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OP-ED | Why Trump? A Coherent Rationale Emerges

by | Jan 8, 2016 6:30am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Analysis, Business, The Economy, Election 2016, Jobs, Opinion, White House

Over the holidays, I did a lot of thinking about the future of this country and the world. Yes, that’s what news geeks like yours truly do when confronted with a week or more unscheduled time. We think about problems we’ll never be able to solve.

The most alarming and troublesome trend I’ve seen in the last few months is the rise of Donald Trump as the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for president. Since last summer, I’ve wondered how it could be possible for so many Americans to fall prey to the insidious blandishments of one of the most shameless demagogues since George Wallace. But after the recent publication of a couple of reputable studies, a coherent picture has emerged.

The first was conducted by the Pew Research Center. Better than any I’ve seen to date, the study documents what Pew calls the “hollowing out of the middle class,” or the extent to which its ranks have shrunk in size and in real wages. Moreover, after being the largest economic class in the country for four decades, the middle class now has fewer households than the lower- and upper-income brackets combined.

Since 1971, the percentage of both lower- and upper-income households has grown, though the upper bracket grew fastest. Perhaps most troubling, for those in the middle, their median income in 2014 was 4 percent lower than in 2000, Pew says. And, along with the post 9/11 slowdown, the great recession of 2007-08 wiped away what little gains were seen.

Among those who migrated from middle to upper, almost all had college degrees. Tellingly, the study concluded that “those without a bachelor’s degree tumbled down the income tiers” and “among the various demographic groups examined, adults with no more than a high school diploma lost the most ground economically.” And of course, the shrinkage of the U.S. manufacturing sector has surely played a role.

Not coincidentally, a Washington Post-ABC News survey from November found Trump’s highest level of support coming from those without college degrees. More than 40 percent of those surveyed without a college education said they supported the billionaire businessman — more than double neurosurgeon Ben Carson, his nearest rival.

The second study I ran across from September was even more revealing. Since just about anyone can remember, people in wealthy countries have lived longer than those in poorer nations. But one group — middle-aged non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. — has seen its mortality rate climb significantly, especially among those without a college degree, according to the study’s authors, economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case.

Meanwhile, “black non-Hispanics and Hispanics at midlife, and those aged 65 and above in every racial and ethnic group, continued to see mortality rates fall.” How can this be? After all, middle-aged whites are probably making more money than any other demographic group.

The causes for the increased deaths probably won’t surprise you: drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis. And wouldn’t you know? The study found that “those with less education saw the most marked increases” in mortality. The only known first-world spike in deaths comparable to this took place in Russia almost 25 years ago after the collapse of the old Soviet Union when alcoholism rates skyrocketed among males.

With members of the white non-college middle class feeling as though they are under siege on so many fronts, is it any wonder that they’re flocking to people like Trump and Carson? Why support a politician when it’s the political class that has inflicted such misery on us in the first place?

The phenomenon could even explain the relative success in Connecticut of outsider candidates such as Linda McMahon and Tom Foley. It could leave the door open to someone like MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, who lives in the state and has been mulling a run for governor.

True, Scarborough served a little more than three terms in Congress but his private-sector success and outspokenness since then have surely burnished his outsider creds. Look for Scarborough to run in 2018 and win. I don’t see a high-profile Democrat on the horizon willing to run for governor if Dannel Malloy doesn’t opt for a third term.

Sens. Chris Murphy and Dick Blumenthal are comfortably ensconced in the world’s most elite club. And besides, being governor is very hard work. You have to step on toes and do more than conduct town hall meetings and show up for photo ops, which is why Jodi Rell wasn’t any good at it.

It’s a shame that beleaguered middle class whites feel compelled to look in great numbers to someone like Trump. With the exception of Michael Bloomberg, high-powered business people rarely succeed in politics. They’re used to walking into a room, giving orders and hearing, “Yes sir, Mr. Perot. Right away, sir.”

