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As some of President Trump’s supporters have become critical, muted, or resigned in the face of events, it’s easy to forget the extent to which his campaign was an electrifying phenomenon. He succeeded against the odds, and his supporters were remarkably enthusiastic from beginning to end. After hearing a candidate say things that no candidate had previously articulated—whether on trade or immigration or in his general contempt for political correctness—an entire army of unpaid volunteers and advocates emerged.
They came from various camps, including disaffected Ron Paul supporters and Bernie Bros disgusted by the shenanigans behind Hillary Clinton’s nomination. They were often young and immature, but they were also prolific in spreading the word, mocking the other side on the (then) freewheeling Twitter platform. Their efforts had a lot to do with demoralizing his opponents and helping him across the finish line.
If this year’s CPAC was any indication, the MAGA movement, like the Tea Party movement before it, is being co-opted. It is now a watered-down facsimile of itself. Very few of the original promises are being delivered, and even Trump’s rhetoric is changing. Not only is the wall not being built, but he is even saying that “our factories need workers,” as if these factories voted him into office. The crowd doesn’t boo, but it isn’t impressed either.
Whether this is a betrayal, an accommodation of frenetic opposition, or something else remains to be seen. But right now we have no wall, lots of these new jobs are going to everybody but Trump supporters, and he’s made an about-face on withdrawing from Syria. While older supporters may be sanguine—not least because their expectations were more managed—the young enthusiasts feel betrayed, as their enthusiasm for Trump was fueled by their hope for real change and a deliverance from the establishment’s broken consensus.
What would happen if that cohort of Trump supporters—young, energetic, prone to proselytizing, and disproportionately influential—jumped ship?
Yang, like Trump, is not an establishment guy. He’s a businessman, he’s never held elected office, he’s young, and he appears fluent in the internet culture. In the late 1990s, he headed west and joined an internet startup. While Trump has often been described as the last gasp of the old white-majority America, Asian-American Yang has captured many of these young people’s attention, even finding supporters among explicit white nationalists.
The root of the dissident Right’s enthusiasm is two-fold. It seems partly an ironic protest against Trump and his alleged betrayal. While the numbers are not all out, when people ranging from Ann Coulter to Ramzpaul are jumping ship, there is some trouble in paradise.
The whole point of Trump, after all, was to do something major and dramatic. This was the Flight 93 election, a do-or-die moment, where the risk of failure was offset by the certain failure of the alternative. Simply delivering roughly the same policies as a Jeb! or Rubio will not cut it, even as a consolation prize. Tough talk on Twitter only gets you so far.
Another source of success has been Yang’s empathetic rhetoric towards the very people whom Trump appealed to the most: working-class whites. Yang, however, has endorsed a very different version of economic nationalism than candidate Trump’s nationalist promises to reduce immigration and negotiate better trade deals.
In response to the risks of automation, inequality, and economic insecurity, Yang has proposed a universal basic income of $1,000 to every American. Period. Like “build a wall,” this is a simple, easily understood proposal. In his discussions of the subject, Yang has described his basic income plan as a “freedom dividend,” designed to shore up communities buffeted by globalization, automation, and other stresses. His supporters simply say, “I want my $1,000.”
Appearing on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show earlier this month, Yang referred to the Midwest’s Rust Belt sympathetically, noting that “those communities have never recovered, where if you look at the numbers, half of the workers left the workforce and never worked again and then, half of that group filed for disability. Now, what happened to the manufacturing workers is now going to happen to the truck drivers, retail workers, call centers, fast-food workers and on and on through the economy.”
“Do we have to sit passively back and let this happen to the country?” Carlson asked.
“That’s why I’m running for president,” Yang replied. “I think it would be insane to sit back and watch this automation wave overtake our communities and our economy.” On other issues, Yang is admittedly thoughtful, but he is basically very liberal. Pro-abortion, pro-immigration, and wide open to gun control.
I hate to break it to the Gang, but Yang’s yanking your chain.
His Chances Are Slim
First, Yang will almost certainly will not win the Democratic nomination. His poll numbers are modest at best, and he lacks the organization, money, experience, and name recognition of people like Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Robert O’Rourke (“Beto”), and former Vice President Joe Biden. While Yang’s message appeals to some on the Right, this would be a very small group among Democratic primary voters, who are animated by a combination of Trump-hatred and identity politics grievances.
If Yang loses, would these guys be willing to vote for a Harris or Biden to send a message? And what exactly would that message be?
Second, while artificial intelligence, robotics, and structural unemployment from global free trade are now or may soon become problems, America’s major problem is not poverty or insufficient social welfare programs. After all, we apparently have such a generous social safety net that our poor people suffer from something historically unprecedented: obesity. The real problem with joblessness is the lack of purpose and discipline that comes with not having a job.
