Donald Trump is probably not going to be removed from office.
There are two ways to read this statement, both remarkable. First, read it with the emphasis on “probably.” It’s remarkable that I have to use that qualifier. For a sitting president to be forced from the office is an earth-shaking event. Yet thanks to the one-two-three punch of Trump firing James Comey, blabbing to Russia about top-secret intelligence, and apparently pressuring Comey to stop investigating Michael Flynn, people are beginning to say the “I”-word – Democrats, independents and even Republicans. By pressuring Comey to stop investigating Flynn, and then firing Comey for reasons related to the Russia probe, Trump arguably obstructed justice – an offense that would constitute a “high crime or misdemeanor,” which a President must commit in order to be impeached. Trump could also be removed from office via the 25th Amendment’s provision for the removal of a President deemed unfit to serve by a majority of the cabinet and two-thirds of Congress, a procedure distinct from impeachment but with the same result. That we are even considering these possibilities is remarkable.
Now re-read that first sentence with the emphasis on “not.” It is remarkable that Trump could be removed from office; it is also remarkable that, despite being obviously and dangerously unfit for the Presidency, he probably won’t be. If ever someone needed to be removed from office, it is Trump. In the last month he has produced three scandals that would have destroyed any other presidency. Yet Trump’s unfitness for office has long been evident. He has the temperament and attention span of a spoiled child. He lies compulsively and lashes out violently at anyone who challenges him, yet he sees himself as the innocent victim of a vicious conspiracy. Thanks to these traits, he has already done considerable damage to the United States domestically and internationally (Remember his phone call with the Australian prime minister, whom he berated and hung up on?). And we have not even seen how he would respond to a true crisis like an economic meltdown, a natural disaster, or a terrorist attack. Now, on top of that, he may have committed impeachable offenses. And yet we will probably have to deal with him for another three and three-quarters years.
Why won’t Trump be removed from office? Because he continues to enjoy the support of the Republican electoral base and the Republican political elite. As of late April, 96% of Trump voters said they would vote for him again (although that number has likely dipped slightly as his approval ratings have). Eighty-four percent of Republicans continue to support him, and the conservative media has spun his troubles as the product of a Deep State conspiracy and left-wing media hysteria. While Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have recently conceded that things at 1600 Pennsylvania might not be going as smoothly as possible, they haven’t come close to actually criticizing the President, and in the wake of Comey’s firing, McConnell rejected calls for an independent prosecutor to investigate Trump’s connections with Russia, while Ryan stated that he still had confidence in the President. Aside from the odd Senator or Congressman expressing his “serious concerns” with the Trump administration’s meltdown, Republicans in Congress have remained solidly behind the president. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s decision to appoint a special counsel was not the work of the Congressional GOP (Although they may be secretly relieved: Mueller’s appointment will bring some closure to the matter one way or another, without Congressional Republicans themselves having to investigate the President and thereby antagonize him and his supporters).
For Republicans in Congress, sticking with Trump makes sense on two levels. First, as long as Republican voters stick with Trump, their elected officials have reason to do the same. Republicans who cross Trump will pay for it in their next primary. Paul Ryan, for instance, is less popular than Trump with Republicans in Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin. When Ryan uninvited Trump from a campaign event last October in the wake of the grab-em-by-the-pussy tape, Ryan’s favorability among Republicans dropped 28%. But Republicans have another reason to stand by Trump: Despite his campaign-trail pledges not to cut Medicaid or Social Security, Trump has turned out to be just another Republican oligarch who wants to cut services for the poor and middle class and taxes for the rich, and Republicans in Congress have found that they can work with him to achieve those lofty goals. Trump was a driving force behind the travesty that is the AHCA, which includes hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts for the rich paid for by hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to Medicaid. Any tax plan that he and Republicans in Congress come up with — if it ever happens — will likely be similarly regressive. And Trump sees eye-to-eye with Congressional Republicans on issues (or non-issues, as they see it) like climate change and financial regulation as well.
So Republican politicians have reason to stick by Trump. The only way they might abandon him would be if the wrongdoing becomes so flagrant, and the public pressure and pressure from party members in swing districts becomes so intense, that Republicans conclude they are better off with President Pence, however much it might infuriate their electoral base (and oh boy, would it: Trump would go down kicking and screaming and his ouster would precipitate a bitter rift in the party). In fact, there is already whispering in the GOP ranks about what a President Pence might look like. And for Republican politicians primarily concerned with cutting taxes and generally making our laws even more beneficial for rich people, President Pence would be a godsend. Pence would be happy to sign whatever regressive policies the Congressional GOP dreamed up, and he would do so without constantly shooting himself in the foot or blatantly subverting our constitutional democracy (not that the GOP cares about this second bit — it just looks bad). So the only thing keeping Trump in office is the loyalty of his voters, who would surely punish the GOP if they helped force Trump from the White House one way or another. Which raises the question: Why are Trump’s voters so stupidly loyal to a man who has betrayed one promise after another while embarrassing the United States internationally and doing his best to subvert the peaceful post-World War II order?
