Laying of hands.

Photographer: Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

Trump's Coalition of the Descending

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Speaking to an Iowa crowd in September, Donald Trump said, it's hard to make headway in the world when "our leaders are so stupid and so incompetent and so inept." 

This has been a popular refrain from Trump. And whether applied to Washington leaders in particular or American elites in general, it isn't actually true. Yet the reason it isn't true is instructive, and more than a little alarming if you're a stereotypical Trump supporter -- white, male and without a college degree.

If the goal in Washington really were to elevate Trump's blue-collar white males and make them feel more secure, then "stupid" would be an apt description because the opposite effect has been achieved. Average hourly wages in the U.S. have been stagnant for half a century. Median household income has only risen for those toward the top of the income distribution. Earnings for male high school graduates have plummeted since 1970.

But who in the American power grid is actively pursuing the goal of elevating such people?

Neither Democratic nor Republican elites seem overly concerned with Trump's crowd. Bernie Sanders would surely make a play for their support if he could get a hearing. But the Democrats are otherwise dreaming of dominance with their coalition of the ascendant. That coalition, the product of decades of politically costly investments that have only begun to pay a return, is female, black, Hispanic and Asian, with highly educated whites pitching in. It relies less and less on the votes of white males without college educations, and the coalition's new members, many of whom have suffered discrimination, aren't much saddened by the relative decline of white male status.

The Republicans, on the other hand, have seemed to heartily endorse white male working-class rage, wearing their constituents' class grudges on their rolled-up sleeves. But they have shown scant interest in the efforts of so-called reform conservatives, for example, to address the economic plight of the working class (or to salvage their hard-pressed families). Republicans are devoted instead to cutting the taxes paid by their donors and others at the top of the wealth-distribution scale, and abolishing the regulations applied to their businesses.   

The elites of both parties have mostly abandoned Trump's Coalition of the Descending. Its members have only Trump, who promises to smite their enemies -- Mexicans, Muslims, Chinese, "waves" of Japanese -- and to use his unique greatness to win battles in their behalf.

It's ridiculous, of course. But at least it's a new variation on the theme these voters have heard for a quarter century or more. In 1991, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton announced his presidential campaign decrying dysfunction and stasis in Washington. He promised to help American workers retool to compete in a rapidly globalizing world. "We must meet the competition and win," he said.

Despite enviable economic growth during Clinton's presidency, working-class Americans nonetheless sank deeper into the globalized labor pool. Yet the soggy political theme of "compete and win" stayed afloat.

"Senator Rubio believes that American workers can compete against anyone in the world,” a spokesman for Marco Rubio said in 2013.

What goes unmentioned is that unskilled and semi-skilled Americans can't readily compete against low-wage rivals without earning lower wages themselves.

Trump is not telling working-class voters they can go head-to-head against low-wage competitors. He's telling them he will make those competitors disappear and rescue Americans from a rigged game. He'll make it turn out right. Surely, on some level, his audiences understand how vacuous that vow is. But you can't blame the Coalition of the Descending for being suckers for Trump. They're alienated from both parties. He's all they've got.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net