What I as a European Think the Reasons Are Why Americans Are Voting for Trump
America’s voting and the world is watching. I can’t think of another election that raised eyebrows like the current campaign. An open exchange of blows from both sides, which didn’t go unnoticed — even here in Europe.
The Trump vs. Hillary campaign was huge, but the latest Trump vs. Biden is fiercer than anything we’ve ever seen before. America has a big entertainment industry, but this one is bigger than any blockbuster movie.
When Trump announced he would be running for president back in 2015, it was the first time I had heard of him since the 1980s. Yes, no joke, it’s that long ago. I don’t follow TV shows anymore, so I found out about his reality show “The Apprentice”, only after he became president.
Trump was an icon in the ‘80s
Be it in the U.S. or Europe, if you were around in the '80s, then you knew who Donald Trump was. He was one of the representatives of an era that was, in contrast to the ‘60s and ‘70s, not about us, but about me “making it” — big time. In a way, it’s the same today, but back then it was the first post-war decade that was all about individual success and achievement.
The term celebrity wasn’t created yet, it existed as a word, but had a very different connotation to it. I’d say the biggest difference between a celeb today and a famous person back then was that in order to be known for, you actually had to be good at something.
I know of so many celebrities today where I need to ask my wife what they are actually famous for, and very often she says: “Well, they have a huge following on Instagram where they post pictures of the successful life they’re having.” And quite often, I ask: “Successful— in which way?” And the answer more often than not is: “I don’t know exactly — they are just big on social media.”
Ah, now I get it. They don’t sell snake oil, they sell virtual snake oil. I guess, I’m a bit old-school when it comes to fame and success. I still believe that these words are by-products of a job, sport, business, or whatever else that you do really well. We admire people for their skills, and thus like to follow them in the various types of media that exist.
Trump knew about the importance of personal branding long before social media existed. I can’t think of another business guy who managed to brand his name as well as Trump did — selling real estate isn’t exactly the same as being a movie star. But he didn’t care — his media presence was ubiquitous.
Larry King, David Letterman, there wasn’t a show he wasn’t on. He knew how to create hype around his name but still you never forgot what he did for a living. It was like Trump equaled New York, and those two together equaled success. The rest didn’t matter anymore.
Trump influenced pop culture
Today’s media portrayal of Trump has nothing in common with how he was perceived in the 1980s.
Probably no other book like Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho” gives a more accurate inside into what Donald Trump represented at the time. The main protagonist’s idealization of Trump and his mythos in the 80s shows what an aspiring young broker or any other business-oriented person thought of him in the first decade of laissez-faire capitalism.
If the media today uses all kinds of labels like “racist” and other derogatory terms, none of that existed in the 1980s. The opposite, his influence transcended racial lines, which showed up in popular culture as well. Today, no one could imagine Prince writing a song with the lyrics:
Donald Trump: black version
Maybe that’s what you need
A man that fulfills your every wish
Your every dream
Donald Trump: black version
Come on take a chance
A 1990’s love affair
The real romance
His media presence helped him a lot, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t good at what he was doing — quite the contrary— he was good, and knew how to market it better than anyone else.
He always had pretty consistent views on politics, but for most people that wasn’t important at the time. He embodied the Zeitgeist of an era of stretch limousines, New York skyscrapers, and an aura of success and toughness which in the decade of decadence many young yuppies aspired to.
The West won the cold war (is the Best)
It was the last decade of the cold war, of Rocky vs Drago, of East vs. West. I know that much of it may seem ridiculous today, but back then there was a real fear of nuclear war and the Soviet Union. But also a recognition that the West and democracy had beaten Communism.
The gap in wealth and overall success of the West became bigger and bigger, and although no one could predict the quick collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern block just a few years later, the 80s alone showed that democracy and capitalism had won over communism and its planned economy.
