McCormack Speaks

The Trump Paradox

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by Professor Michael Ahn
Department of Public Policy and Public Affairs

Here is a simple observation with no political siding ̶ virtually all media outlets to which I am exposed are appalled by Donald Trump and all the posts on social media channels I visit are full of dismay, shock, and embarrassment at Donald Trump and his campaign. Nine out of 10 (actually more like 10 out of 10) times, I see various expressions and statements pointing to how unfit Trump is and how ridiculous it is to support him. However, it is a paradox that he continues to muster significant support from the general population despite all the “scandals” that we have seen unfold in the last couple of weeks. You may disregard him as a fool as many media outlets are doing and express your dismay at his hard-to-understand popularity. Yet, in the backdrop of his substantial popularity, one cannot overlook the real meaning of his popularity—why is Trump so popular and what does this mean?

Some articles from Washington Post and the Guardian have explored this question and pointed out the following factors as the reasons for his high popularity:

  • blue collar support of Trump as jobs are perceived to be fleeing the country;
  • disgust at “political establishment” which failed to represent their interests and stood behind all these trade deals that are perceived to have had detrimental effects on the manufacturing sector in the United States;
  • Trump’s simple and straightforward way of speaking which communicates easier, “sticks” better with general population and carries emotional overtone especially anger;
  • dislikes for immigrants by this segment of the population.

Examining these and other reasons speculated in various news media channels seem to me to point to one common denominator as the cause for these sentiments: globalization and its effect on “ordinary Americans.” The policy question that this poses to us is this: what should (can) we do with growing inequality fueled by global capitalism and can it continue to co-exist with our representative democracy?

Global capitalism that transcends our national boundaries with its powerful force of creative destruction leaves behind what we call “brain nations” and “body nations”–few brain nations with leading industries in the fields of science and technology while many body nations are left to produce manufacturing goods at the lowest production costs possible, often at the expense of environmental degradation and inhumane working conditions.

Wealth inequality grows with advancing technology that increasingly replace people and people are left with fewer options as the “global invisible hand” continuously look for more profitable comparative advantages present in global market places. Few winners emerge at the global or national levels while vast number of have-nots emerge who are increasingly at the cold mercy of the invisible hand. These have-nots translate into votes in the political arena. Now the have-nots are expressing their dissatisfaction at the political establishment that is perceived to have contributed to the current state of inequality and does this by, ironically, supporting a billionaire Trump who established himself as anti-establishment claiming to know how to fix the problems of job loss and immigration and claims that he will protect their interest in a simple and direct manner.

The rise of Trump and his political platform is not an accident. The increasing proportion of the have-nots who feel left out of the current market will continue to influence politics and the likes of Trump will continue to emerge and may even win in future elections, if not this one.

This will not only be an American phenomenon and the anger built up by the many have-nots will influence elections around the world and leaders with platforms similar to that of Trump will emerge with important policy consequences. Candidates will emerge taking advantage of the anger of this growing segment of the population and advocate nationalism. Without meaningful alleviation of the wealth disparities, this trend will likely continue with increasing “fragmentation” such as the recent withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union ̶ Brexit.

The power of global capitalism and its increasing inequality in the context of our representative democracy is an important challenge that requires effective and systematic policy solutions, in the absence of which, the most direct, nationalistic, and emotional solutions may prevail in the policy arena with dire consequences.

Michael Ahn, McCormack Graduate School, UMass BostonMichael Ahn (PhD, Syracuse University) is an assistant professor of public policy and public affairs at UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School. His research explores the effects of Information Technology on government performance, accountability and political dynamics. He currently serves as the president of the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration and the Northeast Conference on Public Administration.

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