Support of Donald Trump wearing a Donald Trump t-shirt

Supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump pray at the Save America Rally at the Adams County Fairgrounds on June 25, 2022 in Mendon, Illinois.

(Photo: Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

Reich is Wrong: A Revolt Against Laissez-Faire Did Not Make Fascism Popular

Racism and xenophobia fanned by GOP propaganda are what have brought us to the brink.

Robert Reich is one of the good guys in public life. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor, Reich was a consistent advocate for the average worker. When he left office, he refrained from cashing in as so many of his contemporaries, like Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, did.

Instead, he did what former public servants should be doing: educating the public about the government’s policies, and what they mean to society. His mission was and is to define the meaning of the economic policies that began around 1980: financialization, deindustrialization, non-enforcement of antitrust law, union-busting, and tax cuts for the rich, policies that were to some extent exacerbated in the administration he served.

In a recent video, Reich attempted to answer the largest and most existential question in the country today: Why are so many Americans attracted to fascism? He more or less takes for granted the premise that the Republican Party under Donald Trump is fascism, and I would be the last person to dispute this. Eight years ago, I foresaw that Trump’s GOP had the makings of an authoritarian cult, with the Trump rallies of 2016 already being an American adaptation of what went on at Nuremberg in the 1930s.

The powers-that-be... are very adept at creating a funhouse-mirror distortion of reality to obscure the most bedrock issue of any society: Who gets what, and who pays the price.

Arguably, the financialization of the economy and its attendant effects—creating wealth beyond counting while spawning ruination in cities like Detroit or Youngstown, and producing over 800 American billionaires even as it generated rising income inequality—was the greatest paradigm shift in the postwar history of the United States. Reich’s hypothesis that the economic engineering begun by the Reagan administration caused working people to be attracted to fascism is neat and plausible. It is to some degree conventional wisdom: Shortly after Trump’s election, the establishment media informed us that “economic anxiety” among working people secured his victory.

Unfortunately, an explanation can be neat and plausible, and still be wrong.

Exit polling data from 2016 showed that Hillary Clinton won by 12 points among voters making less than $30,000 a year and by nine points among those making between $30,000 and $49,999. Trump, on the other hand, won every demographic making $50,000 or more. Other data indicated that the average Trump voter had a median household income of $72,000—well above the then-median household income of all Americans at $56,000.

Eventually, the media began backing away from the economic anxiety theory, albeit in mealy-mouthed fashion. TheNew York Times proposed a different reason from Trump’s electoral success: "status anxiety" (a euphemism for fear of minorities). Another was "racial resentment" (although how this term is functionally different from garden-variety racism is not clarified).

But economic anxiety as a rationale is still widely circulated, despite the fact that the data from 2016 were broadly confirmed by the 2020 election. In that contest, Joe Biden won voters making less than $50,000 a year and those making between $50,000 and $100,000, losing only the demographic above $100,000. Perhaps those in the hundred k and up category feel economic anxiety—hey, dealers aren’t giving away BMWs!—but why didn’t poorer demographics feel that anxiety acutely enough to give a majority to Trump?

This is not to say that Reich’s thesis is wholly wrong; the last 40 years of economic policy has to have had broad social effects. But there must have been additional factors in play. The Washington Post has cited the wealth or lack of wealth in regions, rather than in individual voters, as being more determinant of voting patterns; poor counties skew towards Trump, but so do wealthy communities.

What could drive such disparate demographics to support Trump? Already in 2017, two analysts were not in doubt: “We find that Republicans have significantly lower levels of economic anxiety compared to Democrats and Independents, and that there is no significant difference in economic peril between Clinton and Trump voters.” If the economic factor can be discounted, then what happened? “Our analysis shows Trump accelerated a realignment in the electorate around racism, across several different measures of racial animus—and that it helped him win.”

