The demographic catastrophe that launched Trump
Ashfaque Swapan (Article from The Daily Star)
When Donald Trump won, American pundits were baffled and political analysts were stumped. How could this mendacious, tacky, narcissist win? (He didn't, actually. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by three million. Trump managed to use a quirk in the US election system and squeaked through by winning four states with barely a 100,000 majority. But that's a different story.)
To understand why Trump won, you need to know what happened to people like Ryan Johnson. Johnson, a high school graduate in Erie, Pennsylvania, had dropped out of a two-year culinary programme and worked part-time jobs. He grew disillusioned with his future. One day, his mother found him in his room, dead, following a heroin overdose. He was 22.
The Bloomberg news service which reports Ryan's death quotes his mother Sue: “He just saw his life as not what he wanted it to be, and he didn't know how to get it there.”
Pollsters have pointed out that the strongest support for Trump came from a demographic cohort they describe as non-college educated whites. Predominantly rural and small town folks, these people have been left behind in the tumultuous economic changes over the last few decades in the United States. As manufacturing jobs have migrated en masse, non-college educated people have been hit hard.
Economic slowdown and rising inequality is killing them. Literally.
Scholarly research backs this. Nobel laureate economist Sir Angus Deaton and Anne Case, both economics professors at Princeton, show in a paper that white middle age mortality has gone up – yes, you read that right – between 1999 and 2013.
“This change reversed decades of progress in mortality and was unique to the United States; no other rich country saw a similar turnaround,” according to an abstract of their paper, “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences.
What's even more curious, “The midlife mortality reversal was confined to white(s),” according to the abstract. “Black(s) and Hispanics at midlife, and those aged 65 and above in every racial and ethnic group, continued to see mortality rates fall.”
Scholars say one reason for the ethnic disparity may be that whites have seen a drastic decline in prosperity compared to their parents, and haven't handled it well, while other minorities are more resilient, having struggled with poverty for generations.
Researchers found the largest increases of mortality among those whites with the least education. For those with a high school degree or less, deaths caused by drug and alcohol poisoning rose fourfold; suicides rose by 81 percent; and deaths caused by liver disease and cirrhosis rose by 50 percent.
All these numbers add up to a grim picture. White middle-aged Americans have seen overall mortality rates increase over the past 15 years, with the total number of lives lost comparable to the number of Americans who have died of AIDS, the researchers say.
Researchers found that causes of death were primarily suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, which all increased yearly between 1999 and 2013.
The researchers say financial stress could be a reason. Median household incomes of whites began falling in the late 1990s, and the wage stagnation that began with the economic slowdown of the 1970s continues to hit especially hard those with a high school education. Economic insecurity worries US workers, and may take a toll on their health.
“If what is happening is an epidemic of despair, that people on the bottom of the economic heap are being increasingly left out as inequality expands, then what we are seeing is just one more terrible consequence of slow growth and growing inequality," said Deaton, the Nobel laureate economist.
Case and Deaton told Bloomberg about a theory of why mortality has risen for less educated whites. “High school graduates who go straight into the workforce have higher unemployment, weaker wage growth, and less chance of marrying than their predecessors and educated peers. Community supports have broken down, and as disadvantage snowballs, premature deaths rise,” Bloomberg explained.
In community after community devastated by economic ruin and substance abuse, less educated whites are in despair and they are furious. Mainstream political candidates failed to gauge the measure of their pain and fury.
Enter Donald Trump. Sure, he is a snake oil salesman and a hustler, so he promises to bring back jobs, make America great again and terrific health care while slashing taxes and cutting the deficit. He cunningly taps into their toxic mood of despair, and rekindles and exploits racial fears.
These non-college whites have had it with Washington politicians, who ignore their plight. At least Trump speaks to their suffering and promises them hope.
The terrible part is that on top of all the suffering this demographic group is going through, they are in for another heartbreak, because Trump is going to let them down.
Trump isn't going to get any manufacturing jobs back, even if he ever meant to. As the US president nears his first 100 days in office, it has become abundantly clear that he has little understanding of policy, how laws are passed, or for that matter, anything of any depth or substance. And he appears blissfully unaware of it.
The man is not just clueless – he's also clueless about the fact that he is clueless.
The writer is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a monthly periodical for South Asians in the United States.