Trump's rise is unprecedented in American history

America's silent majorityWho voted Donald Trump?

When on the evening of November 8th his victory in the presidential elections was certain, Donald Trump knew who to thank not least. It was the voters from the white working class who had given him the decisive votes in industrial countries in the northeast such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Traditionally, this electorate tends towards the Democrats, this time many switched to the Republicans. The decline of the coal mines in the Appalachian Mountains, the steel industry in the Midwest and the car factories along the Great Lakes has shaken the lifestyle in the working-class cities to such an extent that old voter ties no longer count, reports Stanford University political scientist Francis Fukuyama.

"The fate of the white working class in America has long been ignored by politics, society and science. In the past two or three years, however, a number of studies have appeared describing their decline, which is truly unprecedented in the world american history.

The American dream is always about advancement, about the fact that the children are better off than their parents, but white workers now experience that their real wages are lower than in the 1970s, when their fathers were employed in industry. "

Significant wage increases in times of full employment

The fathers and grandfathers of today's workers had mostly come to the northeastern United States from rural areas in the 1940s. Industrial production there picked up sharply at the time when the state was equipping its army for World War II. Because the Democratic President Roosevelt had strengthened the influence of the trade unions with his reforms as part of the New Deal in the years before, they were now able to push through significant wage increases in times of full employment.

When production was switched back to civilian goods after the end of the war, workers were suddenly able to afford a house and a car. This increase in private consumption boosted the economy further. The Democratic Party's trade unions and social workers ensured that workers got their share of the boom.

Many Trump supporters would like to see an economic situation like the one in the 50s and 60s, when the difference between rich and poor was not yet so great. (AFP /)

Social scientists today call the 50s and 60s "the great compression" because the differences between rich and poor shrank significantly during this period.

"When Donald Trump says 'Make America great again', many remember what happened to their parents and grandparents, who found decently paid jobs in manufacturing, who were socially secure, protected by a union, and who were in functioning neighborhoods. For many workers, none of this is any longer there today. "

The crisis began in the 1970s for this social model, which was based on high incomes, mass consumption and extensive government spending. After the oil price shock of 1973, the company's profits collapsed and the first wave of bankruptcies began at the end of the 1970s, costing hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Since the demise of the steel, coal and automotive industries in Detroit, unemployment and drug use among white workers have risen sharply. (Deutschlandradio / Sabrina Fritz)

The unions responded with furious strikes, but they didn't impress employers who were about to shut down factories. And Democratic President Jimmy Carter refused government aid programs in the face of empty coffers. For the first time in decades, a significant segment of the white working class turned to the Republicans and voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980. He expanded government spending significantly, especially for military spending. At the same time, Reagan massively cut taxes. This increased the national debt, but stabilized parts of the old industries. And so, when Reagan ran for re-election in 1984, he was able to point to passable labor market figures.

Election commercial "Reagan-Bush 84": "It's morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country's history."

But because Reagan was also deliberately restricting the rights of the trade unions, wages hardly rose any more. On the contrary: Reagan promoted the service sector, whose companies paid significantly less than industry. Most of the new jobs were created in the service sector. This policy, continued by his successor, Bush Sr., initiated a slow but steady downward trend for many families.

"Many employees are only employed part-time in service companies, their working hours vary greatly, depending on the company's current order situation, and their wages vary accordingly. Your employers offer little social security and hardly any health insurance protection, often not even for the few full-time employees . "

In the 1980s, says the sociologist Ryan Finnigan from the University of California, many working-class families were still able to maintain their standard of living because, unlike in the past, women also looked for a job and found it in the expanding service sector. Well-paid industrial jobs, on the other hand, became increasingly rare.

"Nowadays, American industrial companies make 50 percent of their profits with financial transactions. This is a trend that began in the 1980s and has grown steadily. Companies from the real economy do not invest their money in new production facilities, but rather in speculative transactions in the financial markets . "

Many traditional companies are dying

Due to a lack of investment, many industrial plants were soon hopelessly outdated and worn out. Even more businesses were closed because they were no longer profitable. Traditional companies such as US Steel, Bethlehem Steel or later Kodak disappeared from the map. The big car companies also got into trouble. Their traditional road cruisers only sold sluggishly because of the rise in fuel prices. More and more consumers opted for mid-range and small cars from the Japanese competition.

"The US companies, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, the old companies that were established, didn't invest, didn't modernize, and then in the 1980s and 1990s they made losses. They didn't do it anymore, to stay competitive. "

Instead, remembers the economic historian Marc Levinson, board members and works councils jointly called for protectionism. President Reagan then urged the Tokyo government to sign an agreement on voluntary export restrictions.