During the campaign, part of Trump’s appeal was that he diverged from other Republicans by promising to preserve entitlement and welfare benefits or even improve them. Combined with the racist lie that the real threat to benefits was the immigrants, refugees and black people “cutting the line” to take more than their fair share, this message resonated with Trump’s voters, who skew older and less educated, and tend to live in economically stagnant regions. Since the election, Trump has maintained the ethno-nationalist plank of his platform, but the economic populism has turned out to be utter bullshit. Trump has eagerly embraced the GOP’s reverse-Robin Hood agenda of cutting services for the poor and taxes for the rich, and many of the people who voted for him will suffer as a result. The AHCA’s draconian cuts would fall hardest on older, poorer people in rural areas, a demographic that backed Trump overwhelmingly. There are roughly 1,500 largely rural counties nationwide — about half the nation’s counties — where a 60-year-old with an annual income of $30,000 would lose $6,000 in subsidies under AHCA as compared to Obamacare. Ninety percent of those counties voted Trump. So did 68 of the 70 counties that would be hit hardest by the new law. Yet Trump was an enthusiastic proponent of the AHCA. Given that it passed the House by two votes, it likely would not have passed without his support.
Trump’s proposed budget would hurt his own voters as well. It targeted programs like Legal Aid, heating assistance, job training, and the innumerable other programs that pump money from blue states to red states through the federal government (You’re welcome!). The “liberal elites” that Trump claims to abhor would do just fine without these programs. They might even do better. His own voters? Not so much. And finally, one of Trump’s first moves as President was to roll back regulations enacted in the wake of the financial crisis. Many of his supporters probably lost their homes and savings in the crash, but Trump has now taken the side of the robber barons who caused it. No surprise, given that he is one himself.
Yet Trump somehow retains the loyalty of the vast majority of his voters. If he actually throws millions of them off their healthcare, that may change, but simply threatening to do so has not led his supporters to turn on him. This shouldn’t actually be surprising. There were plenty of Trump supporters who knew that they wouldn’t have insurance if not for the ACA, and knew that Trump had promised to repeal the ACA, but voted for him anyways. Did they really believe him when he said he would replace Obamacare with “something great”? Maybe, but if your first concern is keeping your healthcare, you probably vote for the candidate that promises not to take it away, rather than the candidate who wants to take it away and replace it with some unspecified program that’s going to be a whole lot better, believe me.
The thing is, Trump voters’ first concern wasn’t keeping their healthcare. People’s support for a politician isn’t just a function of the material benefits he promises them individually. It’s also about whether he seems like one of “us” who is willing to take “them” on. Often, what’s good for “us” overlaps with what’s good for me, which is why many voters, like minorities who vote Democrat, vote for policies that will benefit them individually and materially. But voters aren’t just drawn to candidates who promise them material goods: They’re drawn to candidates who appeal to some sense of identity and promise to empower that identity, thereby benefiting those who share it. In this sense, all politics is identity politics. And Donald Trump has tapped into fairly recent but deep divisions in American society to construct a base, unified by some sense of identity, that will stand with him and against “them” in almost any situation.
One divide is cultural. Voters in states that Trump won tend to embrace traditional family values and practices: They get married younger, they have kids younger, they have more kids, and they are less likely to get an abortion or to cohabitate with someone of the same sex. Voters in Clinton states wait longer to get married and have kids, they have fewer kids, they are more likely to cohabitate with someone of the same sex and they are more likely to get an abortion. These differences reflect a stark divide in worldviews: Life in Trump country is more centered around having and raising kids, while couples in Clinton country — driven by the choices of women in Clinton country — wait to have kids and have fewer kids while pouring more energy into their careers and themselves. Thomas Edsall of the New York Times suggests, and I believe, that this divide also tracks with a host of other cultural differences: cosmopolitan versus nationalist, more educated versus less educated, attitudes towards the military, etc. In fact, I would posit that these measures of family values and practices are part of the deep cultural divide at the heart of the “culture wars” of the 1990s. While some issues that were once at the center of the culture wars — abortion, affirmative action and gay marriage — have lost some of their political potency, the cultural divide actually seems to have deepened and calcified into a divide between the two political parties.
