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Blue-Collar Anger and the Appeal of Trump

BY LILY HESS, 27/11/2016

The United States is experiencing a truly distinct presidential election. Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, has endured in the election thus far despite his complete lack of political experience and unruly behavior that would normally disqualify any other candidate. His shortfalls are only exacerbated by his ignorance of foreign affairs and discriminatory rhetoric against various minority groups, which have lead many to wonder how he has survived this far in the presidential race. Why is he the exception? What constituency has exempted Trump from the rules that govern other candidates?

The core indicator that defines Donald Trump’s most loyal supporters, who unflinchingly endorse his unruly behaviour, is their economic background. The demographic is most popular with is mainly composed of older white males with no college degree. Furthermore, polls show Trump trailing Clinton among every other demographic grouping: Hispanics, young people, women, African-Americans, and people with a college degree  (Pew Research Centre, 2016). Based on this reality, it is extremely unlikely Donald Trump will win the election (Fenn, 2016). Yet, the movement he has fostered brings to focus the economic, social and political grievances of a specific section of society that has suffered from globalization and technological change.

It is not surprising that this election has seen both candidates turn against unhinged free trade – a position the United States has come to espouse as a core part of its international economic policy so far. In particular, a target of Donald Trump’s election campaign is the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA, a treaty for international commerce enacted in 1994 between the United States, Mexico, and Canada. In addition to eliminating trade barriers, the NAFTA aims to implement environmental and labor safeguards and intellectual property protections (McBride and Sergie, 2016). This trade agreement has often been blamed for siphoning manufacturing jobs from the United States to Mexico, where workers accept lower wages, yet the result of the agreement on the American economy was a very small boost in GDP (Congressional Budget Office, 2003), lower prices for goods, and job gains (Hufbauer and Cimino-Isaacs, 2014). However, many thousands of manufacturing jobs have legitimately moved from the United States to Mexico. While the reasons for the shift of manufacturing jobs to outside the United States may be more complex than the trade agreement alone, NAFTA serves as an enemy simpler to vilify in one easy acronym. Meanwhile, trade with China has eliminated one million manufacturing jobs in the United States, according to MIT labor economist David Autor (Arnold 2016). The current dilemma of trade liberalization is a trade-off between cheaper goods and manufacturing jobs: the benefits of trade are dispersed amongst the general population, at the expense of several lost jobs in this sector. However, layoffs are highly visible, while the spread of benefit to society from cheaper goods is subtler. This reaction against trade explains Donald Trump’s outreach to Bernie Sanders’ supporters after the latter lost the Democratic primary elections against Hillary Clinton (Harrell, 2016).

However, trade deals are not the only factor contributing to the erosion of American manufacturing jobs. The changing tides of technology have also altered the dynamics of the global economy. This factor has not been mentioned as much on the campaign trail. Trade agreements are policies with names that are reversible, whilst technological change is entirely pervasive in society and largely unstoppable. While automation of plants and facilities has created various new types of jobs, they are mostly geared toward professional and skilled labor. However, these job gains have come at the expense of unskilled labor positions (Mark, 1987). While some companies may offer retraining programs to update their unskilled workers, it is easier to simply lay them off and employ the skilled labor they need. A laid-off, unskilled worker is unlikely to go back to school to become trained for another profession, and companies see less of an investment to hire older workers when they know they have a smaller window of time in which to use their labor.

In the United States of the past, it was possible to support one’s family well on a single income from a manufacturing job. Many of Donald Trump’s core supporters harken back to their memory of this golden age for them (which also explains why his supporters tend to be older). Now, small blue-collar towns across large swaths of the country are being emptied by a lack of job opportunities. In rural Greater Appalachia (where much of Donald Trump’s support-base resides), the impact of this increased unemployment is arguably reflected in a growing heroin epidemic, as well as an increase in fatal overdoses from prescription painkillers. This has reached the point where the number deaths by overdosing in rural areas has exceeded those from urban areas. (Bloch and Park, 2016). Male, white, and Christian: until recently, these were the typical characteristics of the most economically successful group in the United States – and this was partly true even for unskilled workers. Recent socioeconomic developments, however, have caused blue-collar workers to slide to the to the bottom: this clearly explains the feeling of anger and disenfranchisement that animates Trump’s supporters.

From this emerges resentment over the “Washington elite” that Trump’s supporters blame for swindling their prospects in favor of immigrants and minorities. The final element that motivates blue collar’s support of Trump is, in fact, the reaction to multiculturalism. Lambasting immigration and diversity has always been a favorite populist tool, which leads more or less large sections of the electorate to distrust mainstream media, thus enforcing their persistent support for a candidate that makes consistently dishonest remarks.

The preconditions for a populist movement to emerge in the United States have existed for a while: all that was required for its emergence was a catalyst. This eventually materialised in Donald Trump, whose brash rhetoric has infused new – yet misplaced – hope in a demographic that has lost any economic and social relevance.


is a 3rd year student of the BA in International Relations at King’s College London


Arnold, Chris. (2016)“China Killed 1 Million U.S. Jobs, But Don’t Blame Trade Deals.” National Public Radio.  http://www.npr.org/2016/04/18/474393701/china-killed-1-million-u-s-jobs-but-don-t-blame-trade-deals . Accessed 12 August 2016.

Bloch, Matthew and Haeyoun Park (2016). “How the Epidemic of Drug Overdose Deaths Ripples Across America.” New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/01/07/us/drug-overdose-deaths-in-the-us.html?_r=0 . Accessed 12 August 2016.

Congressional Budget Office (2003). “The Effects of NAFTA on U.S.-Mexican Trade and GDP.” Congress of the United States https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/42xx/doc4247/report.pdf . Accessed 12 August 2016.

Fenn, Peter. (2016) “Why Trump Won’t Win.” U.S. News and World Report. http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/peter-fenn/articles/2016-03-21/trump-has-deep-demographic-problems-come-the-2016-general-election . Accessed 12 August 2016.

Harrell, Donovan. (2016). “Trump reaches out to disappointed Sanders supporters.” Politico. http://www.politico.com/story/2016/07/donald-trump-bernie-sanders-226192 . Accessed 12 August 2016.

Hufbauer, Gary Clyde and Cathleen Cimino-Isaacs. (2014) “NAFTA Rejoinder: The US Effects Are Clearly Positive for Most Workers (Part II).” Peterson Institute for International Economics. https://piie.com/blogs/realtime-economic-issues-watch/nafta-rejoinder-us-effects-are-clearly-positive-most-workers . Accessed 12 August 2016.

Mark, Jerome. (1987). “Technological change and employment: some results from BLS research.” Bureau of Labor Statistics. http://www.bls.gov/mlr/1987/04/art3full.pdf . Accessed 12 August 2016.

McBride, James and Mohammed Aly Sergie (2008). “NAFTA’s Economic Impact.” Council on Foreign Relations. http://www.cfr.org/trade/naftas-economic-impact/p15790 . Accessed 12 August 2016.

Pew Research Centre. (2016). “Demographic Differences in Support for Trump and Clinton”. 2016 Campaign: Strong Interest, Widespread Dissatisfaction. http://www.people-press.org/2016/07/07/2-voter-general-election-preferences/. Accessed 6 September 2016.

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