Future Notes on a Political Archeology of Trump’s America
A popular story about the rise of President Donald Trump in 2016 goes something like this: NAFTA and globalization gutted the industries and places that once made America great. Making America great again required, at the very least, restoring those places and industries to their former status as generators of middle-class jobs, offering dignity and security to (overwhelmingly but not exclusively white) American workers in places like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
It was more complicated than that, obviously, and in retrospect the Trump years were at once strangely exhilarating and deeply disturbing: foreign intrigues; financial deception; racist overtures; morally repugnant episodes involving migrant children interned in camps, forcibly separated from their parents; implausible but wildly popular caricatures of ‘globalist open-border-loving coastal elites’ lurking in swamps to be drained; the stain of impeachment over abuses of executive power for personal gain; but also extraordinary social movements and acts of resistance.
Perhaps overshadowed in the historical literature on these turbulent years, the story of economic decline, rust-belt resentment, and coastal-vs-heartland cultural divides highlights a longstanding and vitally important political tension in liberal democracies that we have yet to resolve.
Openness and Redistribution, Competition and Fairness
Consider a prevailing narrative, popular among groups like the World Economic Forum. In this story, governments are tasked with providing vital public goods that balance the competitive forces of national, regional, and global markets, on the one hand, with the distinctive needs of diverse constituents, on the other.
Some citizens spend much of their lives in a career they studied and trained for, only to find their skills and experience rendered obsolete under global competition, technological and cultural change. They’ve spent their adult lives contributing for their families, their communities, their country. A laissez faire society would leave to them the responsibility of either insuring themselves or acquiring new marketable skills. A fair society recognizes the formidable costs of retraining, and the realities of job market discrimination, especially for older applicants. A fair society recognizes a reasonable claim by honest workers not to be victims of economic and societal forces beyond their control. Governments of free and fair societies thus have to balance between fostering competition, encouraging innovation, yet honouring the reasonable expectations of hardworking citizens.
The hope is that carefully designed legislation and nuanced policies can steer a course between openness and redistribution, competition and fairness. The obvious difficulty is that those two policy challenges seem inevitably to conflict.
On the one hand, governments have to maintain a regulatory environment and trade regime that satisfy environmental and labour standards while at the same time pushing toward lower costs for a dizzying range of consumer goods. On the other hand, they have to mitigate the impacts that trade and competition have on specific sectors and their workers, who often are clustered in particular regions. The former kinds of policies are competitive; the latter tend to be redistributive.
The problem is that the kinds of political leaders (and party platforms) who win votes in favour of redistributive policies are typically indifferent or hostile to openness; and vice versa. There’s much nuance missing in this gloss, but the simple framing gets at the essential tension.
The ‘forces of globalization’ narrative could perhaps be sold to voters who lose out under freer trade and more permissive immigration regimes if the consequences of market openness were offset by serious and sustained redistribution: not mere grudging regional payoffs and platitudes about ‘lifelong learning’, but extensive and reliable public service provision — education and training, healthcare and social services, transportation and communications infrastructure.
Achieving that kind of sophisticated balancing of openness and redistribution, competition and fairness, has never sold well in democratic politics, least of all in the 20th and 21st century United States. There was (and is) very little political mileage to be gained with the slogan: “it’s complicated, but we have some promising initiatives that balance competition and fairness, based on randomized policy trials that might scale up successfully and achieve bipartisan support in state and federal legislatures.” Better by far to paint your opponent as an out of touch latte-sipping globalist, and yourself as a populist outsider protecting the little guy from predatory Chinese firms, transgender bathroom signs, and sinister migrant labourers.
Politics in liberal democracies has thus always fluctuated between heady, often flippant, sometimes slightly nuanced, cosmopolitan globalism (‘The World is Flat!’ ‘Whose your City?’), and the defensive, parochial, populist localism that scholars like Margaret Weir and Josh Cohen and Joel Rogers identified and warned against for decades in the late 20th century.
There was a time when voters could have guarded confidence that, after the mud slinging and posturing of a political campaign, whoever won the election would eventually put aside the simple slogans and platitudes, and work to address the complexities of the openness-redistribution problem, starting from whichever horn of the dilemma their party platform emphasized. One of the great frustrations of the GOP establishment candidates in the 2016 U.S. presidential primaries was how easily Trump managed to shatter that expectation, painting the very idea of constructive balancing and bipartisan compromise as evidence of being a weak leader and an out-of-touch elite.
Rather than dwelling on the spectacle, absurdity, and enduring harms of the Trump era, consider some of the scholarly solutions that have historically been offered to the openness-redistribution conundrum:
One argument is that greater centralization, combined with insulation from short-sighted regional and populist pressures, can allow for more far-sighted, longer-term, sustainable redistributive solutions that balance economic openness with regional and sectoral fairness. A strong, experienced leader with a likeminded legislature can forge ahead for the public good, so long as they aren’t fettered or led astray by the squabbling of particular interests (think here of James Madison’s worries about the “mischiefs of faction”).
