PRINCETON – The United States, supposedly the world’s beacon of democracy, is practicing a strange form of it nowadays. One presidential candidate won nearly three million more votes than her opponent, who, with a big assist from a hostile foreign power, was nonetheless declared the winner. Anywhere else on earth, such an event would be called a coup d’état. Here in the US, we call it the Electoral College.
It gets stranger. A Pew Research opinion poll conducted between November 30 and December 5, after the election had cast the usual victor’s glow on Donald Trump, indicated that only 37% of Americans thought Trump was well-qualified for the presidency, just 31% deemed him moral, and a mere 26% viewed him as a good role model. On the other hand, 62% thought he had poor judgment and 65% considered him reckless. And this man won?
Perhaps, despite his appalling personal attributes, Trump’s positions on key issues resonated with the electorate. As an economist, I’ll leave aside Trump’s positively frightening foreign-policy views and concentrate on the economic issues that many pundits claim put him in the White House. In fact, judging by Trump’s own statements and his cabinet picks, he’s on the wrong side of almost every one. It’s a sobering inventory.
Climate change: Only one economic issue poses an existential threat to life on earth. Yet Trump branded it a “hoax” during the campaign, and has picked a climate-change denier, Scott Pruitt, to head the US Environmental Protection Agency, which Pruitt, the attorney general of oil- and gas-producing Oklahoma, has frequently sued. This is not the policy the American public wants. On the contrary, polling data show that Americans’ concern with global warming is now at or near all-time highs. Americans really don’t want Miami Beach or lower Manhattan to be underwater.
Labor standards: Trump’s choice for Secretary of Labor, Andrew Puzder, is a CEO in the fast-food industry. Never mind that he uses crass sexual imagery to sell hamburgers. What’s more germane is that he prefers robots to human workers, doesn’t want to raise the minimum wage, and opposes the Department of Labor’s attempt to raise the salary level below which companies must pay extra for overtime.
The public could not disagree with him more. Raising the minimum wage has been winning in polls consistently for decades, and by wide margins generally even among Republicans. And when the labor department proposed its overtime rule in May, respondents told pollsters that the overtime threshold should be set even higher.
Health care: “Repeal Obamacare” became the Republican Party’s mantra as soon as Congress enacted the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010. So, naturally, that was the position Trump adopted while vying for the Republican nomination. Now, as president-elect, he has picked Representative Tom Price of Georgia, an avowed enemy of Obamacare and you might say of Medicaid and Medicare (which provide coverage to the poor and elderly, respectively) to run the Department of Health and Human Services. Unfortunately for Republicans, they haven’t figured out how to replace Obamacare, so their current policy is “repeal and delay.” In other words: “Call us back in two or three years.”
Public opinion on the ACA is difficult to discern. Polling the name often gets slightly negative reviews. But that’s misleading. For example, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted after the election found that 26% Americans favor outright repeal, while only 19% favor keeping the law as is. So does the public reject Obamacare?
Well, no. Among the remaining 47% who expressed an opinion, far more wanted to see the scope of the law expanded than scaled back. Even the Republicans know that many of the ACA’s key provisions, such as ensuring that people with pre-existing conditions can buy health insurance, are extremely popular. I suspect that many critics of Obamacare are really RINOs: repealers in name only.
Tax cuts: One of the most consistent findings in American public opinion polling for decades is that people want higher taxes, not lower, on the rich and corporations. The Republican catechism, however, has long enshrined lower taxes on both, and this became one of the few concrete policies that candidate Trump ran on.
In fact, Trump’s position is more popular than its polar opposite on only one economic issue: globalization. And on that one issue, Trump’s embrace of trade protection, hostility toward immigration, and prevention of outsourcing to foreign countries is bad news for the entire world.
Nowadays, a narrow majority of Americans seems to side with Trump, rather than with traditional Republican internationalism, on these issues. Forty-nine percent of respondents in an April 2016 Pew poll said that US involvement in the global economy is bad, because it lowers wages and costs jobs, while 44% said that globalization is good, because it opens new markets and creates opportunities for growth. Close, but here Trump is on the “right” side of the electorate.
That’s the public opinion scoreboard on the big economic issues. Unless you put almost all the weight on hostility to globalization, Trump seems to be on the wrong side of every one. So how did the candidate who is personally disrespected by most Americans, and who takes the unpopular side on most issues, win the election?
One plausible answer, offered by Clinton and many others, focuses on the role of Russian cyber operations and FBI Director James Comey’s unconscionable “announcement” (of what amounted to nothing) just days before the vote. Putin got what he wanted. Comey? I don’t know.
Alan S. Blinder, a former vice chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board, is Professor of Economics at Princeton University and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.