Trump promised a boom that wouldn’t just help the rich and, until the pandemic, delivered on that promise.
For all his ugliness and buffoonery, Donald Trump got some big things right, politically and practically, that Joe Biden will undo at his own peril. Almost all of Trump’s wins, abroad and at home, have one thing in common: They focused on most Americans achieving broader prosperity and not only the best-off. In his first three years, through a powerful economic boom, Trump’s economic approach paid dividends for working-class voters, who enjoyed their fastest income growth in a generation.
Trump’s boldest departure was in taking on the rest of the world. His backing of American energy development lessened the power of Middle Eastern Arab dictators and helped shove them towards a critical détente with Israel. Any attempt by Obama holdovers to return to a pro-Iranian position will not only offend many Arab states, but also Israel, which sees Iran as a mortal danger.
More critical still may be Trump’s China policy, or at least his bluster. For decades, the country looked the other way as our business elites—from bankers to tech titans to sports leagues—fell under the sway of the Middle Kingdom. This had occurred, on a bipartisan basis, even as it became painfully clear to ordinary Americans that “free trade” with China had only benefited the already affluent here at the expense of most people. Since 1990, the U.S. deficit in trade goods with China has ballooned from under $10 billion annually to over $345 billion last year. In calling for a return to American production, Trump was on solid political as well as economic ground. Despite the much ballyhooed consumer benefits of low-cost imports, the vast majority of Americans seem willing to pay the higher prices that could come from returning production from China.
Any attempt by Biden to restore friendlier business relations with China, as is likely given the backgrounds of his proposed appointments, comes with considerable political risks. Biden, suggests former Democratic Senator Evan Bayh, needs to follow Trump’s aggressively “America first” line. Some prominent Democrats like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo even joined Trump in denouncing our ruinous dependence on Chinese medical supplies and there’s growing bipartisan concern about dependence on Beijing for high-tech gear. Given the damage Trump has done to business relationships, Biden has an opportunity to forge a de facto “united front” with Europe, Australia, Canada, India, Japan, and other east Asian countries.
Probably Trump’s greatest political insight was to recognize, ahead of the more conventional “leaders” of either party, the mass alienation of large sections of America’s middle and working classes. I remember on the night of the 2016 election having dinner with my friend Henry Cisneros, the former San Antonio Mayor and HUD secretary under Clinton, who told me that Trump was going to win because “he saw things none of us experts in either party could see.”
Democratic analyst Ruy Teixeira notes the party has largely written off the working and middle class, by embracing green policies that threaten their jobs and adopting the prevailing identitarian cultural and racial agenda of the faculty lounge and the media. Trump won three-quarters of the white working class vote, down only slightly from 2016. He did best with those who work with their hands, in factories, the logistics industry and energy; notes a recent study by CityLab.
Yet Biden seems determined to pursue restrictive energy and regulatory policies that would displace many people employed in basic industries like energy, agriculture and manufacturing. The president-elect seems committed to following the California model of drastically reducing fossil fuel production, subsidizing expensive renewables and higher energy prices—all policies favored by well-connected Silicon Valley and Wall Street Valley firms, including those like BlackRock from which Biden is recruiting top officials.
The renewables first approach may make the ultra-rich feel virtuous while getting richer, but it is almost certain to cause the loss of higher-wage blue collar jobs. Restrictions or even a ban on fracking would have catastrophic effects in places like Texas, North Dakota, Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. In Texas alone, as many as a million good-paying jobs would be lost. Overall, according to a Chamber of Commerce report, a full national ban would cost 14 million jobs, far more than the 8 million lost in the Great Recession.
Read the rest of this piece at Daily Beast.
Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.