[Two days after Trump’s election, I received a message from a former student who is thinking, in response, about leaving the US, where he has a good, secure academic position, making use of his foreign citizenship. He asked for my advice. With his permission, here is the gist of my reply.]

Dear —,

There is a way forward, and I hope that you and your wife and your kids when they come of age stay and contribute to it. The way forward that I see is to make economic justice a central theme of the Democratic Party. In the debates, the Democratic convention and Clinton ads, it wasn’t. As the campaign progressed, showing people the evidence of Trump’s bad character and prodding him to produce more evidence swamped everything else. White men without college degrees, who have reason to fear about their future, were told by Trump that he would do a terrific job of helping them. The fears were not forcefully addressed by Clinton and Trump’s factual premises were rarely directly challenged. Appeals to economic justice engaging with the legitimate interests of people with all ethnicities and sociocultural identities and assertive inclusion of all ethnicities and sociocultural identities now look like a more effective tactic than those of  Clinton, her circle and the party elite. The right political strategy seems to coincide with what your family, mine and those I know care about: the principled pursuit of justice. We have advantages in knowledge, skill and social location in helping Democratic politics move in this direction. So a good response to our grief over Trump’s election is engagement in this effort to shift the basic Democratic strategy—by expanding it. Combatting racism, sexism and xenophobia are also vital. I think that these vital efforts will be strengthened as part of that strategy.

Of course, Trump mobilized the racism that standard Republicans have long relied on to stimulate the taxphobia that is their core message. Relatively few voters care about right-wing economic doctrines. Far too many think that their taxes are in large measure giveaways to African-Americans. He also encouraged whites with economic anxieties to think that their cause for concern was victimization by immigrants and goods made by foreigners. However, the starting point for going forward is appreciation of the genuine and rational anxiety about the future of whites, especially white men, without a college degree. Reflection on Michigan and Pennsylvania led me to read in full the Deaton/ Case study of increase in mortality and morbidity among prime working age white men, especially severe among those without college degrees: an appalling increase due to booze, drugs and suicide. I had just read broadly parallel economic findings on the decline in real earnings among white men without college degrees since 1975, especially since 2000 and on the steep sixty year decline in labor force participation among white men, somewhat accelerated in the last eight years. Despair about failure to achieve the aspirations with which one started out in life, failure to do as well as one’s father did at a similar age, and failure to get ahead when highly visible fellow-citizens are doing wonderfully must contribute to corrosive despair. Unless a strong and respectful case is made for what would genuinely help (to some degree), an unanswered argument that this is due to incursion and parasitism of people in other groups is bound to have a strong appeal to those concerned that their hopes will be dashed. I must say that reading Deaton/Case made me angry when I thought of Clinton’s putting Trump supporters in baskets and thought of her reliance, with a smug smile, on prodding Trump to reveal his bad personality rather than directly responding to his arguments that he would help displaced Americans in the course of the debates. But that’s past. I think we should try to pursue the better way. A start for the likes of us might be local panels and meetings on the way forward and conferences on populism, along with relevant writings in our field.

As for the future under Trump, it is hard to tell right now. Perhaps the badness will largely consist of the very substantial suffering that a standard Republican president would have inflicted and a substantial increase in deportations,  along with a less hawkish foreign policy that is an improvement on balance on Clinton’s inclinations. Maybe increased spending on infrastructure plus economic stimulus will add a bit that is positive to the bad.  Maybe things will be much worse, with massive deportations, further encouragement of racism that contributes to vile harms in policing, and encouragement of an ethos of racist, sexist, xenophobic hostility and contempt. On climate change, things will be bad—though here there is special room for outreach to those with bad news sources and for some policy action within Democratic states. The dangers are many-sided, and many kinds of activism will play important roles in response. The way forward that I have described is only meant as one among several, though I think it should play a central role.


About The Author

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Richard W. Miller is Hutchinson Professor in Ethics and Public Life in the Department of Philosophy, Cornell University. His writings in political philosophy include Globalizing Justice (2010) Analyzing Marx (1984), and recent articles that will lead to The Ethics of Social Democracy.