Will Trump Win? Two Conjectures

Culture - May 28, 2024

With the European Parliament Elections taking place on 6–9 June 2024, it is worth while taking a glance at what is going on in the United States. It is almost certain that the two main candidates for President will be President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. It is also likely that Trump will defeat Biden despite all his legal troubles and extraordinary behaviour in public. Biden seems to be physically unfit to be President. He wears his 82 years with much greater strain than Trump his 78 years. But why would such a controversial and atypical politician as Trump be a likely next President of the United States? Old Hegel said that what was rational was real and that what was real was rational. What he meant by this often-misunderstood statement was that we had to try and understand reality instead of just making speeches against it, let alone shout at it. The people who will probably be voting for Trump cannot be ignored or dismissed as ‘deplorables’, in the infamous words of Hillary Clinton. I have seen three plausible explanations for the support Trump enjoys, and here I shall add two conjectures about it that I have not seen elsewhere.

Illegal Immigration

The first of the three plausible explanations for Trump’s appeal is illegal immigration. The economic argument for legal immigration is strong. It means welcoming people who are willing to work and often sorely needed. However, no country can or will accept uncontrolled, illegal mass immigration, especially if the immigrants come from a totally different culture and have problems assimilating. My intellectual mentor, Friedrich A. von Hayek, was right when he supported Margaret Thatcher’s attempts to control immigration to Great Britain. ‘While I look forward, as an ultimate ideal, to a state of affairs in which national boundaries have ceased to be obstacles to the free movement of men,’ Hayek wrote in The Times on 11 February 1978, ‘I believe that within any period with which we can now be concerned, any attempt to realize it would lead to a revival of strong nationalist sentiments.’ The chaotic situation on the Southern border of the United States during the Biden Presidency seems to vindicate some of the concerns Trump’s supporters had when they voted for him in 2016.

Illegal immigration is even more of a problem in Europe, because most of the people who try to get into the United States from Mexico are able and willing to work, whereas in Europe some immigrants come from cultures that do not value hard work and observance of the law as much as most Europeans do. I have written about the 321 Palestinians who entered Denmark illegally in 1991. Their applications for asylum were rejected, but a left-wing majority in the Danish Parliament overruled the authorities and granted them asylum. Now, more than thirty years later, almost two-thirds have been convicted of some criminal offence, thereof 71 sentenced to prison. More than half are living off government, having taken ‘early retirement’, a euphemism for being unemployable. This is anecdotal evidence, but the record shows in general that the two groups of immigrants with the highest crime rate in the Nordic countries are Palestinians and Syrians, not because they are worse people than others, but for cultural reasons. There are large neighbourhoods in some Scandinavian cities populated almost solely by immigrants on welfare, mostly from Muslim countries.

Whereas Hayek was not a nationalist himself, he recognised the possibility that mass immigration might provoke hostility to foreigners. In Volume II of his Law, Legislation and Liberty, he wrote (p. 58):

However far modern man accepts in principle the ideal that the same rules should apply to all men, in fact he does concede it only to those whom he regards as similar to himself, and only slowly learns to extend the range of those he does accept as his likes. There is little legislation can do to speed up this process and much it may do to reverse it by re-awakening sentiments that are already on the wane.

He returned to immigration in Volume III (p. 195):

Freedom of migration is one of the widely accepted and wholly admirable principles of liberalism. But should this generally give the stranger a right to settle down in a community in which he is not welcome? Has he a claim to be given a job or be sold a house if no resident is willing to do so? He clearly should be entitled to accept a job or buy a house if offered to him. But have the individual inhabitants a duty to offer either to him? Or ought it to be an offence if they voluntarily agree not to do so? Swiss and Tyrolese villages have a way of keeping out strangers which neither infringe nor rely on any law. Is this anti-liberal or morally justified? For established old communities I have no certain answers to these questions.

Hayek anticipated what is taking place now both in North America and Europe. While I personally welcome hard-working, law-abiding immigrants, I am certainly not alone in refusing to accept into our countries potential criminals, loafers or religious zealots.

Distrust and Pessimism

The second plausible explanation for Trump’s support is  a pervasive distrust of the institutions and elites that have mostly governed the United States. Ordinary voters feel, with some justification, that the universities and the media, including the social media, and even venerable institutions like the F.B.I. and C.I.A., have been taken over by leftists or at least by dedicated opponents of Trump and the Republican Party. For example, more than fifty former senior intelligence officers signed a letter in October 2020, just before the presidential election, that the Hunter Biden case, exposed by New York Post, had ‘all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation’. Both Twitter and Facebook dutifully deleted all references to the case, while the Twitter account of New York Post was blocked. But the former intelligence officers and the social media staff were wrong. The New York Post reports on the case turned out to be more or less accurate, whatever one may think of its political relevance. Ordinary voters also reject recent attempts by Democratic prosecutors and judges to destroy Trump through the legal system. Trump’s behaviour during the 6 January 2021 riot in Washington was deplorable, but there was no systematic attempt by him to overthrow the United States government.