That cultural divide overlaps with a geographic and economic divide: Economically, the rural and suburban areas where traditional culture dominates lag far behind the metropolitan areas where liberal norms rule. The 472 counties that voted for Clinton generated 64% of the country’s GDP; the 2,584 counties that voted for Trump generated 36%. The election map below shows how each U.S. county voted, with the height representing a county’s population. The other map shows where U.S. GDP is generated, geographically. Together, the two maps show Democratic votes and GDP highly concentrated into small geographic areas around the country’s major metropolises.
Finally, people living in culturally traditionally, economically stagnant areas between cities also share one more trait: Lower educational levels. Education was one of the strongest predictors of how white people voted last November: Trump won white voters without a college degree by a whopping 39%, 67%-28%, a 14% improvement over Romney’s margin in 2012, while Clinton gained 10% among whites with college degrees. There are more than 100 million white people without college degrees in the U.S, the country’s largest demographic group by race and educational level.
Trump has taken advantage of four overlapping axes of division: Geographic, cultural, educational and economic. The metropolitan areas where liberal norms dominate and educated workers generate most of the country’s GDP went hard for Clinton; the suburban and rural areas in between, where a more traditional culture dominates, economic activity is stagnant, and college degrees are rarer went for Trump. (While the median Trump primary voter actually made roughly $10,000 more per year than the median Clinton primary voter, this might be because the Democratic coalition includes many poor blacks and Hispanics. I’d guess that the median white Trump supporter makes much less than the median white Clinton supporter, given that white Clinton voters were much better educated. This essay is focused on trends within the white electorate, because minority groups reliably vote Democrat, and changes in their voting patterns do not account for the earthquake that occurred last November).
Given the current state of U.S. politics, in which Trump-supporting Republicans seem to live in an alternative universe from big-city liberals (and the rest of the world), you might think these divisions are as old as time. You’d be wrong. From 1968 to 1992, the measure of traditional family values that so neatly predicts Trump’s share of the vote in a state was roughly half as strong as a predictor of voting Republican.
Nor, in 1992, were economic activity and Democratic voters so confined to metropolitan areas:
Finally, as an earlier chart showed, in 1992 Republicans and Democrats won even shares of white voters without a college degree.
The Republican-Democratic divide did not not always reflect a divide between culturally liberal, educated, economically thriving cities and the culturally traditional, less educated, economically stagnant areas in between. The increasing importance of that divide is the story of the 2016 election. So how did it come about?
In an earlier essay, I argued that Trump’s support came from people who feared the decline of white, Christian America. That argument was incomplete, because it can’t account for the voters, counties and states that flipped from Obama in 2008 and 2012 to Trump in 2016. Hillary fared 14 points worse among non-college whites than Obama did in 2012: That’s a lot of white working class voters defecting to Trump. By one estimate, almost one in four white voters without college degrees who supported Obama in 2012 either voted for Trump or a third party candidate in 2016. But people who voted for Obama probably wouldn’t switch to Trump because they were worried about ethnic decline: Obama’s election was a big reason many people worried about ethnic decline in the first place. So while ethnic anxiety obviously played a huge part in Trump’s victory (contrary to the conservative apologists who see the election as a righteous referendum on elite corruption that just happened to choose the wrong champion), the new political fault line that I’ve described requires a fuller explanation than “racism versus tolerance.” We need a fuller explanation for how the country split along these cultural, educational, geographic and economic lines. And if people’s political affiliations stem from their association with some collective identity, we should ask what collective identity binds together the Trump-voting half of that divide: Material similarities in culture, geography and wealth do not necessarily create psychological collective identities. So who is the “us” that Trump speaks for, and how did that identity take shape in the years between 1992 and 2016?
In 1992, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush received even shares of the white working class vote, and Clinton performed well in rural areas and small towns where traditional culture dominated. How did so many of those voters end up in Trump’s nativist camp 24 years later? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the answer is, neoliberalism. 1992 wasn’t just distinct from the present in that non-college whites were split between the two parties. In 1992, working class white voters living outside major metropolises were also significantly closer economically to their city-dwelling, better-educated brethren than they are in 2016. As an earlier graph showed, in 1992, 63% of U.S. jobs were created in counties with fewer than 500,000 people. Also in 1992, a man with only a high-school diploma made 66% the median wage of a man with a bachelor’s degree; for women, that number was 64%. Since 1992, however, working-class white voters outside metropolitan areas have fallen far behind economically. Sixty-four percent of jobs are now created in counties with more than 500,000 people, a complete reversal from 1992. A man with only a high school degree now makes only 56% of the median wage of a man with a bachelor’s degree; for women, 59%. In absolute terms, wages for people without bachelor’s degrees have stagnated since 1980, while wages for people with a B.A. rose over that same period before falling during the recession.
