With defeat now the likely outcome for the Republican presidential nominee, the blame shifting has begun early and in earnest.
To some partisans such as Sean Hannity, the responsibility for the expected loss – as well as for Hillary Clinton’s Supreme Court picks and “whatever illegal immigrants do” – lies with Never Trump conservatives. Whether or not Hannity is the sharpest knife in the drawer (a matter of recent controversy), he leaves Occam’s razor rusty from disuse.
Isn’t it more likely that Republicans are losing because their candidate has committed enough gaffes to torpedo 10 campaigns? Because he has premised his appeal on prejudice? Because he displays no appreciation of constitutional values and offers himself as a strongman? Because he has no knowledge of, or interest in, public policy? Because he is an erratic narcissist with a compulsive need to crush and humiliate his critics? Holding Never Trump forces responsible for all this is akin to blaming the spectators in Lakehurst, N.J., for the Hindenburg disaster. The pointing and gawking did not cause the flames.
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A more sophisticated form of blame by other conservatives goes like this: Yes, Trump is a poor vehicle for the blue-collar, populist revolt, but that uprising was invited by the arrogance and indifference of globalized elites, including Republican elites. CEOs, politicians and Wall Street types live in a bubble of affluence, caring little for American interests and lacking sympathy for their fellow citizens who are sinking into despair, addiction and the floodwaters of Louisiana.
For the record, I am in favor of the Davos set becoming more sensitive to the struggles of their countrymen. But all these fat cats at Coca-Cola, Monsanto, Pfizer and Microsoft deserve at least a bleat in response. They are leading participants in an economic system – with its global supply chains, freely moving capital and rapid innovation – that, during the last 20 years, has taken about a billion people out of extreme poverty around the world. This is arguably the greatest humanitarian achievement in history. With this economic growth has come miracle drugs, vaccines, improved sanitation and better agricultural technology. Global life expectancy in 1960 was 52.5 years; today it is 71.4. In the early 1930s, American life expectancy was about 60 – what it currently is in Malawi. Now American life expectancy is nearly 80.
The United States has benefited from being the most engaged and adaptable economy in this global system – selling goods in other countries, and buying goods (cars, smartphones, clothing) that have dramatically improved the daily lives of nearly every American. But rapid economic change has also laid waste to whole industries and the communities sustained by them, resulting in toxic stress and terrible suffering. Since the 1940s, American manufacturing output (as a percentage of GDP) has been remarkably stable. But manufacturing employment has fallen by about two-thirds (as a percentage of the U.S. workforce). This is not so much the result of CEOs making a quick buck on outsourcing as a reflection of automation and global competitive pressures.
Our political system has been negligent in helping millions of Americans adapt during a period of rapid economic change. But those on the left and right who promise to reverse the process of globalization are economic charlatans. Their main policy response – tariffs and other forms of protectionism – is a proven path to trade wars and global recession, which hurt the vulnerable most. Conservative economics offers three positive alternatives: Provide a growth-oriented economic environment (including opportunities to sell overseas), give workers the education and skills to succeed in a modern economy, and subsidize the wages of lower-skill jobs to provide a decent living.
Who are the obstacles in pursuing such policies? On the latter two, it is not globalized elites; it is more likely to be conservative ideologues. Thirty American CEOs at Davos would come up with several ideas to improve, say, educational standards. Thirty members of the House Freedom Caucus would oppose all of them on principle. In fact, conservative populists are now working along with education unions to undermine rigorous education standards, apparently on the theory that educational failure is acceptable so long as local officials do the failing.
The response to these economic arguments from populists is usually ad hominem: Of course an elitist would say something like that. Which is particularly annoying coming from conservative elites, who are embracing the cheapest form of populism, involving no intellectual energy, no policy innovation and no actual help for those in need. The poor deserve better tribunes.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.