The third plausible explanation for Trump’s support is pessimism about the future. There was, and is, a widespread feeling that America has lost her way. She has to be made ‘great again’, as Trump exclaimed in 2016. The demographer Nicholas Eberstadt published in 2017 an influential essay in the journal Commentary where he noted sluggish economic growth and a plunging labour-force participation rate, combined with a rising death rate among middle-aged white people, partly brought about by a sharp increase in deaths from suicide, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Trump blamed this development on globalism, international free trade, asserting that China was taking jobs from American workers. Consequently, he called for raising tariffs. Although Trump has often invoked Ronald Reagan, he probably has not read the works of Frédéric Bastiat, like Reagan had. Bastiat had clearly demonstrated the protectionist fallacy. If it is cheaper to buy goods from abroad than to produce them locally, the money thus saved will be used for other purposes, creating demand for new local jobs. What was seen was simply that some local jobs were lost. What was not seen was that more local jobs were created than lost. However, Trump of course had a political point. There might be in some areas a time lag between the loss of some jobs because of competition from abroad and the creation of new jobs as a result of increased efficiency.

First Conjecture: Male Alienation

The two first explanations of Trump’s appeal to American voters, the opposition to illegal immigration and the distrust of dominant institutions and elites, seem to me to capture at least a part of the truth. Voters want to send a message, and Trump speaks for many of them in his uncouth way (probably intentionally in an uncouth way, because he is no fool). But the third explanation often mentioned needs to be revised. It is not globalism which is causing the gloom in America although possibly international free trade may be adversely affecting some unskilled middle-aged white workers with limited will or ability to adjust to new circumstances, especially in the so-called ‘Rust Belt’. But the jobs are there. More jobs are created than are lost, and immigrants gladly accept jobs that other workers reject. I would suggest another explanation of the noticeable maladjustment of unskilled middle-aged white workers which is expressed by the high rate in this group of suicides, alcoholism, and drug addiction. This explanation is an emerging gender gap. Let us assume that general ability to cope with life is distributed evenly between the two sexes. But the distribution of abilities within each of the two sexes is different, as many studies have shown. The ‘Bell Curve’ for women is much steeper than for men which means that there are more men who are outliers, either with exceptional ability (entrepreneurs, innovators, adventurers, explorers) or with exceptional lack of abilities (loafers and criminals). The behaviour of women is however much more normal. (Of course these are generalisations, with many individual exceptions.)

The different distribution of abilities within the two sexes explains why more women graduate nowadays from universities than do men. They are more patient, punctual, and diligent, simply more normal. They identify with the system of education because it is run by women for women. Most of the teachers are women, and there is a tendency to discourage what used to be regarded as masculine virtues. This also explains why 90 per cent of prison inmates are male, why 85 per cent of suicides are committed by men and why 80 per cent of those who seek treatment for alcoholism and drug abuse are men. (The figures are similar in other Western countries.) But in the good old bad old days the outliers on the wrong side of the Bell Curve were often able to find more intelligent women that could run their lives. Now, such women, free from the pressure to marry, have little interest in these men. Consequently, they are unemployed or underemployed, spending most of their time in their white t-shirts drinking beer and watching football games or playing video games, unshaven and covered with tattoos. Not surprisingly, they are often quite unhappy. And even the outliers on the right side of the Bell Curve are sometimes dispirited because they feel that their special abilities, the masculine virtues, are being suppressed: courage, strength, ambition, competitiveness, and the willingness to stand out from the crowd and to stand up for their beliefs. (This may explain the extraordinary impact the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson has had on many intelligent young men.) My conjecture is that those two types of male outliers tend to vote for Trump rather than Biden.

Second Conjecture: Resentment about Unearned Income

I came across another little-noted but astonishing fact when I read a remarkable book by Senator Phil Gramm, and two of his associates, The Myth of American Inequality. If American households are divided by income into five groups of equal size, quintiles, people in the bottom quintile tend to work much less than people in the other four quintiles. Half of the adults in the group are retired, whereas of those at working age (between 18 and 65, and neither students nor the retired) only 36 per cent work, and of those who do work, they put in on average only 17.3 hours a week, less than half as many hours on average as workers in the other quintiles. But here enters the astonishing fact: When transfer and tax payments are included, the people in second-poorest quintile have only 9 per cent higher income than those in the poorest (bottom) quintile. Another stunning fact is that if households are broken into individuals, the average bottom-quintile household receives $36,079 in income per capita, and the higher quintiles receive respectively $32,477, $35,142, $40,549, and $78,837 in income per capita. This means that on a per capita basis the average bottom-quintile household receives over 10 per cent more than the average second-quintile household and even 3 per cent more than the average middle-income household.

The difference between the bottom quintile and the other four quintiles is however that the people in the bottom quintile do not work nearly as much. This is of course often not their fault: some of them are ill, elderly, handicapped or incapacitated in other ways. But some of them are able-bodied, I am sure, although not working or just working a little. This must have, I would suggest, caused unhappiness and resentment in the four quintiles which have almost the same income after transfer and tax payments. Those in the bottom quintile who are able-bodied and do not work are unhappy, because they lack meaning and purpose in life. Like the unskilled single middle-aged white workers mentioned above, they probably spend most of their time watching football games and playing video games, drinking and smoking, and cursing life. Those in the three quintiles above them must resent the fact that it does not seem to make much of a difference whether they work or not: they receive roughly the same income, and even less, than individuals in the bottom quintile. These people may not be able to articulate their resentment. But they know that something is wrong, and my conjecture is that therefore they vote for Trump. Americans do not resent the rich: In 2016 they voted for the richest President ever. But they resent when work is not properly rewarded.