"It was thought in the auto industry that they had stopped Japanese competition, they couldn't import a lot, import. They didn't expect the Japanese to build factories in the US. And then the Japanese came in the mid-1980s. Years. "

The danger was not properly recognized

Donald Trump promises his supporters new jobs, better infrastructure and lower taxes at the same time. (AFP / Photo: Stan Honda)

Instead of going to the Detroit auto location, they went to the southern states, where land was cheap, wages low, and tax rates low.

"The factories of the established producers were all unionized. The Japanese came, they fought against the unions. To this day, these factories mostly have no union representation."

"In the United States, the unions are very company-oriented and structured in this way. When a company closes and goes completely elsewhere, the union has to be completely rebuilt in a new location. During this time, many unionists have not really recognized the danger that they are too narrow were tied to individual companies and had no strategic idea of ​​how they could get beyond the company and develop an overall strategy for the industry. "

But, says the Berlin political scientist Michael Fichter, they urgently needed them, because the Japanese companies were followed by European corporations, which also built new factories in the southern states and soon in Mexico. The US auto manufacturers soon copied this strategy as well. According to US law, if they wanted to represent the workers there, the auto workers union had to try to have a works council elected at every new plant. It failed almost everywhere because of conservative local politicians who view trade unions as disruptive factors in a free market economy.

"That's their argument that the unions are ruining the economy. They made jobs too expensive in the north and that's why companies went south and if the union were there in the south, the company would probably go to Mexico . "

Once upon a time, the three large US auto manufacturers supplied almost the entire home market from the Detroit area. Today only about half of all cars sold come from there. But where fewer cars are produced, less steel is ordered. And less steel production means less demand for coal.

Under pressure from cheap competitors

A downward spiral was set in motion that was not stopped when disappointed workers voters again turned away from the Republicans and helped Bill Clinton to the presidency. Clinton is also betting on liberalized markets and free trade, especially with Asia. This enabled the up-and-coming IT companies in the western USA to grow rapidly and created millions of new jobs in this sector. But the old industries came under further pressure from cheap competitors, especially from China. What was once a prosperous industrial landscape is now called "Rust Belt" in American vernacular, or "Rust Belt" in German. Francis Fukuyama calls the social reality there bleak.

"In some ways, the social consequences of decline are worse than the economic. Drug addiction is now an epidemic in white workers' neighborhoods. Heroin addiction has been cited by many polls there as the biggest problem in the communities. The second is the disruption of the community." Families. 70 percent of white working-class children now grow up in single households. In the 1980s, such conditions were seen as problems for the black ghettos. Today, the white working class is experiencing exactly the same thing. "

Growing drug use

In a study by the Yale School of Management, the economists Justin Pierce and Peter Schott even come to the conclusion that the crisis has significantly increased the mortality rate in the old industrial regions. In those areas of the country where a particularly high number of jobs were lost after 2000, both the suicide rate and the number of drug and alcohol deaths rose. White men were particularly affected.

"Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."

The outgoing Vice President Joe Biden once summarized the balance sheet of the presidency of his boss Barack Obama. Biden, who himself comes from the "Rust Belt" and is very popular there, gave the impression that the Democrats had returned to their old model of the strong and social state.

In fact, Obama has halved the unemployment rate from ten to five percent. And he saved the insolvent automaker General Motors and thus averted the largest industrial bankruptcy in US history. But even during his reign, the gap between rich and poor has widened.

"According to all the data I have reviewed, the gaps between the incomes of white working-class households and those of ethnic minorities are still widening. The standard of living of traditional workers has fallen in recent decades, but they are by no means the biggest losers in the economic upheaval. "

But you feel that way. Ryan Finnigan and Francis Fukuyama agree on that. For while African Americans have built a civil rights movement that gives them political confidence despite many setbacks, white workers have lost the protection of their unions and the Democratic Party.

"Neither of the major parties helped them. The Republicans have always been pro-business and the Democrats have advocated gay marriage, environmental protection and all sorts of ethnic minorities in recent years.

The only ethnic group to which they had nothing to offer was the white working class, which became more and more the white underclass. And so an anti-establishment politician could win the election by profiting from the anger of these people. "

Big promises to the workforce

Trump supporters celebrate the election victory in Washington DC. (picture alliance / dpa / Jim Lo Scalzo)

Donald Trump has promised white workers a policy reminiscent of the Ronald Reagan. He wants to spend billions on infrastructure projects and at the same time drastically cut taxes. That means more government debt and, as a result, rising interest rates. But interest rates will drive the dollar upward. American goods are becoming more expensive on the world market, while imports to the USA are becoming cheaper. In contrast, Trump wants to set up high tariff barriers. But if trading partners like China or Mexico respond with protectionist measures, not many new, well-paid industrial jobs are likely to be created. Francis Fukuyama is certain of that.

"I don't think you have to be a clairvoyant to discover that Donald Trump's proposals won't solve the problems of the white workforce. It's an experience this electorate has had multiple times, every time they followed the big Republican announcements their economic situation has deteriorated even more in the end. "