Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
The last two years have seen an outbreak of self-abnegation among former advocates of globalization, who wonder if their cosmopolitan views on migration and free trade might have helped deliver the White House to U.S. President Donald Trump. In turn, longtime critics of globalization on the left have crowed at this apparent admission of defeat. Both camps have suggested that the backlash Trump represents is understandable and that internationalists should do more to accommodate an electorate that has turned against global engagement.
Yet both camps misunderstand Trump’s electoral success. The voters who were won over by his antiglobalist message were not legitimate victims of globalization. Many, if not most, were and are older white supporters of patriarchy who resent people with dark skin, especially those from other countries. Although it might be inexpedient to call this group deplorable, a program of appeasement toward their views is wrong—economically, politically, and morally. Globalization has been an overwhelmingly positive force for the United States and the rest of the world. Instead of apologizing for themselves, it is time for internationalists to take the fight to an aging minority of nativists and wall builders.
Backlash appeasers have a number of thoughtful and influential voices on their side. Many are former champions of globalization who worry that it has moved too fast. The Financial Times commentator Edward Luce, for instance, suggested in his 2017 book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, that by promoting globalization, “the world’s elites have helped provoke what they feared: a populist uprising against the world economy.” To save the liberal project, he argued, we must abandon “the drive to deep globalization.” Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has similarly warned of “a growing suspicion on the part of electorates that globalization is an elite project that primarily benefits elites.”
Other members of this chorus are liberals and left-wingers who have long been critical of free trade and who see Trump’s election as a vindication. In a March article for The American Prospect, the liberal journalist Robert Kuttner claimed that “elites of both parties won the policy debates on trade, but lost the people.” According to Kuttner, “the more that bien pensants double down on globalization, the more defections they invite and the more leaders like Trump we get.” The author John Judis took to The New York Times to criticize the left for ignoring the emotional appeal of nationalism, arguing that low-skilled immigration and China’s unfair trading practices had hurt American workers, helping to “create a new class of angry ‘left-behinds’” who were susceptible to Trump’s message.
These arguments are misguided. They severely overstate both the number of Americans hurt by globalization and the depth of the popular backlash to it. Regarding immigration, it is very hard to find evidence of a single demographic or regional grouping of U.S. citizens that has been harmed. In a 2015 paper, the economists Gaetano Basso and Giovanni Peri looked at 30 years of data on labor market outcomes in the United States and concluded that increases in immigrant labor, both in aggregate and by skill group, either increase native wages and employment or are simply uncorrelated with them. Conversely, Trump’s plan to end work permits for the spouses of H1-B visa holders could cost the U.S. economy $2.1 billion per year, according to the economists Ayoung Kim, Brigitte S. Waldorf, and Natasha T. Duncan.
On trade, there is reasonable analysis suggesting that increased competition arising from imports, for all of its overall benefits, can hurt employment in particular communities and sectors. In an influential series of papers, the economists David H. Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon H. Hanson argued that China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 had a negative impact on local U.S. labor markets exposed to Chinese competition. For at least a full decade after the “China trade shock,” they claimed, these labor markets—many of which had depended on manufacturing—saw higher unemployment, lower wages, and depressed labor force participation rates.
But critics of the studies point out that their conclusions fail to account for a few important facts. First, increased trade with China allowed U.S. firms to import cheaper materials, lowering their own costs and enabling them to expand production; and second, China’s accession to the WTO increased U.S. exports to China, as well as other countries. Looking beyond just China, research by the economists Robert C. Feenstra and Akira Sasahara suggests that between 1995 and 2011, growth in U.S. exports worldwide led to 6.6 million new U.S. jobs, including 1.9 million jobs in manufacturing—more than the jobs lost owing to global import competition. And although an estimated two million U.S. jobs were lost because of competition from Chinese imports over those 15 years, the U.S. economy saw about 1.9 million layoffs and discharges each month during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Manufacturing job losses to China are in the headlines not because they are a major source of terminations but because they make a good story for those who oppose global engagement.
Furthermore, looking only at the production side of the economy ignores the considerable benefits that consumers—particularly poor consumers—derive from cheaper goods. According to a study by Pablo D. Fajgelbaum and Amit K. Khandelwal of the National Bureau of Economic Research, poor people spend more of their income on goods, while the rich spend more on services, which are less tradable; for this reason, if the United States moved to end imports, the poorest ten percent of American consumers would see their buying power decline by 82 percent, compared with a decline of only 50 percent for the median consumer.
Most Americans recognize the economic benefits of trade and migration to the country. Contrary to the backlash thesis, globalization is more popular now than ever before. Since 1992, Gallup has asked if trade is primarily an opportunity for economic growth or a threat to the economy. For 23 years, the proportion suggesting it was primarily an opportunity never rose above 56 percent; in 2017 and 2018, it exceeded 70 percent. And since 1965, Gallup has asked Americans if immigration should be increased, decreased, or kept at the present level. The proportion favoring an increase or sustained rate, at 68 percent, has never been higher, nor has the proportion calling for a decrease (29 percent) ever been lower.