And in contrast to today’s relativization of democracy and capitalism, back then there was no doubt which social and economic model was superior over the other. And it didn’t reflect in money alone. The products made in the West were top class. Aside from Japan, there was no region in the world that could claim to make products and innovate like the U.S. and Western Europe did at the time. Almost every product you bought was made within this region of the world.
Japanese and Taiwanese cars and electronics started gaining a bigger foothold in Western markets. But those Asian countries were far from becoming the world’s largest production hub as it is now in China. In the eyes of the broader public, China was still a very closed country and made headlines only because of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
A leading manufacturing hub, at least from what we knew from the media, wasn’t on the horizon. Of course, someone must have known, because less than a decade later China was on everyone’s lips. If you were a business guy, and you didn’t have a “China strategy”, you’d be out pretty soon. And that showed just a few years later.
China’s rise to an industrial world power
By 2005, most products, especially electronics and clothing, were made in China. “Made in Italy”, “Made in France”, and other country labels had disappeared and were replaced by the almost ubiquitous “Made in China” tag visible on every product.
Commodities coming from the U.S., started featuring descriptions that said “Designed in the U.S.” but “Made in China”. It was a way to give buyers the impression that products were still connected to the country of origin. Which was true in terms of capital and ownership, but not in terms of production and development. Most of that was already done in China.
I was a bit surprised when I found out that the biggest and most prestigious European fashion houses almost all had their garments made in China. Chanel was said to be one of the last giants of the fashion industry to still sew clothes in European factories. All others had long moved their production out of Europe and into China.
More or less unnoticed, more and more factories would close down and move their production facilities to Asian countries, in most cases to China. Somewhere around the dot.com bubble, it became clear that this wasn’t a trend, but a shift of tremendous effect on Western economies.
Factory owners experienced an enormous drop in the production cost of their commodities. Wages, raw materials, and ecological standards were way lower in Asia, and thus guaranteed bigger profit margins.
Job losses to China
Back at the time when I lived in Berlin, I got to know a friend who used to work in an IBM plant, when IBM — believe it or not — still produced actual products in Europe. According to a 1984 New York Times article, 15 European plants made over 90 percent of what I.B.M. sold locally in those markets.
I met her when she was already in retirement. I remember her telling me how fortunate she was to have worked there, because now after having had a great salary during her employment she now benefited from a two-tiered pension plan which was in part paid by the German state and in part by her her former company’s pension scheme.
Very shortly after her retirement the plant was phased out and “restructured into a software and service center”. As with so many other plants that operated in Europe and in the U.S., only research and service facilities were left here while the actual manufacturing part of the plants were moved to China.
As a result more and more people had to look for other jobs in service- oriented industries. This was also the time when people started to “invent” new jobs which are now known as the “gig economy” where freelancers try to offer their services to companies as independent contractors instead of full-time employees.
Although this new way of earning money has brought more flexibility and for some even more opportunity and income, it has also increased the responsibility, workload, and income instability in comparison to what employees of those former production plants experienced earlier.
Most of those plants guaranteed an employment for the entirety of one’s working life, and allowed people to plan with a more or less “secure future”. While in the 1990s the U.S. still had a robust manufacturing industry, in the period between 2001 and 2013, the country lost two-thirds of all of its manufacturing jobs as a direct consequence of job losses to China.
By 2010 millions of workers were either unemployed or in search for a job in the service industry, which operates differently in comparison to the old economies. The service-economy is a far more competitive labor market, which often consists of either extremely well-paid jobs or badly paid low-income jobs, which— because of their nature — could not have been outsourced to another country.
As a result, vast numbers of people who once earned their living in a relatively secure and easy to do fashion, now faced the challenge to either educate themselves to compete for those high-income jobs or adapt to a life of lower wages and lower quality of life.
Adjustment to a new reality
Although obvious that a transition was on the way, no one really knew what to expect of the new economy. Somewhere around the 2008 financial crisis, people started realizing the consequences of the newly established economy.
