Many political pundits and commentators are perplexed over the Trump phenomenon, twisting over themselves to explain it. Many of Trump’s passionate followers like Mary Donnelly of Concord, New Hampshire and Frank Maxwell Jr. and Bettina Norden and Susan DeLemus explain what they like about Trump. But it may be that Wall Street Journal reporter Michael M. Phillips has the best take on Trump’s popularity. Phillips’ January 26 article contends that it is white working class voters resentful over the economy who are fueling the Trump bandwagon.
Phillips tells the story of Trump supporters Joey and Tina Ellis. In 2010, Mr. Ellis, 46 years old, lost a job he had held for 19 years. Since then he has gone though several jobs. Now he is working for $14 an hour running a shipping department. Mrs. Ellis,44, earns even less per hour. Obviously the couple, who have two children, is struggling to stay in or break into the middle class of Americans.
The story of the Ellises can be generalized. While the country has pulled away from the brink of the economic disaster it faced in the aftermath of the financial meltdown of 2008-2009, it has clearly not been smooth sailing for the average wage and salary worker since then.
True, the United States official unemployment rate has been cut in half from as high as 10 percent of the labor force in October 2009 to the present 5 percent. But this has been partly the result of many unemployed workers being so discouraged at finding a job they have given up looking. In June 2007, 63 percent of the adult population had jobs. That number is now down below 60 percent. In January 2008, over 66 percent of the adult population were actively participating in the labor market, either with a job or looking for one. In December 2015 that percentage was down below 63 percent.
For those who are working, many have taken a wage hit. Real wages took a deep downturn between 2009 and 2014. The median real weekly earnings for wage and salary workers in 2009 was $345. Half of all wage and salary workers were earning less than that. By 2014 that median weekly wage had fallen to $330. Since then there has been some recoupment with the real median weekly wage in December 2015 back to what it was in 2009. But average wage and salary workers still must feel like they are treading water, working feverishly just to stay in place and not risk falling further back, or if they are faring better than their neighbors, worried that they may be next to take a hit.
And this anxiety about the economy may be the most telling point fueling the Trump phenomenon. Average workers are angry and fearful. While Trump may not have laid out a comprehensive plan to attack the economic issues the United States faces, he has seized on appealing culprits to blame – Mexicans, immigrants in general, China, international trade. The fact that the evidence is that none of these are the true culprits of our economic difficulties, that they go deeper, and that much of it is still an aftermath of the near second great depression that we faced in 2008-2009 and our inability as a nation to forge a consensus on a sensible economic policy to bring us back to economic normalcy from that disaster is of little importance. To many median wage and salary workers, Donald Trump expresses their anger and their fears.
There once was an expression that could arguably have fueled a win of the Presidency. “It’s the economy, stupid.”