But if the economic benefits of globalization are widely understood, a minority sees it as a cultural threat. This is what explains the supposed backlash. Public opinion surveys from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) suggest that 34 percent of all Americans feel that the growing number of immigrants threatens traditional American values and customs. But only 19 percent of those aged 18 to 29 feel that way, compared with 44 percent of those over the age of 65 and 53 percent of white evangelical Protestants of all ages. Similarly, the political scientists Diana C. Mutz, Edward D. Mansfield, and Eunji Kim found that whites are consistently less supportive of trade deals than are members of other racial groups. They attribute this imbalance to whites’ “heightened sense of national superiority” and ethnocentrism. If markers of economic hardship—such as low education, skills, or wages—determined opinions on trade (or migration), minorities would be the ones opposed. In fact, the reverse is true.
Some evidence does suggest that migration and trade flows may influence communities to vote Republican. Autor, Dorn, and Hanson argue that between 2000 and 2016, areas in which employment was concentrated in the industries that faced the most competition from Chinese imports tended to shift toward the Republicans. And the economists Anna Maria Mayda, Giovanni Peri, and Walter Steingress analyzed county-level data, finding that between 1990 and 2010, high-skilled immigration to a county decreased the overall share of the Republican vote while low-skilled immigration increased it.
What is considerably harder to see is how such factors could explain Trump’s increased vote share relative to the Republicans’ 2012 presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. Survey evidence suggests the American electorate recognized that the 2016 presidential candidates, Trump and Hillary Clinton, presented them with a clearer choice on trade and migration policy than had Barack Obama and Romney four years earlier. But voters’ exposure to globalization was not related to the size of their swing toward the Republican candidate between 2012 and 2016. Cultural factors were.
The Gallup economists Jonathan T. Rothwell and Pablo Diego-Rosell, for instance, found “no link whatsoever” between greater exposure to trade competition or immigrant workers and greater support for Trump. They did find a particularly large swing to Trump in counties with a high share of old white residents with only a high school education. And Diana Mutz found that people who felt that “the American way of life is threatened,” or who believed whites and men were more oppressed than women or minorities, were significantly more likely to switch to Trump than those who did not. In short, the voters who bought Trump’s rhetoric on trade and migration were those who were culturally attuned to his message.
Indeed, a significant proportion of Republican partisans have decided that white Christian men are the new oppressed. A PRRI survey in February 2017 found that 43 percent of Republicans felt there was a lot of discrimination against whites, and 48 percent thought there was a lot of discrimination against Christians, compared with only 27 percent who thought there was a lot of discrimination against blacks. Given the gap between black and white families in terms of both median income and median wealth, such thinking is delusional. But many whites, Mutz notes, fear that they will soon become a minority within the United States and feel that the country as a whole is losing its global dominance. This sense of lost national status and persecution fueled support for Trump.
When regretful internationalists talk about pausing globalization to save it, the group they cater to is not the “left-behind” but older, bigoted whites who are unreconciled to the cultural changes of recent decades. It would be both ethically repugnant and politically and economically unwise to pander to them.
Politically unwise because theirs is a minority view that is dying; economically suicidal because for all that old white men are delusional about facing discrimination at home, they are absolutely correct regarding the United States’ slipping status as a superpower. That is why it is particularly urgent for the country to lock in fair global regimes while it still has the leverage to do so. This means playing by the rules of the WTO and taking those immigrants who still want to come to the United States. Ironically, immigration is particularly important for aging whites themselves: although non-Hispanic whites will become a minority of the overall population within the next three decades, they will still make up 60 percent of people over the age of 65 in 2050. They will need young immigrant workers to keep Social Security and Medicare solvent. Add to these political and economic motives an ethical one: globalization has been the most powerful force ever for lifting humanity out of destitution.
Globalization has been imperfectly managed, and a new push for fairer global engagement should involve reforms, including better regulation of capital markets, limits on intellectual monopolies such as patents and copyrights, and cooperation on tax havens to ensure that corporations and rich individuals pay their share for public services. Strong international agreements are urgently needed on issues such as climate change and data privacy. And a raft of domestic measures could increase both equality and productivity in the United States: tightening lax controls on market concentration, slashing limits to affordable housing in job-rich areas, reducing the barrier to entry that unnecessary licensing imposes on small businesses, reforming a banking system that bails out irresponsible institutional investors, and doing more to help Americans who lose their jobs, for whatever reason.
But one thing that won’t help is for liberals to legitimize the backlash to globalization. Those who do so are useful patsies for Trump, allowing him to channel racial resentment into tax cuts for the rich. Responding to a group of people who think that white male Christians are discriminated against, or that the rest of the world getting richer is something for Americans to fear rather than celebrate, is admittedly hard. But whatever the reaction to the nativist rage of old white men, it cannot be appeasement.