It’s Not the Economy, Stupid

Attempting to find connections between economic conditions and 2016 voting outcomes continues to be a dominant genre of Trump-era journalism. Indeed, that’s the underlying premise behind the infamous Trump-voter profile in whicha big-city reporter goes to Bummerville and talks to Jed Jederson in front of corrugated metal.

Connecting economics to voting patterns has its uses, but something that often goes unsaid is that it provides psychological relief to the people making the connections. After all, what’s more comforting than reducing messy complexities and contradictions to a simple number, like the income growth rate since 1992. Trump voters, especially, attract this treatment because of the fact that they voted for him is so ludicrously incomprehensible that they scream to be measured, classified, and safely coded into a regression analysis.

But if we’re really interested in finding out how Trump captivated enough of the electorate to win, those kinds of analyses might not be sufficient. People did not show up to his rallies with the latest report from their local economic councils. Trump did not deal in that economy. For Trump, talking about the economy was just ornamentation around the central frame: that his people are getting screwed and there are easily identifiable parties doing the screwing. What Trump dealt in, really, was the nation’s moral economy of guilt.

The “moral economy of guilt” is a concept recently developed by Professor Wilfred M. McClay of the University of Oklahoma. McClay builds off Sigmund Freud’s observation that “the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.” As people become more sophisticated and build more connections to each other and the rest of society, they become more knowledgeable about the impact of human actions.

McClay argues that “the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore of our potential guilt, also steadily expands.” Power, he writes, “entails responsibility, and responsibility leads to guilt.” The problem with modern guilt, McClay says, is that it’s infinitely extensible: “Colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution … there’s an endless list of items for which you and I can take the rap. To be found blameless is a pipe dream.”

Naturally, we are all desperate to be free of guilt. But it’s impossible to fully atone for the sins of our collective past. A way some have liberated themselves from even trying is by identifying themselves as victims. That can be hugely attractive—one cannot be held morally responsible until his or her own oppression is alleviated. This tension is what created the cultural space for today’s spectacle of identity politics, this age of recrimination.

After African Americans, women, LGBT people, and all the rest expiate their guilt by claiming victimhood (often justifiably), who is left carrying everyone else’s guilt? Someone closely resembling a Trump voter: white and mostly male. There’s no one left to pass the guilt onto. When the chorus of oppressed identities shout “white privilege,” that creates resentment. Then along comes a demagogue with a simple message: You aren’t the oppressor, you are actually the ultimate victim. Everyone piling guilt upon you makes you a victim, Trump tells them. In so doing, Trump provided much of America a cathartic release.

Last weekend, the western world marked the centennial of the end of World War I. The centennial of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles—which formally ended World War I and guaranteed its sequel—next year will likely not receive the same kind of attention, but it should be kept in mind. The standard schoolbook explanation for the rise of fascism in Germany is that the treaty’s punitive economic sanctions, combined with the global recession of the 1930s, led to economic distress and the radicalization of the German electorate. That certainly had something to do with it, but of no less importance is Article 231 of the treaty:

“The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.”

As Richard Evans observed in The Coming the Third Reich, this “assignation of guilt” made Germans feel like they were carrying the burden of “undeserved shame.” He went on, “Versailles was condemned as a dictated peace, unilaterally imposed without the possibility of negotiation. The enthusiasm which so many middle-class Germans had demonstrated for war in 1914 flipped over into burning resentment.” Resentment that was surfaced and directed by their own demagogue.

Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.