet how does America find itself here, in this bewildering position?

Another way to ask that question is: what underlies the undying appeal of Trumpism? Why is it still so potent, the pitch, the story, the demagogic message?

The way that I try to explain the present and the future to you is through macro trends. And ripping across not just America, but the world, we see an especially troubling set of macro trends—easily the worst for a century.

Let’s start with what I’ve called The Great Divergence—the yawning gap between GDP, or economic “growth,” and well-being. Where is this gap widest in America? In its Rust Belt, its rural areas, its second and third cities and small towns. Whom does it hit hardest? Those with relatively less education, what’s left of the working class, the lower middle class.

To put it another way, if you’re a well-educated coastal dweller, it’s true that things might be challenging, but they’re perhaps not truly dire. Yes, there’s been a cost of living crisis, and prices have risen. For the well-educated though, and in coastal cities with relatively liberal social contracts, thanks to affluent populations, incomes have risen, and so have stock portfolios.

But for the average American, things are bleak. Some of the stats we discuss often are especially revealing. The average American’s now “cashflow negative.” 70% are “financially traumatized.” The majority of young people are “numb” and “completely overwhelmed.”

All of these are signs of the Great Divergence. The gains in GDP have been captured by the smallest fraction of society at the very top of the socioeconomic ladder. Meanwhile, in a cruel, ironic twist, America’s lack of a modern social contract—no real public goods are to be found—exposes people, especially at or below the average, to the teeth of crisis. And that’s after decades of stagnation have left them feeling hopeless, neglected, abandoned, and betrayed.

This macro trend, the Great Divergence, in other words, isn’t just some clever abstraction. It helps us explain what’s gone wrong—and understand Trumpism’s undying appeal. You see, when societies fall apart like this, sociopolitical destabilization is the inevitable consequence.

People hope for better lives. This is the fundamental belief of a modern society. And even in Trumpism, like in all demagoguery, though it’s been twisted in on itself, remains the seed of this hope. It’s true that there’s a die-hard fringe of bigots, and it’s true that authoritiarianism remains at the core of the Trumpist message. But it’s also true that disappointed and frustrated and thwarted in their hopes for better lives, people turn to demagogues, in rage, despair, and vengeance, ultimately losing faith in democracy itself. In a chilling example, the majority of Iowa’s Republican caucus-goers believe the “election was stolen” from Trump—a percentage that’s only grown over time.

American pundits throw their hands up at figures and trends like this, and too often resort to name-calling—these people are fools, bumpkins, yokels. The deeper truth is that they are just clinging to the only hope they know, in the form of the only figure in the political landscape who appears to acknowledge their pain and strife—even if he then redirects it into supremacist scapegoating.

The Democrats have made all this easy. Too easy. They’ve been trumpeting the message that the economy’s roaring, that things are fine—a sort of naive Panglossianism is their central selling point. Lately, they’ve coupled that with a fiercer attack, warning of fascism. It’s not moving the needle though, for precisely the reason we’ve discussed above: the Great Divergence is real. And pretending that it isn’t, as for all macro trends, only leads to suspicion, hostility, and cynicism. Think of how even young people are turning to Trump—that’s a startling sign, and a terrible one, because of course if you can’t sweep with young people, then something must be very wrong. But then think about how desperate young people—remember, the majority “numb”—and you begin to understand the problem.

Trump, sadly, is the only political figure in American politics to have acknowledged the greatest macro trend of all, the Great Divergence between growth and well-being. The Democrats still haven’t. They appear to be beginning to—to want to try, at least. But their credibility’s been damaged by years of pretending that things are just fine for the average American, while life’s simply fallen apart. That sort of mistake happens when you live in a bubble, and the accusations that the Democrats are cosseted in coastal cocoons of relative stability and plenty ring altogether too true. It’s easy not to see the terrible pain sweeping what’s left of America’s working and lower middle class from K St and Madison Ave. And more to the point, it’s comfortable to be able to say: what’s the problem? Where’s the problem? We fixed everything!

The core of Trumpism’s appeal, in other words, goes deep. Yes, of course, it’s tied into all the ugliness we see in authoritarian and fascist movements—from the spite to the hate to the murderous rage. That’s part and parcel of social destabilization, unfortunately, and nobody is denying that it’s not real, or relevant, or a problem. Nor that in America, they have a long, ugly history, which is why shadows of the Civil War now surround the contest for President. And yet it’s wiser to understand all this through the eyes of history: when societies go through period of Great Divergences, when economies “grow,” but well-being declines, and the more sharply the lower you are on the socioeconomic ladder—those conditions are the perfect petri dish for authoritarian collapse.

None of this is still sadly acknowledged enough by the America outside Trumpism. It’s within Trumpism’s nerve centers and institutions that there’s a feeling that life has gone wrong, that things are dire, that life’s a bitter, brutal struggle—which, of course, is reframed in demagogic terms, as an existential struggle by the master race, or what have you. But outside Trumpism’s core, there’s far too little understanding, acknowledgment, reflection. Why are things so bad for the average person, what went wrong, why did living standards diverge so sharply from “growth,” falling starkly below the median, where Trump voters are concentrated?

When I first encountered this macro trend, I predicted a socially implosive movement rising in America. Right on cue, Trumpism arose. It’s now a decade later. And little’s been done about the Great Divergence. Little enough that Trumpism’s rising again. Sadly, of course, demagogic currents do little to mend the woeful fortunes of the average person, the very one who backs them. The Great Divergence in America’s second Trump era will only widen. And then the future looks more—and less uncertain—than ever: democracy withering, authoritarianism on the march, and modernity continuing to rend itself apart.

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