That is a better explanation as to why Elliott County, Kentucky, one of the poorest in the country, and Suffolk County, New York, one of the richest, could vote the same way in 2016. Racism is a throughline in American history since the 17th century. It was responsible for an entire region’s socio-economic system and triggered the bloodiest war in our history; in the 20th century, many state governments were de facto controlled by the Ku Klux Klan.

Economists both left and right fall prey to an exaggerated belief that economics is at the bottom of human motivation and determines history in a predictable fashion. While not denying that at some level the economic foundation of a society has far-reaching implications for its development, we should recognize the limits of economic reductionism for something as complex as the motivations of voters. It matters, because if economic anxiety is not the root cause of an attraction to fascism, then improving economic conditions (as Biden is trying to accomplish with the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act) does not solve the problem.

There are motivational triggers besides economics in play: The culture war that began as a backlash to the protests over Vietnam and the urban riots has only grown more intense, and in several elections has overshadowed economic issues. Like a black hole, the culture war has sucked into its gravity well public policy issues that should be discussed on their own merits, like abortion, firearms safety, border security, and school curricula, and transmuted them into hyper-partisan symbols of tribal politics.

In an imitation of economics, political science has traditionally used the “rational choice” model to explain voting patterns: People vote for their own rational interest. But ever since repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 (another little-analyzed policy of the Reagan administration), the Republican Party has built up a comprehensive and immersive propaganda system that allows its followers to pretend they are receiving actual news, and (this is the really sinister part) conditions them to distrust any other sources of information about politics, society, and current events.

As author Jen Senko documents in The Brainwashing of My Dad, the conservative media-entertainment complex can turn a person against his own family. Under the circumstances, how can we expect people exposed to this sort of propaganda conditioning to vote for their economic interests when Fox News drums into their heads that labor unions are the spawn of the devil?

According to the narrative, Joe didn’t get laid off laid off or fail to get promoted because the hedge fund that owns the company he works for wanted to cut costs to allow a share buyback; he lost out because of cheap immigrant labor or a Black got promoted instead. The GOP (and not just Trump) has been pushing the scapegoating of others for the negative fallout of its own economic policies for decades, and it has been remarkably successful.

What else would account for a disabled coal miner who finally got signed up for Obamacare (and was glad to get it), voting for a Republican candidate, Matt Bevins, who explicitly promised to dismantle Obamacare insurance pools if he were elected governor of Kentucky? You’ve probably guessed already: because Bevins was a businessman who would create jobs.

While Karl Marx was the most notorious practitioner of economic reductionism as mentioned earlier, he also coined a term that rings truer now than ever. Why don’t people or economic classes accurately see and assess their own interests? Mystification was his answer. The powers-that-be, then as now, are very adept at creating a funhouse-mirror distortion of reality to obscure the most bedrock issue of any society: Who gets what, and who pays the price.

Reich mentions the anger that Trump supporters feel toward “elites.” It is here that mystification plays its intended role. The selfish, conniving, conspiratorial elites as presented by Fox News are not Harlan Crow, Charles Koch, the Mercer family, and certainly not Rupert Murdoch or Trump himself. The elites have been magically transformed into schoolteachers, librarians, public servants, and university instructors (I say “instructors” rather than “professors” because a tenured, well-paid professoriate is almost extinct, replaced with grad students and adjuncts making McDonald’s wages).

As in the 1930s, contemporary fascism is nothing more than a swindle designed to divert people from real problems by giving them imaginary demons to wrestle with. The cultish leader-worship that Reich mentions with regard to the adulation of Trump is a significant part of the phenomenon, but it serves the larger interest of diversion from the real issues.

Trump is a very skilled demagogue, but the stage, props, and microphone—not to mention the audience—were already in place, put there by four decades of careful preparation by the Republican Party. Every platform, pronouncement, and meme that the GOP has devised in that time period has been calculated to prevent ordinary people from looking too closely at property relations in this country, and instead blame people more likely to be found near the bottom of society than at its top. It has largely succeeded in that goal.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.