That’s for people who remain in the labor force: Many who lost jobs during the recession stayed unemployed, and now simply watch TV all day, collecting disability and taking opioids. Between 2000 and late 2016, the percentage of Americans aged 20 years or older with a job fell from 64.6% to 59.7% (That number isn’t reflected in the unemployment rate because those who have stopped looking for a job are not counted as part of the labor force, and the unemployment rate is the percentage of the labor force that lacks a job). And the drop in work rates since 2000, most of which occurred after the recession, seems to have take place largely outside metro areas, where the hangover from the recession was worst:
The years since 1992 have seen an accelerating economic divergence between educated cities and the less-educated areas in between. Three main culprits stand out for the decline of economic activity outside metropolitan areas: Automation, globalization, and monopoly power. The first two are most relevant to the decline of manufacturing, a sector that has lost almost six million jobs since 1997. The consensus seems to be that automation has done more damage in this respect than free trade has, but both have had an effect. Regardless, since the 1990s, a lot of good-paying manufacturing jobs that didn’t require a college degree have disappeared from the non-metro counties where manufacturing employment is concentrated:
But the decline of manufacturing is not the only economic scourge afflicting communities outside the country’s metro areas. The American economy is becoming increasingly dominated by a few huge companies that take advantage of economies of scale to undercut smaller businesses and grow into monopolies or oligopolies. More Americans work at companies with more than 2,500 workers than work at companies with fewer than 100 workers; that was not true 20 years ago. Americans are also starting fewer small businesses than they have in the past. And the dominance of large firms is especially pronounced in services and retail, the sectors of the U.S. economy that have added the most jobs since 1980 and taken up much of the slack from the decline in manufacturing. In 1980, 18% of U.S. service workers worked at companies with more than 2,500 employees; in 2014, that number was roughly 35%. Likewise, in 1980, roughly 35% of retail workers worked for a company with more than 2,500 employees; by 2014, that number had risen to roughly 47%.
Huge companies like Wal-Mart drive smaller businesses out of the market, and unlike local businesses, they siphon profits away from the town where a store is located to wherever a firm’s corporate headquarters are. More importantly, monopoly firms can set wages and prices at non-competitive levels, in addition to using non-compete agreements, arbitration clauses, anti-union policies and other forms of pressure to prevent workers from seeking a better deal. Accordingly, since the 1980s, workers at the largest firms have seen their wages stagnate or fall:
The growth of monopoly power and the decline of manufacturing were not inevitable, at least not in the way that they occurred. Rather, they were the result of policy choices: Decisions made by people in government to stop pursuing vigorous antitrust policy and to lower trade barriers with foreign countries, especially China and Mexico. These choices were informed by the neoliberal premises that government intervention in the economy is bad, and free markets are good. There is much to be said for those premises; but in this case, they led to policies that significantly contributed to the economic stagnation in rural and smalltown America that gave us Donald Trump.
But there is a difference between explaining why Trump won and describing his voters in general terms. Trump would not have won if a large group of white working class voters had not defected from Obama to Trump. Those voters would not have defected if they faced better economic prospects (A key distinction here: Trump voters were far from economically destitute overall. But many were worried about their economic prospects that they and their children would face in the future, and understandably so given the growing economic gap between metro areas and the regions outside them). But that is not to say that all, or even most, of Trump’s voters supported him because they were worried about their economic futures. To be sure, 90% of Trump’s voters said they were “very concerned” about the economy, but 89% said the same about terrorism, 79% about immigration and 79% about foreign policy. Trump’s victory represented the joinder of white working class voters as a more unified and distinct bloc than they had ever represented before, but his victory was not just a legitimate economic revolt. Rather, Trump constructed an identity, an “us” that somehow encompassed everyone from former Obama voters to Neo-Nazis, by promising a return to the days when the United States was a white country primarily concerned with the welfare of white people. This is what Trump meant by “Make America Great Again,” and most of his ideas fit neatly under this rubric. A Muslim ban? Sure, some innocent Muslims might get caught in it, but that’s the price of keeping (white) America safe! Rescinding agreements that require police departments to address civil rights violations? Sure, there are some bad cops, but there’s no reason to demonize cops when Black Lives Matter is so much worse! A wall with Mexico and massive deportations? Well, if we have to tear families apart, that’s what’s necessary to stop crime (against white people) and save jobs (for white people). And the cherry on top? Once we kick the Mexicans out, we can keep Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security without worrying that they’re going to steal it!