Well-paid jobs for highly educated people were on the rise, but those former middle range jobs that once allowed for a relatively secure way of earning an income had vanished.
Of course, it would be too easy to blame it all on the economy and China. Such major global developments have many contributing factors, like automation and migration, for instance. However, the fact is that perception works in a way different way. For the average person all that counts is how they see their lives in comparison to 20 or 30 years ago.
If there was a time, when they could work less for money that had significant greater purchasing power, they’ll remember that in the kind of lifestyle they were able to afford. An average employee may not be informed how the housing market functions, what quantitative easing is, and what impact it on property prices has. But what they do know is that prices went through the roof.
Not really by choice, people in the U.S. And Europe alike started reflecting on the consequences of a quickly changing economic environment, which many people left feeling hopeless and disillusioned.
It’s silly to believe that half of America turned ignorant overnight as the media would like to portray it. Nor is Trump the cause of it. He is the voice of people who feel that the basis of their way of living had been taken away without their consent. And if you listen to what Trump says at his rallies, he addresses every single issue relating to a lost economy.
He constantly mentions curbing immigration, bringing back manufacturing, renegotiating trade deals, stopping companies from moving abroad, and rewarding those who consider moving back — all of that is directed towards those people.
This is the reason why Trump has such a huge following in Europe as well. He stands for everything that people once believed made up the Western world.
And the cause why those people endorse policies like closed borders, low immigration, and punishment of companies leaving the country. Not because they are anti-something, but rather pro-everything that even remotely resembles the world they’ve lost without their consent.
Trump is part of a bigger movement
In Britain, they are called “Brexiteers”, in France “Gilets jaunes”, and in the U.S. Trump supporters. Looking at what all those movements have in common, it becomes clear that it is an anti-globalist movement which does not — as falsely reported — is rooted in some racist, xenophobic agenda, but rather in the desperation of disillusioned former middle class people.
It took me some time to see the connection between all of these movements and what eventually happened in Britain and in the U.S in 2016. But now it’s clear, it’s not limited to middle class people, but present in all walks of life.
The sentiment has changed a lot. Historically Europeans had a preference for Democratic U.S. presidents from JFK on — but Trump is different, not comparable to anyone, simply because of the movement he represents. I can’t think of another president being as synonymous with a certain movement as he is. If he ran any time prior to 2016, I’m not sure he would have won an election. In their eyes, he’s the guy who knows how to get things done.
People’s strong desire for a world that disappeared made him rise from the ashes of the 80s. The underdog who managed to defeat the establishment that Hillary represented, the Rocky vs. Drago epos that people identify with from the West. This could be an entry point to better understand what happened in the U.S. since Trump became president.
What Trump represents will not be gone any time soon
The vast numbers of people who support Trump, or similar political options in Europe, disqualify the idea of an extremist group by default. Although there are many more factors that play into such massive global political changes, one of the main reasons will certainly be the perception that corporations have benefited disproportionately in comparison to those who benefited very little if not nothing from the global expansion.
If Democrats represent progressiveness and the outward movement of American politics, then it seems that a growing number of people now look for an inward consolidation in order to reconnect to what they think matters most to them.
Trump is not the cause but the symptom of a problem that goes deep. Even if he went away, the problem would remain, and someone else would take over — sooner or later.
This phenomenon is immense. Be it out of fear or lack of understanding, it would be foolish to fight it. All until their problems are addressed, people will continue to stick to their position— history has proven it many times. A wholesale dismissive stance will make things only worse.
For people like me who are coming from a more independent, centrist position, should the mere numbers of people who disagree with the direction they’re going be reason enough to look into this more closely.
Dismissing half of the population as… (whatever term you’re using) — isn’t very constructive.
As shown earlier in Bret Easton Ellis’s book or Prince’s lyrics, you need to put things into context to fully understand them. Trump is a superhero from the ’80s, you must take this into consideration.