Is Trump the sav­ior for US work­ing class?

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - VIEWS -

In Jan­uary, Don­ald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th pres­i­dent of the United States. De­spite his un­pre­dictabil­ity so far, his per­for­mance in gov­ern­ing might be a bit eas­ier to spec­u­late on. And for his vot­ers who are ea­ger to see him de­liv­er­ing on his prom­ises, dis­ap­point­ment may be in store.

Rid­ing the high tide of pop­ulism to vic­tory, Trump tapped into the anger and re­sent­ment of a grow­ing num­ber of dis­fran­chised Amer­i­can white work­ing class. When US man­u­fac­tur­ing en­joyed com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage world­wide, trade deals good for Amer­i­can busi­ness were also good for Amer­i­can work­ers. But in­creas­ingly out­sourc­ing and off-shoring have al­lowed transna­tional cap­i­tal to move freely around the globe in search of bet­ter re­turns. The promised bet­ter and higher pay­ing jobs as a re­sult of glob­al­iza­tion and trade lib­er­al­iza­tion do pop up, but they rarely trickle down to the mil­lions of blue-col­lar work­ers in the US’ Rust Belt states. The an­nual Amer­i­can Values Sur­vey of 4,500 Amer­i­cans finds that nearly half of them no longer be­lieve in the Amer­i­can Dream.

In comes the self-ap­pointed “great­est jobs pres­i­dent”, promis­ing a sweep­ing shake-up to re­vi­tal­ize US man­u­fac­tur­ing, cre­ate new jobs, re­build in­fra­struc­ture and change do­mes­tic reg­u­la­tions. In keep­ing with these in­ward-look­ing ob­jec­tives, Trump has also promised to rene­go­ti­ate trade and al­liance deals and tighten border con­trol. Which ex­plains why many of those peo­ple voted Trump on elec­tion day.

But will Trump be their sav­ior? The truth is, Trump’s “Amer­ica First” agenda is eas­ier said than done. For a start, which Amer­ica should come first now that Amer­ica re­mains bit­terly di­vided? De­spite some cau­tious op­ti­mism, unit­ing the coun­try alone would be an up­hill bat­tle for the in­com­ing Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, not least be­cause Trump him­self has fanned the flames of ha­tred and xeno­pho­bia. Although he pledged to be “pres­i­dent for all Amer­i­cans” in his ac­cep­tance speech, a quick glance at his tax plan, for in­stance, sug­gests oth­er­wise. De­spite his cam­paign pledge to pro­vide tax re­lief for “the mid­dle class” and “the for­got­ten peo­ple”, his tax cuts over­whelm­ingly fa­vor the wealth­i­est few.

Also, it is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to im­ple­ment the re­forms he has promised while try­ing to wall off his coun­try with pro­tec­tion­ist mea­sures. For ex­am­ple, the dis­ap­pear­ance of US man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs, and in­deed many such jobs world­wide, is largely due to tech- no­log­i­cal ad­vances and au­toma­tion. No amount of puni­tive tar­iff on Chi­nese or Mex­i­can im­ports would likely bring the lost jobs back soon.

If Trump does fol­low through on his tar­iff threats, the prices of many im­ports will go up and a trade war may en­sue. And transna­tional cor­po­ra­tions are likely to put up a good fight against Trump’s mea­sures that would add costs to their busi­nesses and eat into their prof­its.

His as­pi­ra­tion to re­build US in­fra­struc­ture is laud­able, but he may quickly re­al­ize that such a gi­gan­tic task needs to heav­ily rely on for­eign fi­nance and ma­te­ri­als, such as from China, the very tar­get of his 45 per­cent tar­iff threat. In 2013, the New York Metropoli­tan Trans­porta­tion Author­ity out­sourced $34 mil­lion worth of steel to China for the up­per deck re­place­ment of the Ver­razanoNar­rows Bridge. Answering crit­ics, MTA Chair­man Thomas Pren­der­gast blamed an “ab­sence of do­mes­tic steel fab­ri­ca­tors ca­pa­ble of sat­is­fy­ing the re­quire­ments for a project of this scope and com­plex­ity”. With such chal­lenges, one won­ders how Trump will bal­ance the prac­ti­cal needs of his mas­sive in­fra­struc­ture plan and his staunch mer­can­tilist stance, let alone how he will fi­nance his tril­lion-dol­lar plan with mas­sive tax cuts.

The pres­i­dent-elect may have cor­rectly sensed some of the Amer­i­can (and to some ex­tent, global) ills, but he does not have the nec­es­sary cures for them. So, to­gether with his back­flips on pros­e­cut­ing Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Hil­lary Clin­ton, build­ing a wall on the US-Mex­ico border, and cli­mate change, even the most er­ratic US pres­i­dent might turn out to be a lot more con­ven­tional than he ap­pears to be. Soon enough his work­ing class sup­port­ers will find out that Trump’s Amer­ica will not be a work­ing class par­adise.

The au­thor is se­nior lec­turer in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Deakin Univer­sity, Aus­tralia, and is an En­deav­our Re­search Fel­low at Pek­ing Univer­sity. The views ex­pressed here are his own.

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