speri.comment: the political economy blog

The American kids are alright

The significant public and political protests during the first month of the Trump presidency represent the backlash to the backlash

Rick Rowden, Doctoral Researcher, Centre for Economic Studies & Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi

Rick RowdenIn the US and around the world many have been shocked by the reactionary politics that swept Donald Trump into the White House. Trump’s overt hostility toward women and Mexican immigrants during his campaign was unprecedented, and his brazen executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries shocked the world.

But after a month of the Trump presidency it is increasingly clear that not all of America is behind their new President – and they are making themselves heard.

Trump’s support among US voters was driven by two intertwined dynamics: one to do with race and the other with class.

On race, white people are set to lose their majority standing by 2043, when the US is projected to become a ‘majority-minority’ country in which no racial group makes up more than half of the population. 78 counties in 19 states have already flipped from majority white to counties where no single racial or ethnic group is a majority. This will mark the first time any country with a white European ethnic majority has ever transformed into one with a non white-majority.

And the backlash to this is real. In recent years, conservative Republicans across the US have enacted efforts to clamp down on voting rights for minorities and even birthright citizenship in the US, paving the way for Trump’s positions on immigrants.

Historians suggest, however, that such backlashes are entirely predictable. Social progress towards greater equality in the US has always been uneven, often with two steps backward after one step forward.  The Rev. William Barber II reminded us that this backlash to social progress must be expected: ‘A dying mule always kicks the hardest.’  The end of slavery in the 1860s was followed by a violent backlash led by the Ku Klux Klan and voter suppression tactics of the Southern Democrats.  Decades of intensive immigration into the US were followed by restrictive anti-immigration laws targeted against people from Asia, the Middle East and southern Europe in the early 20th century.  And the victories of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s led conservatives to adopt the ‘Southern Strategy’ in electoral politics – appealing to the racial hatred and fear in voters while avoiding the use of overtly racist language.

Following the election of the first black US president, Trump basically did the same thing by entering politics with a challenge to the validity of Obama’s US citizenship. As the US has slowly become more diverse, Trump spoke to the palpable fears of white heterosexual Christians, who stand to lose some of their traditional privileges relative to other groups in society. For any group that has historically enjoyed disproportionate privileges to suddenly begin losing them, say going from 50 types of privilege to only 35 types, can make members of that group feel like they’re being ‘oppressed’.  In some twisted way ‘having to be more equal’ literally translates into a mindset of ‘we’re being oppressed’ for some members of historically privileged groups.  And that accounts for a proportion of Trump voters.

But for all of Trump’s bluster, the backlash is not as bad as some historians predict. While many white Americans are worried about becoming a minority, many others are finding their way and even embracing it. And when compared to restrictive laws in the early 20th century, today’s level of resistance to nonwhite immigration – including opposition to the legalization of undocumented immigrants who are already in the US – is weak by comparison.  According to a 2015 survey, 72 per cent of Americans supported legal status for undocumented immigrants, with 42 per cent also supporting a path to citizenship. On religion, polls show that since 2014, attitudes towards Muslims actually improved.

On class, when Trump promises to ‘make America great again,’ he speaks to the economic insecurities of struggling middle-class Americans who have seen real wages stagnate at 1970s levels, and high-wage employment replaced with lower-wage and more precarious work. Healthcare, childcare, and tuition costs continue to rise and the American dream appears to be slipping away for many.  Many Trump voters were willing to overlook his racism, sexism and xenophobia simply because he promised more and better paying jobs.

And many of these voters will be up for grabs when Trump fails to deliver those jobs and meet his campaign promises.

Truly addressing America’s worsening economic inequality, low wages, and high healthcare and education costs will require adopting progressive economic reforms for everything from excessive financial deregulation to the squashing of labour rights, from excessive the tax breaks for the rich to stopping the threat of off-shoring of jobs that keep wages low. Or, in other words, Bernie Sanders’ agenda.

Most of Sanders’ policies are popular: polling shows that large majorities are in favour of taxing the wealthy more, free universal healthcare and college tuition and increases to the minimum wage. Polls show that majorities of Americans want dramatic steps taken on climate change, clarified immigration rights, to bring the LGBT community into the American mainstream, and reforms to reduce racism, police violence, and overcrowded prisons.

So while Trump eked out victory by riding on the currents of racism and fear, he is on the wrong side of all these issues. And if Trump represents a backlash by whites against low wages, job insecurity and growing numbers of minority groups, what the US has witnessed in the last few weeks represents the backlash to the backlash.

The day after Trump’s inauguration, millions marched in Washington DC and other US cities marking one of largest days of protests in US history. When Trump issued his executive order banning entry into the US from seven Muslim-majority countries, tens of thousands protested at US airports.  Then on February 9th, Trump received perhaps his biggest pushback yet when US courts rejected the constitutionality ban on immigrants.

Tens of thousands of Americans have also been making calls to their members of Congress or showing up in person at their public events, creating unprecedented difficulty for Trump to get his Cabinet nominees confirmed. Although his nominee to head the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, passed the Senate only because the unprecedented intervention of Vice President Pence, the grassroots movement against her was massive and created a base for future opposition to her privatization reforms.  In a striking rebuke, San Francisco announced free college tuition.

Similarly, when Trump issued a government-wide hiring freeze, he met intense resistance and exempted the Veterans Administration.  When he revived the stalled Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines, he was immediately met with opposition in Washington DC and across the US.  Massive political pressure forced Trump to cancel a visit to a Harley-Davidson plant in Wisconsin, Disney’s CEO canceled a trip to the White House, Uber’s CEO was forced to resign from Trump’s advisory council, and Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus were compelled to drop Ivanka Trump’s brands.

The Republican-controlled Congress has been forced to back down and backtrack on numerous fronts. Their efforts to water down a government ethics office, to privatize Medicare and public lands, and roll back access to reproductive services for women have all faced massive protests and intense political pushback.  The Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, while offering nothing with which to replace it, is meeting massive resistance with nationwide protests planned for February 25th.

More than 50 citizens organizations have forged an alliance to resist Trump’s agenda, and over 6,000 new local citizens groups called ‘The Indivisibles’ have formed to pressure their congressional representatives.

State legislatures are also deeply involved in leading the pushback with a flood of resolutions demanding federal investigations into Trump’s business practices and Russian interference in the 2016 election, and proposals for new laws requiring future presidential candidates to reveal their federal income tax records.  Cities are proposing laws to stop Trump from rounding up undocumented immigrants and to keep abortion accessible.

None of this means it will be quick or easy to stop Trump’s conservative agenda, but the forceful pushback on display is unprecedented.

At a moment when the world was shocked by the cruelty of Trump’s ban on entry of immigrants and refugees, it is perhaps fitting that this historic moment was best summed up by an Iraqi immigrant to the US. Although Roslyn Sinha had a valid USA visa, she was one of thousands who were temporarily blocked from returning into the US.  After a few tumultuous days in legal limbo, Sinha was finally allowed to enter and landed in Washington DC on February 5th.

Greeted by cheering protesters, she expressed relief.  ‘It’s just – but when you see the activists, the lawyers, all of the people who were protesting to get us back home, you think that this country will always be great, no matter what’.

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