St. Olaf Institute for Freedom and Community

St. Olaf College

Oles on the Election

Trump’s Victory a Wake Up Call to Economic Hardship in the United States

By Alexander Betley November 9, 2016

Originally published on the Star Tribune Blog.

Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, once famously wrote in his A Treatise on Human Nature, that, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

The sentimentalist Scot was onto something—that psychological drives which spur us to action are often times deep-seated emotional tendencies. Hume, of course, did not mean that we cannot act rationally. However, he placed heavy emphasis on these passions as motivators. I’ll come back to this. First, some reflection.

While I’ve been in Denmark, I’ve had European after European ask me “Why Trump? Why Trump?” I wasn’t the only one they were asking. If you say you are American here, it’s almost bound to be asked of you. As I’ve written earlier, Trump’s candidacy, now culminating in his election, appeared to foreigners as a spectacled, twilight-zone enigma.

Unfortunately, I think it appeared the same to many in the United States as well. Indeed, American student after American student (and probably much too many adults as well) could rarely offer an explanation to Trump’s appeal other than “America has a lot of stupid, racist people.”

While it’s true that Trump exploited the deep and dark racist, sexist, xenophobic tendencies that for many people lurk beneath the surface of the American consciousness (though, of course, if you’ve been paying attention to recent events before Trump, as well as United States history, you probably should’ve seen how their existence was quite evident), no one opposing Trump went beyond that. Why? Because then they would have to face up to the failings and shortcomings of their own supposed hero: Hillary Clinton.

Here’s a reality check. Wages have continued to stagnate since the 1970’s. Health care premiums are becoming increasingly expensive (somewhat contradictory to the mission of “affordable health care”). Many of the jobs that have been created during the post-Great Recession era are part-time, insecure, low-wage jobs. Scandal after scandal within the Clinton camp was routinely brushed aside by liberal elites as merely nothing. DNC conspiring against the Sanders’s primary campaign? Hey, it’s just politics. E-mails and private servers? Whoops, I’m just an old-timer unfamiliar with modern technology. Friend of the Banks? Just trust me, I’ve got a great resume.

Worse, is that Clinton’s patsies followed suit, defending Clinton when it was so obvious that her sketchy foundation, her nearly quarter of a million speeches to banks, and her unfathomably low likeability ratings would seriously damage her campaign. Most of all, Clinton offered a dull social contract for the modern era.

The role of a nation serves one fundamental purpose—to organize and protect its people. During the post-World War II era, that has included providing substantial social insurance such as unemployment benefits, Medicare and Medicaid, minimum wage laws, education, among other things. During the neoliberal economic era from Reagan onwards, these benefits were slowly eroded through the substantial lowering of taxes, privatization, and growing inequality. It was said that these market reforms would leave everyone better off.

They haven’t, especially in the United States. Most neoliberal economic policies were predicated on highly theoretical models propounded by economic ideologues such as former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan. Other countries more exposed to global trade and finance (indeed, many of them highly exposed, such as Denmark), developed social insurance policies to protect their population while undergoing economic expansion. These policies, such as the famed “flexicurity” whereby labor markets were allowed the flexibility to adjust employment with the knowledge that labor had the security of the state, were part of the modern social contract. Effectively, the people of these countries said: “Yes, trade and growth, but you must compromise and protect us as well. We get a share in the benefits.”

This hasn’t happened in the United States, which is precisely why many of the policies put forward by Bernie Sanders made so much sense to so many people. Even when Clinton compromised on the Democratic Party Platform, it appeared half-hearted, begrudgingly done, and out of a base-instinct need for political viability and survival. Despite the concessions, I don’t think anyone actually believed that Clinton was a champion of the Sanders agenda, or even took those supporting it seriously. Indeed, many leaked e-mails would indicate otherwise. When people so desperately needed a champion to reinforce the democratic ideals of justice, liberty, and equality, we gave them someone who appeared dishonest, unjust, and status-quo. Whereas Obama and Sanders inspired, Clinton took the wind out of the sails of a popular movement fighting to move our country in a distinctly novel progressive direction.

Although, in my view, Donald Trump was an awful candidate and ran a terribly fractured campaign, he appealed to the passions Hume so intelligently recognized hundreds of years before him. When Americans, especially upper middle class, well-educated, liberal Americans are in awe, I would encourage them to talk to many of the people who globalization left behind. I would encourage them to ask someone what it feels like to have their job at the local GM plant terminated. I would encourage them to ask a working class family how they’ll afford sending their kid to college. I would encourage them to discuss the shame (though totally undeserved) and embarrassment of people losing their home, not being able to purchase prescription drugs for their family, or those forced into low-wage, part-time, service sector jobs. These folks are embarrassed, frustrated, and angry—all passionate sentiments.

I can’t be certain, but I suspect many of those in disbelief don’t know folks like this. After all, it’s one thing to say, “You must just be stupid and racist.” It’s something totally different to say, “I know you’re hurting, and I know things aren’t working out for you. I even know Hillary Clinton might not fix them. But turning to Donald Trump is not the answer either. Can we talk about it?” One of these responses inflames the passions. The other tames.

I suspect more people needed to hear the latter, more compassionate response. Unfortunately, we gave them the former, along with its political mime, to the extreme detriment of our country.

About the Author

Alexander Betley is a St. Olaf Senior from O'Fallon, Missouri majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. He is studying abroad this semester in Copenhagen, Denmark.