Legislatures take a dim view of that sort of thing.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the authors are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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(9) Archived Comments

posted by: Politijoe | January 8, 2016  11:33am


We have been fortunate to have a front row seat to one of the greatest political dramas of our time. Witnessing the slow disintegration of the Republican party on life support at the hands of candidates like Trump. The contentious rifts between conservative factions like evangelicals, anti-government radicals and the disenfranchised blue-collar middle-class are merely symptoms of deeper divisions within a changing conservative electorate. A constituency who, less than a generation ago, were once informed and led by men of character who aspired to intelligence, critical thinking and pragmatic legislation.

Conservatives who once embraced the common sense ideals of sound banking practices, equitable taxation, labor unions, living wages, national health care and reasonable gun measures stand in stark contrast to contemporary conservatives. Todays directionless meld of rigid dogmas that claim to endorse traditional Republican values support a sideshow of social dropouts with overly-simplistic world views, conspiracy theories and contradictory ideologies.

The question isn’t whether Trump will be the Republican nominee. The real question is whether or not radical factions will shatter the remaining political shards of the GOP and burn their party to the ground in the process.

posted by: oldtimer | January 8, 2016  12:56pm

Radical??? The disintegration of the Republican Party??? The shrinking middle class??? If Trump is elected president, it will be the shrinking middle class that puts him there. The polls show us that those “insidious blandishments” uttered by Trump are exactly why his numbers continue to rise every time the “establishment” in either the Republican or Democratic Parties take aim at The Donald. What the career politicians and elitists fail to realize is that the vast majority of Americans have rejected the Socialist ideals of Obama and want their country to return to the great Republic it once was. Now, don’t take this as an endorsement of Trump, I’m still undecided. Rather, it’s an honest assessment of the angst and anger most Americans feel over the betrayal of politicians who have systematically destroyed our country because of their ideology or personal financial gain.

posted by: SB Chatterjee | January 8, 2016  1:36pm

Terry Cowgill - In late 2014, the US Dept. of Ed. had announced the public schools switch in their demographics - ‘minorities’ outnumber ‘whites’ in the K-12 schools for the first time. Similarly, this is also being shown on college campuses - whereby 2023, ‘whites’ will comprise less than half of the U.S. population under age 30. To Trump and his supporters, it reflects a fear of the unknown and with potentially negative economic consequences for themselves. Judging by Trump’s divisive and discriminatory positions and a lack of connection with the diversified younger generation, he may want to rethink the future, which is going to be vastly different than he envisions.

posted by: bob8/57 | January 8, 2016  2:18pm


Malloy in 2018 - Who-Hoo!

posted by: shinningstars122 | January 9, 2016  12:36pm


@Terry how about a   story on local level leaders that could break the hold of the rising demagogues and partisan special interest politics?

That is the only way to truly break this cycle is to find the new hands on local leaders who could grow into larger office and who would not beholden to the cult of personality or the power of the special interests.

I know it’s a pipe dream but their has to be a couple in our state.

posted by: Matt from CT | January 9, 2016  8:38pm

>Perhaps most troubling, >for those in the middle, >their median income in >2014 was 4 percent lower >than in 2000,

It is important to remember it’s middle CLASS, not middle INCOME.

While income is an important piece, for most folks today you probably need to be in the top quintile to actually be middle class—the one between poor and working class below, and upper middle class and rich above.

Could you replace your roof tommorrow without taking out a loan?  Can you afford to send your kids to a mid-tier college?  Do you go on real vacations?  If you lost your job tomorrow, without even considering unemployment benefits do you have savings for six months?  Do you have investments?  Do you have the time to serve on school committees and boards of finance?

The poor and working class fight and scratch and live paycheck to paycheck (even though many delude themselves into believing they are middle class); the rich don’t have to work.  Middle Class means you need to work, but you are free of worry.

I would argue by fiscal and social stability, there are a few groups who are “middle class” with low incomes (the Amish come to mind, but that is fairly unique situation). 

But most Americans, caught up in a consumerist society, need to earn more than the middle quintile to achieve a comfortable lifestyle.

posted by: markfromct | January 11, 2016  10:47am

Excellent observations, Terry.