The “us” that Trump constructed with this story consisted of people who felt that the ruling class of the United States was not sufficiently concerned with the welfare of white people or sufficiently proud of their historical accomplishments (Trump’s anti-elitism was in large part an outgrowth of this ethnic resentment: The “politically correct” ruling class had sold out the country and forgotten its ethnic heritage. While it also includes some more understandable cultural resentments, much Republican anti-elitism is just resentment of those who enforce norms of tolerance and equality). This “us” obviously includes white supremacists, whose enthusiasm for Trump is well-documented. It also includes much of the Republican base, including white voters with college degrees, a slim majority of whom still supported Trump. And crucially, it included white working class Democrats who felt that the Democratic Party cared more about minorities and social issues than it did about their economic situation. In bringing minority groups into its coalition, the Democratic Party abandoned the traditional story of America as “city on a hill” full of morally unblemished white people winning wars and building Fords. But the left’s skepticism of jingoistic nationalism, its embrace of identity politics, and its failure to improve economic conditions outside metropolitan areas left white working class voters asking: If the Democratic Party can’t help me economically and doesn’t want to tell flattering stories about white America, what can it offer me? That former Democratic voters found themselves asking this question is, again, a result of the neoliberal outlook dominant among the American ruling class and the Democratic elite, an outlook that concedes the justice of the market order and thus concerns itself with remedying other, non-economic forms of oppression.
I have some sympathy for these people, for whom Trump’s appeal was in large part economic. I have considerably less for the longtime Republicans who made up the bulk of Trump’s support. Does our current economy work great for many of these people? No, not really, but that’s in large part because they have allowed themselves to be drawn in by the Republican party’s blend of dog-whistle racism and supply-side oligarchy (with a dash of social conservatism thrown in for the evangelicals). The Republican base was not yearning for someone to rip up NAFTA and bring back manufacturing jobs. In fact, much Republican antipathy towards free trade agreements dates only to the ascendance of Trump:
More generally, middle-income voters concerned primarily with making the economy fairer for people like themselves would not have voted for a party whose sole purpose is to protect the interests of the rich.
Trump’s victory was not the righteous triumph of the proletariat. Most of his voters, with and without college degrees, were diehard Republicans who have long voted to put the interests of white people ahead of the interests of anyone else. But a crucial segment of his supporters were former Obama voters whose economic prospects continued to sour during Obama’s presidency, who felt left out by the Democrats’ turn towards identity politics, and who were therefore susceptible to Trump’s nativism.
Yet Trump still lost the popular vote, because the rightward shift among white working class voters was offset by a leftward shift among white voters with college degrees: Romney won this group by 14% in 2012, but Trump won it by only 4%. In many ways, these voters are the mirror image of the working class voters who switched to Trump. Many probably hold well-paying jobs in large cities and reap the benefits of globalization and monopoly, in the form of cheap goods and services and a share of the monopoly profits earned by the firms where they work. They might be skeptical of affirmative action and redistribution, but they view themselves as tolerant global citizens and interact with minorities frequently, and so are embarrassed by Trump’s crude nativism and his vulgarity. These voters helped turn the country’s cities into the anti-Trump bastions that they are. In Dallas, for example, Hillary Clinton bested Trump by 26%, whereas Obama had beaten Romney by only 15%; in Boston, Clinton’s margin was 82%-14%, while Obama’s 2012 margin was 75%-25%.
The leftward swing of educated, city-dwelling Republicans, coupled with the rightward swing of working class rural voters whose economic prospects have stagnated over the past quarter-century, finalized the political realignment that I described earlier, a realignment that the American philosopher Richard Rorty predicted in his 1998 book, Achieving Our Country:
“Unless something very unexpected happens, economic insecurity will continue to grow in America… This is because a good deal of the insecurity is due to the globalization of the labor market – a trend which can reasonably be expected to accelerate indefinitely… The world economy will soon be owned by a cosmopolitan upper class which has no more sense of community with any workers anywhere than the great American capitalists of the year 1900 had with the immigrants who manned their enterprises.”
As a result, Rorty continues,
“…members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported… At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for – someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots… One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out.”
Much of that rings true. But the twist is that Trump, upon election, immediately abandoned the populist economic premises he campaigned on. The bond salesmen remain in power: In fact, they occupy many senior positions in the White House. Rorty failed to consider the possibility that the eventual strongman would distract his supporters with racism while selling them out to the cosmopolitan elite, whose economic interests are now more firmly entrenched than ever.The result is the worst of both worlds: A deeply divided country, a dangerously unhinged President who keeps his supporters in line by whipping up ethnic tensions, and an increasingly stratifying society in which wealth and status are inherited rather than earned. We are, most likely, in for a long three and three-quarters years — if not much longer.