Sunday 18 August 2019

Hamish McRae: 'The figures that explain support for the Donald'

No US president has been as polarising or divisive. But in the wake of  relatively gaffe-free visits to Britain and Ireland, HAMISH MCRAE looks beyond the emotion and explains why Donald Trump's base is still solid.

Hamish McRae

It always seems strange to anyone visiting Washington - particularly its prosperous, leafy northwest quadrant - that so much of the rest of the country should support the economic policies of Donald Trump.

He inherited a long expansion of the economy, this summer the longest ever, but his trade policies have had the effect of hitting farmers, and to some extent at least increasing prices for all.

All politics have a tribal element and in ultra-Democrat Washington almost anything that this president does is going to be derided. But that does not explain the sense of bewilderment here that anyone should support him. He does have a net negative rating in the polls, yet according to Rasmussen 46pc of voters do approve of his performance.

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Maybe the Federal Reserve gives some clues. Most of the news it generates is about monetary policy but it also does thorough and unbiased research.

Earlier this month it produced its latest version of its annual study on wellbeing in the US. The message in a nutshell is while much of the country is doing well there are large areas that are not. And even in the places that are doing well, there are people doing badly.

Thus 39pc of the 11,000 people in the survey say they could not get together $400 to meet an emergency bill. Nearly a quarter said they had not had some medical treatment in the past year because they could not afford it. And 60pc said that if they lost their jobs they could not cover three months' living costs, and would have to take out loans, get help from relatives and so on.

The survey was carried out last year, when unemployment was running at only 3.9pc and the economy expanded by 2.9pc. A lot of people are struggling in what in aggregate at least are good times.

Another way of looking at the way many people are not sharing in the increased prosperity of this long expansion is to study what is happening in different postal districts.

The Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan research group in Washington, has done a study on distressed communities. It took two time periods, 2007-11 and 2012-16, and found that there has been a reshuffling of jobs, opportunities and entrepreneurship from poorer communities to more prosperous ones. The places that were doing well are doing better and the places that were doing badly are doing worse.

As a generalisation the south is doing worse than the north, but there are areas in the south that are racing ahead, and others in the north that are deeply distressed.

This does not explain support for Trump - indeed I find it deeply unhelpful to see this in political terms. What it does do is to highlight the way in which successful communities find it hard to understand quite what it feels like to be in an unsuccessful one - the sense that however hard you try, things will still turn out badly for you. The snootiness of the upper-middle-class elite is particularly galling.

If all this sounds troubling, and it is, at least there are some signs that US society is gearing itself up to try to face the challenge. For example, the latest issue of 'Bloomberg Business Week' is devoted to charting some ways to create more of a level playing field. The trouble is that most proposals involve more government intervention, not something that generates much enthusiasm outside of some (well, quite a lot of) Democrat voters.

If you feel the Federal government under successive administrations has failed you, you don't want more government.

Still, the facts are clear: this is a recovery that has left many people behind. Whatever you think of him, and they don't go a bundle here in the nation's capital, Trump does understand that, and therein lies his support.

© Independent News Service

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