Like you, I was shocked when the study on increasing death rates among non-college educated white Americans was released. The causes of death discussed in these studies are symptoms of epidemic despair. And history demonstrates epidemic despair can lead to horrifying political choices.
In my view, the decline in the U.S. middle class reflects the decline of the U.S. labor movement. For all their flaws, unions are one of the few true advocates of the middle class.

Second, we have had no virtually no industrial policy and an over reliance on wide open trade policies and an almost religious belief in free markets. Without overdoing it, a bit more protectionism of U.S. industry is not a bad idea, aalong with a return of national pride in “made in the USA.” By the way, a strong labor movement would fight for both. A healthy industrial base is essential for the health of the nation.

posted by: Greg | January 11, 2016  1:33pm

I wouldn’t put Trump in a class by himself in this election. Trump’s popularity is mirrored in part by Sanders, who plays on some of the same overarching themes in his campaign.

Both Trump and Sanders appeal to audiences who feel there is no place for them in the country. Both have particular groupings of individuals they identify as the villains for the woes of America, and both scream out platitudes and promises that are neither rational, logical, or economically feasible. 

Trumps border wall is Sanders’ free everything.

Both advocate for the Torch-and-Pitchfork method of solving the nation’s ills; find a scapegoat and punish them.  Tax the rich at 90%!  Deport the Mexicans!  Same tune, different lyrics.

BUT…it is refreshing both Trump and Sanders are a monkey wrench in the machine of establishment politics.  Many figured it would be a Jeb Bush/Hillary “Wall-St-Because-9/11” Clinton matchup and thankfully both are now being seen for the corporatist oligarchy they both represent.

posted by: Politijoe | January 12, 2016  11:00pm


Greg: I wanted to respond to your post and hopefully add some perspective and clarity to your comments. You initially stated “Both Trump and Sanders appeal to audiences who feel there is no place for them in the country”........ Although I agree that both camps are a reflection of middle-class disenfranchisement.The Trump campaign tends to focus almost exclusively on the political theatrics associated with not being politically correct, at the expense of the economic issues that continue to negatively effect the middle-class. In contrast, the Sanders campaigns central message consistently addresses these economic issues head-on, absent divisiveness and political opportunism.

You mentioned that “Both have particular groupings of individuals they identify as the villains for the woes of America”........

Although there is common middle-class disenfranchisement and anger between the two camps, the Trump campaign has been relying on fear of immigrants, Mexicans and Muslims with obvious undertones of racism and birtherism. In comparison, Sanders has been squarely and consistently focused on the economic realities of wealth concentration, corporate taxation and unfettered capitalism. Again, absent the distractions of silly notions like birth certificates, death panels and Mexican walls.

You also cited that “Trumps border wall is Sanders’ free everything”...... I would have to respectfully disagree. Sanders has never suggested “free everything” the reality is that Universal healthcare and two-years of community college is not so much free stuff, as it is economically responsible and an obvious investment in our future.

Greg you commented that “Both advocate for the Torch-and-Pitchfork method of solving the nation’s ills; find a scapegoat and punish them-Tax the rich at 90%”

The reality is taxing the wealthiest Americans and corporations at pre-1960 levels of 90% marginal rates did not destroy our nation-quite the opposite in fact. However, to clarify, Sanders has not supported a return to 90% marginal tax rates. What he has advocated for is reducing the dangerous concentration of wealth that is mainly a by-product of our failed taxation policies over the last 35 years.

Finally, you stated “thankfully both Bush and Clinton are now being seen for the corporatist oligarchy they represent.”..... I like many Americans would absolutely agree with this statement, however the question I have is that your comments suggest you’re not in support of policies from outsiders like Trump or Sanders or establishment candidates like Bush or Clinton-therefore, who and what policies would you support?

I believe the impending 2016 election is a pivotal crossroads. I suspect most Americans recognize this election is far less about the candidates themselves and much more about the broader themes of wealth equality, disenfranchisement, perpetual war and systemic racism in our culture that threatens to unravel the very threads of our democracy.

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