Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Trump and Arthur Brooks’ ‘dignity deficit’

FOR ARTHUR Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, writing in The Wall Street Journal, the presumptive victory of Donald Trump in the Nov. 8 presidential election was a victory of the Norman Rockwell middle class over the elitist defilers of Western values. In an essay that barely submerges its deeper triumphalism, Brooks reaches for the ephemeral to explain the rationale of voters behind Trump’s apparent presidential win. For them, Brooks says, it’s all about dignity.

“Over the past half century, the percentage of working-age men outside the workforce doubled. Tuesday’s election results stunned pollsters and pundits. But to observers who have been watching deeper trends across America, the outcome was hardly incomprehensible. ...

“Most economists predicted that policies built on Mr. Trump’s anti-immigration and antitrade rhetoric would hardly help unemployed, working-class people in places like Kentucky and West Virginia. But where these experts heard incoherent specifics, many voters heard a consistent deeper theme: A promise to work hard at restoring left-behind Americans’ dignity by bringing back jobs and striking back at the cultural elites who disdain them.

“This story is not merely crucial for understanding this extraordinary election. It is also the lodestar for cultural renewal and better politics, no matter one’s place on the ideological spectrum. Leaders on both sides will likely take issue with some parts of Mr. Trump’s agenda. But all must contend with the central reality he has unearthed —the hunger for dignity in communities where it is most absent.”

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THERE’S BEEN a “hunger for dignity in communities where it is most absent,” the communities common to white working-class men, a national cohort whose sensibilities Trump tapped into on Election Day like a sugar maple tree in Vermont.

But what’s not clear is how (or whether) Trump’s agenda — as a matter of governance and not of campaigning — will equalize those communities’ aspirational dignity with that of other communities, the ones that the president-elect has spent a year and a half denigrating, denying dignity to vast swathes of the American electorate. Apparently, according to Trump’s agenda, it’s a zero-sum game; the one can’t coexist with the other. It is not enough that he wins; others must lose.

The deeply insensitive, calculatedly divisive rhetoric of the president-elect over the 18 months of his campaign — and the equally divisive Cabinet choices in the 13 days of White House transition — strongly suggest that the “dignity deficit” Brooks speaks of isn’t meant to be eliminated, only moved further onto the shoulders of the people in America for whom the dignity of work and economic empowerment has been a way more precarious proposition.

Brooks says that “all must contend with the central reality [Trump] has unearthed—the hunger for dignity in communities where it is most absent.” If Trump truly believes this, he can start with the communities of Latinos and African Americans, for whom the dignity Brooks talks about has been not absent, but certainly under siege, for years before the Great Recession.

Trump won’t do that because he’s spent so long vilifying those communities on the campaign trail — and apparently to great success — he can’t embrace them now without arousing the ire of the white working class whose support was his primary political objective from the start.

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BROOKS WRITES: “Who falls on the wrong side of this dignity gap? These days it is working-class men. In his new book ‘Men Without Work,’ my colleague Nick Eberstadt shows that between 1965 and 2015 the percentage of working-aged men outside the workforce increased to 22% from 10%. Many millions more are underemployed. The employment-to-population ratio for men aged 25-54 is 6.8% lower today than it was in 1930, in the teeth of the Great Depression. These secular trends were amplified by the nonrecovery that most Americans experienced after the Great Recession. Only about the top fifth of the economy saw positive income growth for most of the Obama presidency, Census Bureau data show, while most others averaged no growth at all.”

Never mind the open question of how much less of the economy would have seen positive income growth if Obama economic reforms hadn’t rescued the economy from eight years of the Bush administration. Let’s cut to the chase:

Brooks doesn’t say so in the previous paragraph, but when he refers to “working-class men,” he means white working-class men. Their overwhelming support of Trump at the polls — the civic manifestation of their frustration and that of their partner in grievance, white working-class women — forms the basis of Brooks’ argument.

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When it comes to explaining why white voters voted the way they did on Nov. 8, Charlie Cook says it more plainly: “The estrangement of these white voters created a backlash — inartfully called a “whitelash” by some commentators—based on the conviction that the country they remembered growing up, made idyllic by the passage of time, had been swept away. They at once deplored the change that took this country away from them, and demanded change to give it back.”

This is the source of what Brooks might call a dignity disconnect. The white voters Cook describes are longing for an America they only marginally remember or don’t remember at all, like the reveries of the hosts on “Westworld” or the implanted memories of the replicants in “Blade Runner.” Take the Supreme Court’s recent evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, for example. That landmark legislation has no resonance, no lived meaning for the vast majority of these voters. Most of them weren’t alive when it was first enacted in August 1965, and many, many others were too young to know or care.

Cook, no doubt adopting the persona of the cohort he describes, talks about how white voters are seemingly pursuing the literal repossession of property. Some alien forces “took this country away from them” and are now compelled to “give it back,” like this nation was the stuff of a divorce settlement or a Craigslist deal gone bad. Like this nation belonged to them or anyone else.

That’s the dignity disconnect, one you could also call a reality disconnect: These white voters described by Brooks and Cook have fully bought into their idea of dignity by way of an idyllic America whose mythical contours never really conformed with the reality of the time. Their dignity is deeply invested in an America that, for more and more of them every day, never existed.

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BROOKS BORROWED from “Men Without Work” to document the 50-year increase in the percentage of working-aged men outside the workforce, and other disturbing matters: employment-to-population ratio for men aged 25-54; the general malaise after the Great Recession, and sporadic growth. But this wasn’t particular to white voters.

Does Brooks think black and brown working-class people somehow escaped the worst of these conditions? Does he think black and brown working-class people — historically disadvantaged to start with, relative to their white counterparts — are really part of the “top fifth of the economy” that “saw positive income growth” under Obama?

Trump doesn’t propose to fill this “dignity deficit,” he merely intends to fortify the presence of that deficit where it’s always been: in the lives of people who don’t look or think or spend like him. For them, if his campaign rhetoric is to be believed and his Cabinet choices are any indication of what’s coming, the “hunger for dignity” will go on, and on.

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Brooks builds his case on Trump having won the 2016 election, and by way of the chicanery of the Electoral College, that appears to be true. But as both a practical matter and an evolving one, Trump really didn’t win the election in the first place. With about 7 million votes still to come from California, New York and Washington, the outcome of the election as a headcount exercise in the populism Trump presumably embodies is very much inconclusive.

At this writing, Democrat Hillary Clinton leads Trump by more than 1.7 million votes, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report and other sources. The final Clinton+ tally may be 2 million votes or more.

In this way, Brooks has hitched his wagon of an argument — “Donald Trump won the election because ...” — to the star of an incomplete universe of evidence: focusing on one vast white cohort’s relatively recent economic travails, while overlooking the millions of minority Americans who’ve struggled with a “dignity deficit” for decades ... and ignoring where another, equally powerful deficit exists: with the millions of all kinds of Americans potentially denied the dignity of a vote that counts.

Image credit: Trump: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images. 'Men Without Work' book cover: © 2016 Templeton Press.

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