Two generations ago, many white working-class Democrats bought into Ronald Reagan’s promise of a better nation. Eager for “morning in America” — and swayed by fear that advances for black people would come at their expense — they didn’t see that the shadow of a long sunset was creeping over their lives.
Because the GOP had another, darker agenda. One that didn’t include them.
Reagan Democrats were left with a president who blamed and criticized people of color, while billionaires got to enjoy a president who helped them grab the lion’s share of America’s wealth.
Today, Donald Trump is singing the same song, promising salvation and blaming immigrants, blacks, and Muslims for America’s woes. And if enough white men join the chorus, they may doom themselves to another decade of declining economic opportunity.
Trump, like his GOP predecessors, is making a lot of people feel good about their hatred for those they don’t consider “real” Americans. But indulging in enmity for people who are different comes at an economic price.
If you’re a typical middle-class worker today, you’re probably deep in debt, with little means to plan for a brighter future for your kids, and no way to deal with an unexpected financial emergency. Meanwhile, you watch the ultra-rich grow ever-wealthier.
What you might not know is that productivity — the value of everything America makes — has grown by two-thirds in the decades since Reagan’s administration. But with the GOP lending a hand, giant corporations and the super-rich captured nearly all of the added wealth that American workers generated.
The statistics for those growing ever-richer today are staggering.
In 1980, top CEOs made 42 times as much as the average worker. Now they make 373 times as much. And the share of household wealth owned by the top tenth of the one percent increased from 7 percent in 1980 to 22 percent today.
But in the last 35 years, the wages of middle-level workers have scarcely budged. On average, they’ve gotten a yearly raise of one-sixth of one percent. For someone making $40,000 a year, that’s a whopping $69 more per year.
This is no coincidence. Policies launched during Reagan’s presidency and pushed forward by his successors are responsible.
First, Republicans have stymied efforts to raise the federal minimum wage for decades. When corrected for inflation, the minimum wage is actually lower than it was in 1980.
Second, they targeted unions. Strong unions help everyone, because they set a pay standard that nonunion employers follow. Both Reagan and the Bushes appointed pro-business members to the National Labor Relations Board, who ignored unlawful attacks on unions and undermined bargaining rights.
Weakened unions made it easier for employers to devour all the fruits of increased productivity.
Third, their huge tax cuts favored the wealthiest. George W. Bush added trillions to the public debt, while the top one percent received more than a third of his so-called “tax relief.” During the Bush years, if your income was over $3 million per year, you got an average tax bonus of $520,000.
Meanwhile, services ordinary people rely on were starved, weakening our government’s ability to fund schools, or protect our water, food, and drugs.
These reverse-Robin Hood policies would continue under Donald —”you’re fired!”— Trump.
Take, for instance, his International Hotel, which conducts an unlawful anti-union campaign. And Trump’s proposed tax cuts would give $1.3 million each to the wealthiest tenth of the richest one percent.
So if you think you’re overpaid, Trump’s your man.
But descendants of Reagan Democrats on the fence about a President Trump should heed the warning of history before inviting another flag-waving, immigrant-blaming, black-bashing, billionaire-enriching politician to the oval office.