How Not to Make America Great Again

AP Photo/Claire Galofaro

Terry Wright, a 59-year-old retired union painter, adjusts the U.S. flag on his porch in Portland, a white, working class neighborhood in Louisville. 

It’s the 1950s, Donald Trump told New York Times reporter David Sanger, that is the “again” he has in mind when he speaks of making American great again. We may cavil that in the Fifties, African Americans still suffered under Jim Crow laws and women endured their own distinctive discrimination, but for the white male working class—whose heirs, today, are the core of Trump’s support—things had never been better. They were still the guys who’d won World War II, and their newfound material prosperity was the social miracle of the age, and testament to the rightness of the American way.           

But if Trump’s appeal to his base is his promise to restore these onetime protagonists of the American epic to their rightful place, he’ll need a radically different set of economic policies than those he now champions. Bringing back the factories won’t in itself recreate the lost economic Eden of the Eisenhower era. A factory can sustain a community by generating middle-income jobs—or it can submerge that community by paying no more than Walmart wages. Increasingly, American factories do the latter.

Trump may hail the promise of a manufacturing renaissance, but as a report last year from the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, citing a previous study from the National Employment Law Project, made clear, “the typical manufacturing production worker made 7.7 percent below the median wage for all occupations.” In 2014, the median hourly wage for assembly line workers employed directly by the manufacturer was $15.04, but for the growing number employed by staffing agencies (which the Berkeley Center put at a rapidly rising 9 percent of factory workers, and who constitute the majority of the workers at Nissan’s auto factories in Mississippi and Tennessee), the median wage was $10.88. Indeed, fully 59 percent of the families of factory workers in Mississippi, the Berkeley study documented, were on some form of public assistance (Medicaid, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the like), while the national average for such factory worker families was 34 percent.

Today, the only factory workers who can claim some kind of economic kinship with those of the era which Trump vows to resurrect are the ones in unionized factories, where hourly wages can reach as high as $30. But there are fewer and fewer such workers. In 2000, according to a Pew Research Center report, 19 percent of manufacturing workers belonged to a union. By 2014, that figure had fallen to 13 percent, even as the number of all manufacturing workers also declined from 11 million to eight million.

That’s a far cry from the 1950s, when close to 60 percent of manufacturing workers enjoyed the pay and benefits of a union contract, which is the main reason why median household income in those years rose at the same rate as productivity. The steeply progressive taxation of the years during and following World War II (which saw the highest marginal rate top 90 percent) also yielded working-class gains the likes of which we’ve not seen since. As John Kenneth Galbraith documented in his 1958 classic The Affluent Society, the lowest-income quintile of American families saw their after-tax incomes rise by 42 percent during the 1940s, the second lowest by 37 percent, the third lowest (that is, the middle) by 24 percent, the fourth lowest by 16 percent, and the fifth lowest (that is, the richest) by 8 percent. The wealthiest 5 percent actually saw their incomes drop by 2 percent.

In short, absent unions and New Deal progressive taxation, the economy of the 1950s that Trump sees as the era of American greatness would never have existed.

And how will Trump’s policies recreate that broadly-shared prosperity? They won’t. The tax plans his campaign put out were every bit as regressive as those of the ‘40s and ‘50s were progressive, slashing taxes chiefly on Trump’s economic peers. The anti-union designs of congressional Republicans and such Trump appointees as Labor Secretary-designate Andy Puzder will likely push the rate of private-sector unionization below 5 percent, all but extinguishing the last vestiges of collective bargaining. A factory may open here or there, but odds are it will pay its workers—or rather, the temps who labor there full time—what they could make at Walmart or one of Puzder’s fast-food franchises.

Bringing back the widely-shared prosperity of the time when America was Trumpianally Great requires a great deal more than bringing back a factory or two or 200 or 2000—even if those factories aren’t as automated as nearly every factory is these days. It requires giving workers the right to demand their fair share of the revenues they produce. It requires a tax code that rewards work rather than speculation. American won’t be “great again” until ordinary Americans regain the power that Trump and the Republicans are determined to keep far from their grasp.

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