Blog Post - Views on the Economy and the World

Stagnant Wages Do Not Explain Trump

| Apr. 05, 2016
The mainstream media are busily reproaching themselves for having been so out of touch with the economic troubles of angry white working men that they were late in taking Donald Trump’s presidential campaign seriously.   Most of us can join in to admit that we were very slow to take Trump seriously.   For one thing, we all thought that any candidate would be permanently derailed by even a small number of the many things that Trump has said.  We used to call these gaffes — either the ones that seemed designed to alienate particular groups (Hispanics, women, etc.) or the ones that revealed his lack of familiarity with real-world issues.

But can the under-estimation of Trump’s candidacy really be attributed to inadequate appreciation of the economic troubles of American workers?

The increase in inequality is very real, particularly the stagnation over the last 40 years of wage income among low-skilled men (defined as those without college education).  For many years, Democrats have made proposals to ameliorate the problem, while Republican presidential candidates have consistently pursued taxcuts for the rich as their number one policy response.

The puzzle is why anyone thinks that Donald Trump’s candidacy offers a break with this particular pattern.  The problem is not that he himself inherited great wealth.  The problem is rather that his policy proposals, such as they are, would not address the inequality issue.   He, like virtually all Republican candidates, proposes big tax cuts for the rich, with no way of paying for the lost revenue.

But he has also said something that no candidate has ever said: “wages are too high.”  He said it at least twice:  November 10, 2015, in the Republican presidential debate on Fox and November 11, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.  (He has also denied having said it.  But the tapes are very clear. This is a pattern we have seen many times, of course.  Sometimes he brazenly accuses the media of having made up the quote.)

The elite media have beaten themselves up over their eliteness many times before.  Remember how, during the GWB years, journalists swallowed Karl Rove’s line that Republican votes were rising on an unstoppable tide of middle-America family values?  This was before people noticed that the red zip codes had higher rates of divorce, teenage pregnancy, and other indicators of lack of personal responsibility than the blue zip codes.

I don’t claim to understand the remarkable Trump phenomenon.   But whatever is the explanation, it is not a response by working white men that could have been logically predicted based on their stagnant incomes.

 
For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Frankel, Jeffrey.Stagnant Wages Do Not Explain Trump.” Views on the Economy and the World, April 5, 2016, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/stagnant-wages-do-not-explain-trump.