I frequently travel overseas and invariably my foreign friends ask, with varying degrees of bewilderment: What in the world is going on in your country?
Here is what I say.
First, do not misinterpret last year’s election. Contrary to some commentary, the US political system has not been swept away by a wave of populism. True, we have a long history of rebelling against elites. US President Donald Trump tapped into a tradition associated with former US president Andrew Jackson and former US secretary of state William Jennings Bryan in the 19th century, and former US governor of Louisiana Huey Long and former governor of Alabama George Wallace in the 20th century.
Yet Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million.
He won the election by appealing to populist resentment in three Rust Belt states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that had previously voted Democratic. If a hundred thousand votes had been cast differently in those states, Trump would have lost the Electoral College and the presidency.
That said, Trump’s victory points to a real problem of growing social and regional inequality in the US.
J.D. Vance’s best-selling book Hillbilly Elegy compellingly describes the vast difference between California and Appalachia.
Research by the Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton shows that the demographic trends among lower-income whites without a college degree are worse than those for African-Americans, who historically anchored the lower extremes of inequality. In 1999, mortality rates among whites with no college degree were about 30 percent lower than those of African-Americans; by 2015 they were 30 percent higher.
Moreover, manufacturing employment, once a prime source of high-paying jobs for working-class whites, has fallen sharply over the last generation to just 12 percent of the workforce. These previously Democratic voters were attracted by Trump’s promises to shake things up and bring back manufacturing jobs.
Ironically, Trump’s efforts to repeal former US president Barack Obama’s healthcare legislation would make their lives worse.
The second thing I tell my foreign friends is not to underestimate Trump’s communications skills. Many are offended by his tweet storms and outrageous disregard for facts, but Trump is a veteran of reality television, where he learned that the key to success is to monopolize viewers’ attention and that the way to do that is with extreme statements, not careful regard for the truth.
Twitter helps him to set the agenda and distract his critics. What offends commentators in the media and academia does not bother his supporters, but as he turns from his permanent self-centered campaigning to trying to govern, Twitter becomes a two-edged sword that deters needed allies.
Third, I tell my friends not to expect normal behavior.
Normally, a president who loses the popular vote moves to the political center to attract additional support. This is what former US president George W. Bush did successfully in 2001.
Trump, by contrast, proclaims that he won the popular vote and, acting as though he really did, appeals to his base voters.
While Trump has made solid centrist appointments to the US departments of defense, state and homeland security, his picks for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services are from the extremes of the Republican Party. His White House staff is divided between pragmatists and ideologues, and he caters to both.