Democrats need to win back Trump supporters by fixing their own mistakes instead of taking potshots at the president, a US studies scholar told DW. He also explains why Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were out of touch.
DW: You argue that US President Donald Trump is less an anomaly than commonly thought. This may sound strange to many people who have observed him and his behavior not just during the campaign but also since becoming president. Why do you think that?
Christopher Newfield: A lot of his positions on policy matters are the same as the right-wing of the Republican Party. His gender attitudes, his antagonism towards abortion - he is now trying to defund Planned Parenthood, which not only provides abortions but also provides basic birth control for low-income people. His interest in privatization using public money to give to private contractors to renew our infrastructure, appointing a Wall Street banker, who profited quite a bit from the housing crisis in 2008/2009, as secretary of the treasury for example. He is very Republican mainstream in the content of the views.
I think what people are shocked by is the way that he promulgates the views, the publicity style, that is quite shocking. It is reality television, not standard politics. He personalizes and makes aggressive his form of address in a way that is really unusual in a Republican Party that sees itself more as establishmentarian. But what is really important for people to realize is that the content is not so un-Republican.
Recent voting analysis shows that not just white, working-class people supported him, but so did many white middle-class and affluent whites. What does that tell you?
It tells me that he is a mainstream Republican and that he is going to cut taxes on the rich and that he is going to take things away from middle class and lower-income people. That's what the repeal of Obamacare is. His health care plans is called "wealth care" by some people because it pulls about $800 billion over the next 10 years out of the health care system and gives it to upper-income people in the form of tax cuts.
If Trump's support in the election went beyond the often mentioned disadvantaged white people who were simply desperate enough to vote for someone who promised to shake up the system what does this mean for our picture of him and of his voters?
There is an inseparability in the US of racial issues and economic issues, which are class issues. There is a lot of anxiety about the changing demographics in the country. My state, California, is basically minority-majority. Whites are basically a minority and what used to be called minority groups now together are actually the majority in the state. That is happening, more slowly, everywhere in the country. There is a sort of discomfort with demographic change.
Perhaps 15 percent of whites in the country hold white supremacist views. But you don't become president by just getting those people. There are also folks that are not necessarily racist, but what I would call racially anxious and they are uncomfortable with changing racial ratios. They see immigration from Latin American in particular and to some extent from Asia as economically threatening.
There is also an economic tie to the anti-immigration views that Trump voters had. One thing that really differentiated Trump voters from Clinton voters is how hostile they were to immigration, especially from Latin America. If you thought this was a major issue, you were much more likely to vote for Trump than for Clinton. That too has an economic dimension.
At the sort of bottom or lower-middle class, there are trade skills that you used to be able to raise a family on 30 or 40 years ago and you can't anymore, for instance being a dry-waller or being a carpenter or working at some level in unskilled manufacturing. Those wages are no longer living family wages. A lot of white folks blame immigration for that. They blame immigrants instead of blaming business owners or the business system, capitalism, as such, which is the structure that created this race to the bottom in terms of wages.
This means if you are a contractor you basically can't compete with other contractors unless you are paying people only $8 (7.10 euros) an hour to do drywall, which you can best do if you have a lot of undocumented folks coming in, who don't have any choice but to take what you are paying. If you connect the economic and the racial issues together and see them as interconnected, you see that the Trump vote makes somewhat more sense.
The other big picture is that the Democrats had the White House for eight years and the economy really recovered well for banks and it really recovered well for mergers and acquisitions and lawyers and it recovered really well for doctors and engineers. But people who work in agriculture or construction, people who have small businesses outside the big metro areas - they never recovered.
A lot of those people never got their houses back. Their kids are unemployed living at home or they are working only 30 hours a week for $8-$10 an hour. They are looking at Obama up there saying we need more trade agreements and that it has been a great recovery and they are saying, "This guy is out of touch."
Then when Hillary Clinton runs, sort of under the Obama umbrella, and she says essentially the same thing and uses these vague phrases like "I am going to invest in you." People just hear another Democrat who is going to favor well-educated people, city people, and also people of color over the heartland folks who aren't as attractive and well-educated and in the mix as these Democratic university people.
I think a lot of this is not that Trump was so clever, but that the Democrats were so dumb. They used to say, "It's the economy, stupid" and they forgot. Hillary Clinton did not stand up there and say, "Donald is not going give you jobs, he is going to give tax breaks to his rich friends, but I am going to give you jobs and here are the two things that I am going to do to make that happen."
So when she said "I am going to invest in you," it sounds like, "Oh, you are going to send my kid to a job training program for a technology that is already five years out of date." It just doesn't add up. The evidence for this happening is that the base for Democrats did not turn up. A lot of what happened is not that Trump did so swell, but Clinton just didn't turn out her core people.
What would Democrats need to do differently to appeal to those people who voted for Trump now?
I think they have to do two things at once.
They have to significantly differentiate themselves from Republicans on foreign policy and interventionism. One of Trump's popular positions was "I am not going to be out there intervening everywhere." And, of course, one of the first things he did was shoot cruises missiles at Syria. It is not like he is actually going to do what he said. But people did like what he said, which was we are going to take care of our own, we are going to build our bridges, we are not going to build Iraqi bridges. Selfish, but it worked.
Democrats have to do a version of that - big infrastructure and jobs programs. Democrats have to go back - or forward - to a version of Roosevelt: "Here is a $100 billion and everyone in northern Wisconsin is going to have some kind of job, our commitment is full employment. And in the longer term we will figure out some kind of retraining program, but first everybody is working."
Then on the economy they have to do what people sort of denigrated as populist. They have to drop the university-type of arguments in favor of trade, the abstract stuff about balance of payments and the skills gap and how we just naturally have a value chain where manufacturing just has to go to China because the laws of economics. They need to chuck that and say we are going to figure out how to have good jobs here and we are going to set all of our university economists on the full employment chain and not the outsource your job to another country chain, which is what the Democrats have been doing for 25 years.
Do you think Democrats are on track to do what you just outlined?
Because the Clintonist wing of the party still controls the national party. The fact that they have lost 1,000 legislative seats in the states while Obama was in office is less important for that group than that they retain control of the national party. You can tell that I am a bit more on the Bernie Sanders side of things. There needs to be some kind of discussion and reconciliation. But what they are doing instead - because it's so fun and easy - is taking potshots at Trump.
The real disaster is if they spend the next two years leading up to congressional elections in 2018 doing what they did during the campaign, which is to say that Donald Trump is unfit for office. He has to be treated like a normal politician who is wrong about everything, but not like a pathological person that you need to call medical attendants to take away.
Christopher Newfield is a professor of American studies and literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The interview was conducted by Michael Knigge.