The difficulty is combining centralization and insulation with monitoring and credible accountability. What we’ve seen is that federal and executive discretion in, say, trade policy and securities regulation tended to insulate the beneficiaries of openness, at the cost of effective monitoring and accountability. There was little incentive for legislators to address the regional and sectoral impacts of economic openness; instead, insulation allowed a tighter alignment of elite economic interests with elected officials, constraining the latter for the former’s continued gain. Thus, far from preventing the kind of frustrations and anxieties that helped give rise to Trump, the insulation of increasingly affluent elites from oversight and accountability was one of Trump’s most resonant (if absurdly hypocritical) rallying cries.
Another thought is that strategies of decentralization and policy experimentation at the local and state levels might better ensure that gains from openness end up getting distributed in ways that, if not necessarily equitable (in the senses that philosophers and jurists often mean), then at least in ways consistent with more accountability, and with sufficient redistribution to avoid the populist trap of regionally intense frustration with coastal affluence and indifference to precarious employment in declining sectors. In the U.S. there is a distinguished tradition of understanding federalism in roughly this way, that is, in terms of balancing — liberty and security, most obviously, but also efficiency, competition, fairness, and competing loyalties.
Sophisticated scholars have always recognized that the real debate here isn’t between centralization and decentralization per se, but rather a question of what goods and activities are best suited to which institutional configurations and spatial scales. “Decentralization of what, and for whom?” are the important questions. 2009 Economics Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom left a quietly profound legacy of social scientists and policy analysts who are sophisticated in just this sense.
But again, this kind of sophistication and nuance has never found much purchase in the play of democratic politics. What’s more, while Trump and his champions called for radically smaller government, the cabinet of the Trump regime by 2018 was anything but sophisticated. Most appointees quickly revealed themselves to be remarkably inept (Carson, de Vos), corrupt (Pruitt, Mnuchin, and of course Trump himself), and absurdly ignorant of basic economics and finance (Nevarro, Kudlow). Even if smaller government had really been the aim, Trump’s cabinet was spectacularly ill-suited to lead that charge.
The usual answers, then, to the openness-redistribution conundrum — centralization and executive discretion, or decentralization and competitive federalism — don’t seem likely to have prevented the rise of Donald Trump and his half-baked mercantilism in the early 21st century. How, then, should we address this puzzle now, when economists and fellow social scientists can look back and survey the damage done?
Subsidiarity, Local Experiments, Shifting Boundaries
The lessons drawn from political and economic history tend to be cautionary rather than constructive, but I’ll venture a tentative, speculative thought on a way to avoid Trumpesque fiascos for liberal-democratic federations of the future.
Subsidiarity, when applied to politics, counsels that decisions be made at the lowest feasible scale of organization. If you think that many political issues typically matter at different spatial scales, and for different constituencies; and if you further believe that political decisions ought generally to be made as close as possible to those most directly and persistently affected by them, and who have a legitimate claim to influence those decisions; then you’ll likely find subsidiarity an attractive ideal.
Perhaps after the American lesson of the Trump era, we should strive to make our federations less a struggle between constitutionally enshrined states, economic regions of varying economic fortunes, and urban centers of concentrated wealth and power; and instead more a system of nested, pragmatic authorities, with the effective means to experiment with a range of policy approaches, tailored closely to the issues, publics, and public goods appropriate to their respective spatial scales.
That’s a mouthful of scholarly verbiage, but perhaps I can make more sense of it against one of the historic rationales offered to justify Trump’s wildly inconsistent pronouncements in the early years of his administration. The goal of Trump’s trade and foreign misadventures was, an official apparently remarked, “permanent destabilization”. This was meant to rationalize Trump’s reckless dismantling of historically durable trade and security alliances, in the Americas and around the world.
Perhaps, to fend off future Trump-like populist overtures in U.S. politics, Americans should strive to destabilize some of the constitutionally entrenched stabilities in their own federation?
In the spirit of subsidiarity, states and municipalities could pursue more experiments with empowering localities and pursuing ‘high road’ regional innovation strategies, and novel local initiatives that use existing laws in creative ways to revitalize neighborhoods and engage residents. These kinds of local experiments may uncover new ways of balancing openness and redistribution, competition and fairness.
Federal agencies could prioritize funding and infrastructure to identify and support for these kinds of creative initiatives, playing the role of information aggregator and coordinator for emerging publics and jurisdictions that don’t fit tidily into municipal, state, or federal categories. New technologies like Kleros may encourage this kind of experimentation; federal politics should be ready to embrace them, rather than letting them create the kinds of economic and cultural divides that helped make the Trump era possible.