BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. In a sense, America has always been at war with itself, wars of politics, of ideology, of values, even dueling realities. The election of 2016 was an epic battle and Trump’s ascendency a victory for a huge voting bloc that sees itself as under siege. In the next couple of segments, we will consider some of the assumptions that fueled the fight or could begin to resolve it. But we begin with a counter proposition that there may be something more powerful than immigration, than civil rights, than abortion, than the environment, than any of the cultural battlefields that so polarize America, “the economy, stupid.”
BOB GARFIELD: A couple of weeks ago on Tax Day, USA Today published an op-ed by Donald Trump. According to the president, the benefits of the GOP tax law, which significantly cut the corporate tax rate, have already begun to trickle down to workers. He said 3 million jobs have been created on his watch and, with a 44-year-low unemployment rate, wages are finally beginning to rise. It would seem that the economy he promised on the campaign trail is coming to fruition.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: America will truly be the greatest place in the world to invest, hire, grow and to create new jobs, new technologies and entire new industries….
BOB GARFIELD: The economy is on the rise, prompting author Thomas Frank to muse how prosperity might influence the next presidential election. In Harper’s this month, Frank specifically wondered what would it take for Donald Trump to get re-elected? History tells him it is not a naïve question.
THOMAS FRANK: We have seen presidents who have screwed up all sorts of other things get reelected on the backs of good economies. Unless you’ve got a war or something like that, that's what people vote on.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, for example, you point us to Bill Clinton.
THOMAS FRANK: Yeah. Clinton ran as the ablest technocrat out there and he was going to focus like a laser beam on this economy and make it prosper and, lo and behold, it did. Wages actually started to grow in real terms for average blue-collar workers, the only time since the 1970s. And so, when people look back at the late ‘90s, they remember good times. You know, there’s this kind of halo of happiness.
BOB GARFIELD: I remember that companies in North Carolina were paying wage workers moving expenses to come from the Rust Belt -
THOMAS FRANK: Yep, yep.
BOB GARFIELD: -- because there was such a, a labor shortage.
THOMAS FRANK: And if you look at Clinton's approval rating during that time, and this coincides not only with the Monica Lewinsky scandal but with his impeachment [LAUGHS], his approval ratings were like sometimes hitting 70%, unbelievable, because of the economy.
BOB GARFIELD: So “it's the economy, stupid,” which I get, but much of the debate about the expansion, especially of the stock markets, has focused on where the wealth is accruing, and it’s in the hands of fat cats, the notorious 1%. What can Trump in a reelection campaign [LAUGHS] honestly say is redounding to the benefit of the guy with the lunch pail?
THOMAS FRANK: Well, unemployment is really low right now and, as unemployment gets lower and the a job market gets tighter, the wages will go up. It’s, it’s just math. Employers have to bid for employees. There’s enough evidence [LAUGHS] of it out there that it spooked the stock market a little more than a month ago and sent it into this nosedive. The stock market doesn't particularly like it when it hears that wages [LAUGHS] are going up.
BOB GARFIELD: If you’re a never-Trumper and you read your piece, there’s two aspects of it that are kind of terrifying. The first is that the economic stage has been set for a reasonable path to reelection. The second is that the Democratic Party, you believe, simply doesn't have the temperament, the wherewithal or the history to do anything about it, ‘cause they’re going to make all the wrong moves.
THOMAS FRANK: They are waiting for Bob Mueller to rescue them. What the Democratic Party traditionally does in situations like the present one is they wait for the Republicans to self-destruct, and they're very comfortable in that spot where they get to, you know, wag their finger at Trump voters forever and ever and ever and call them names.
BOB GARFIELD: You’re stupid, we’re gonna impeach him and our long national nightmare will be over.
THOMAS FRANK: You know, if you read Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir, she realizes that calling these people “deplorables” was a disastrous mistake, but the party as, as a whole, they want to double down on that. Bob, there’s actually a debate in the Democratic Party right now, or so I've been told, as to whether or not they should even try to win Trump voters back. Now, that just strikes me as bizarre. You know, in a democracy you want to get more votes than the other guy, and the way you do that
[BOTH LAUGH] is by persuading people away from the other side, but it's as though these people's votes are tainted.
Look, there are all sorts of lessons to take away from 2016, but if the only thing that you saw is that these awful people voted for this awful man and you don't think about their circumstances or what led them to do that and you absolutely refuse to acknowledge that part of the problem might be you, the Democratic Party, you're on a collision course with the iceberg.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, hold on just a second here. In terms of Democratic strategy, the portion of the electorate that Hillary Clinton described as “deplorables” were clearly reacting to trends that have offended their values and frightened them about their way of life going back for decades, and they voted a guy into office who now is increasing their real wages. Isn't there a campaign argument for just ceding that portion of the electorate to Trump and putting your resources and your messaging into independents, undecideds, and, and so on?
THOMAS FRANK: Yeah, and there’s also an argument that can be made that the way the Democratic Party wins is just by getting out the vote better. But Bob, my life's work has been in documenting this sort of grand political shift of our time that began in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, and is still running strong today with Donald Trump, and the Democrats want to get a different algorithm to run their campaign next time and they think it's all gonna be better. What they're not looking at is the big picture, which is that the Republican Party has slowly but steadily swiped their working-class base away from them, even as it injures working-class people’s life chances.
The Democrats have willingly remade their party as a kind of vehicle of the professional class, the sort of upper 10%. That’s not a party that I want to be associated with. You know, a party that can't understand or that doesn't care about the concerns of working people, there's not much of a future in that sort of organization.
BOB GARFIELD: An undecided voter sitting there with a Never-Trumper and the undecided voter says, you know, I got to tell you, I just got a raise and there's more activity down at the mall where I live and things are lookin’ pretty good. It’s morning again in America, and I know it because I read the president’s op-ed in USA Today, if you're the Never-Trumper, what's the counterargument?
THOMAS FRANK: [SIGHS] I don't really think that whether or not we read the newspaper and find out about the unemployment rate really makes that much of a difference. I mean, what makes it important is the way it manifests in people's lives. What the president says is just propaganda. He would say that regardless of what was actually going on out there in the world. And, and I think most presidents would. What matters is the way people experience the economy in their own lives. And it's going to be very hard to argue with someone whose situation has turned around. I mean, what you can point out, of course, is, you know, the, the tax bill that Trump boasts about all the time made possible otherworldly paydays for CEOs. You know, his deregulatory efforts, yeah, they've been great for shareholders and for corporations but more pollution in the water isn't good for you and me. A lot of the claims that Trump is making are just so much BS but if real wages for workers actually do grow, it's gonna be really hard to argue with that.
BOB GARFIELD: Unless I'm missing something, you're kind of [LAUGHS], you’re kind rooting against prosperity so that Trump doesn't get reelected. Has it come to that?
THOMAS FRANK: Well no, I would never do that but, you know, the situation that we’re in right now puts, puts a liberal in an awkward position, let’s put it that way --
-- in the sense that, obviously, prosperity is something we all want to see. I love it when the economy roars for average people, not when it's just another stock market bubble or a real estate bubble or something like that. The danger that that might get Donald Trump re-elected, though, I mean, look, it's paradoxical and it's ironic and that's sort of why I'm drawn to it.
BOB GARFIELD: Tom, thank you so much.
THOMAS FRANK: You’re very welcome, sir. It was great to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Thomas Frank is a historian and the author of Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?