As I wrote earlier this year, “measuring the ‘growth of the GDP’ gives the same weight to $5 spent on a trinket and $5 on a wage. But we know that the cliff of joblessness is far more costly than employed people having to spend more on towels at Walmart. A job is the key to self-respect and good citizenship, particularly for men, whose structural unemployment is devastating to communities and fatal to the formation of healthy families.”
A thousand bucks or even $3,000 or $4,000 a month for doing nothing at all will not address the spiritual crisis that is behind our nation’s high rates of suicide, drug abuse, broken homes, and unformed families. We know that everyone from retirees, to trust fund babies, to people on disability would suffer from their perceived lack of purpose.
To the charge of subsidized idleness, Yang and his supporters proffer Marx’s fantasy that we will “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and criticize after dinner.” In other words, liberation from want will free men to live a more meaningful and spiritual life.
We already know—and Yang knows it, too—that such unearned income is mostly wasted. Indeed, it corrodes the self-respect that comes from earning one’s way.
As Yang himself put it, “[Idle] men spend 75 percent of their time on computers playing video games and other things. They volunteer less than employed men, even though they have more time. Their alcohol and drug consumption goes up and they tend to spiral downwards into various antisocial behaviors.”
Unemployment is a problem. And artificial intelligence may prove to be devastating to wealth and productivity, though I have my doubts. After all, computers still seem to be a hell of a lot less reliable than older devices like hammers, lawnmowers, and the power grid.
Also, past iterations of structural unemployment simply moved men from one type of job to another. A century ago, agricultural workers became factory workers. In the last 50 years, factory workers became waiters, marketers, Uber drivers, bartenders, and the like. The service economy has blossomed. This is not ideal, but factory work is not necessarily ideal work compared to, say, a trade or being a farmer.
The nice thing with service work or trades is that they have to be done locally; they can’t be shipped to China or Mexico. The chief obstacle to working class wages has not been the changing composition of the type of work that is done, but rather the mass influx of low-skill, low-wage workers. Yang has very little to say about this, other than supporting a type of immigration amnesty. He has not apparently considered the way this subsidy would turbo-charge the influx of foreigners into our country, akin to the current influx into Europe, with its overly generous welfare states.
No Free Lunch
Third, perhaps I am a little old fashioned, but I have not bought into the “something from nothing” school that is Modern Monetary Theory.
Surely, one of the bigger oncoming disasters our country is facing is the enormous burdens of entitlements. We currently have a $21 trillion national debt. This number is always going up. The burden is dispersed and not entirely visible, but we know our wages are always declining in spending power. Expanding the class of government beneficiaries to include everyone would have bad effects, both on inflation and on the political culture.
The economics are simple: inflation will rob workers of income when wages do not go up to meet inflation. Debt robs future generations to benefit the present and restricts the government’s ability to be flexible when crises emerge. Cheap money also fuels the business cycle, as we witnessed in the Austrian-economics-predicted meltdown that was the 2008 economic crisis.
The political effects of expanding the clients of the welfare state are even more pernicious. As it stands, roughly two thirds of the country works and pays into the system, but an increasingly demanding cohort wants to get paid. They have the vote, and if mob rule means anything, it means that the dispersed and fragile wealth of ordinary people is on the chopping block.
Yang supporters counter that UBI would be an alternative to the welfare state, but, like Trump’s wall or “you can keep your doctor,” is that realistic? Why do these guys think the subsidy will go to middle class people? Because of Yang’s undemonstrated good faith? Or is it the good faith of his fellow Democrats?
Obamacare—a similarly nice-sounding government program to many—turned out to be a massive wealth transfer, and the struggling middle class and small businesses were left holding the bag.
Manage Your Own Expectations
Whether Trump or Yang (or Obama for that matter), one gets the sense that these frenzied political enthusiasms already contain the seeds of disappointment and further alienation. I once wrote, “politics occupies a different place in [the Left’s] mental and spiritual landscape. . . . it has the same place that religion does for most people.” I would now amend this; this is also true for many on the Right, especially the dissident Right.
Spiritually empty agnostics whose spiritual impulse is directed towards worldly saviors are likely to impute qualities and expect results from politics that are completely unrealistic. The votaries of these movements are seeking deliverance, whether from a boring life, a lack of success, or an unrealistic appraisal of what politics is capable of achieving.
Yang, if he were somehow elected, would have to tangle with the same vested interests, bipartisan resistance, and obstruction that Trump has had to face. His proposals, in spite of their elegant simplicity, would surely be butchered by a combination of interest-group lobbying and superadded demands by our modern identity politics.
A large group of economically hurting social conservatives propelled Trump into office. They were augmented by an army of young, smart, and alienated meme-warriors from the dissident Right. Looking for answers—indeed, looking for a savior—they coalesced around Trump, but now that latter group is disappointed.
Some are now jumping ship to join the Yang Gang with the same unbridled enthusiasm and defensiveness they once reserved for Trump. They’re disappointed, but have the same sincere conviction they had the last time around.
Trump, it turns out, was the yin to their Yang.
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