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The meaning of Trump

It's probably not what you think


January 3, 2017
by Michael Hlinka

From the December 2017 print edition

Toronto-based Michael Hlinka provides business commentary to CBC Radio One and a column syndicated across the CBC network.

Tuesday, November 8 was astonishing Reality TV. I was working that night, teaching a class that ran until 8:30pm. Generally, I walk home, enjoying some fresh air and exercise. But that evening, I grabbed a cab. I wanted to get home as quickly as possible and watch the election results. I cuddled up beside my wife (who had predicted a Trump victory months before) and watched the drama unfold.

We were watching CNN which had been dubbed, and not unfairly, the Clinton News Network, because of its obvious bias towards the Democratic candidate. Up until 9:30, the story line was that Donald Trump was doing better than expected. From about 9:30 to 10:30, it changed to: “There’s an outside chance he could win.” From 10:30 to 11:30, as the sample became larger and larger: “It’s likely he’s going to win.” And then capitulation: Donald Trump was going to be the 45th President of the United States and that was that. Time to hit the sack.

When I woke up next morning, my first thought was: Was I dreaming last night? Had Trump won? But by then it was official. Hillary Clinton had conceded and it was time to move on to a Trump presidency.

There was a great deal of discussion in the weeks that followed that attempted to make sense of the result. Almost everyone who was seemingly in the know was certain that Hillary Clinton would become the first female President of the United States. And while it’s true that she won the popular vote, everyone knew the rules coming in and there was no questioning the legitimacy of the result.

Before I get to why I think Donald Trump won, let us find common ground and agree that he won in spite of his persona, not because of it. The people I know who supported him agreed that he could be personally offensive, perhaps even more offensive than any other candidate before, yet they believed that his ideas were more important.

There are some who think that Trump won because of his stance on foreign policy in general and Muslims in particular. I agree that Trump’s position was more similar to the average American’s compared to either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton and this likely helped him. But I don’t think it was decisive for most voters. As James Carville famously said when he worked on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

It’s my thesis—and I wrote a book about it several years ago—that for the majority of North Americans, real wages have been stagnant for at least the past decade. And this is what the electorate was reacting to.

The chattering classes made much of Trump’s “anti-immigration” rhetoric. There were charges that this position was anchored by racism. And given some of Trump’s statements, it wasn’t a stretch. But I don’t think that this explains why most Americans voted for Trump. I think most of the Americans who voted for Trump did so because they intuitively understood that it’s immigration—and particularly illegal immigration—that depresses their wages.

It’s striking that Trump’s core constituency was less educated working class whites. College graduates backed Hillary Clinton by a nine-point margin while non-college grads favoured Trump by eight percent. This was the widest gap in a generation. When illegals enter the US, they’re not (for the most part) competing for work as university professors or government paper-pushers. The illegals are tradesmen and unskilled labourers.

Donald Trump was elected because the majority of Americans understand (correctly) that their standard of living and quality of life is not what it was a generation ago and that the political establishment wasn’t doing anything to address it.

Okay. So that’s why Trump was elected. Now the question is what he’s likely to do first and how it will impact the American and global economies.

If he’s smart—and if nothing else, he demonstrated real cunning in this election cycle—he’ll start with income tax cuts, combined with tax reform. This will not only make him popular with most working people, but it will mute the criticism that will come from the people who oppose Trump and will always oppose him.

Trump will not build a wall with Mexico. And he will take some flak from his base for it. But there will be greater security along the border. And deportations will increase and this will be enough.

Trade will be a tougher row to hoe: I’m just not sure how this will play out.

Donald Trump has shaken the political establishment and even though I’m not sure that the majority of his voters will see an uptick in their lives as a result, his election in itself was an important statement.

Toronto-based Michael Hlinka provides business commentary to CBC Radio One and a column syndicated across the CBC network.