Rick Haglund: Building fairer local economies is one tool to blunt right-wing extremism

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: A pro-Trump mob breaks into the U.S. Capitol on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden's 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. A group of Republican senators said they would reject the Electoral College votes of several states unless Congress appointed a commission to audit the election results. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Over the past several months, I’ve read articles in which the authors asserted that economic decline in small towns and old industrial cities has fueled nativism, populism and nostalgia for the past — the hallmarks of Trumpism.

This is said to be especially true in Michigan and other upper Midwest communities that have lost thousands of manufacturing jobs to workers in Mexico, China and other low-wage countries.

But then came the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Incited by the president, thousands of rioters stormed the Capitol in an apparent attempt to find Vice President Mike Pence and prevent him from certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump. 

Insurrectionists shouted, “Hang Mike Pence!” and constructed a gallows to do the job. They also breached U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and threatened to murder her.

Who were these people? Well, they weren’t carrying signs demanding a $15-an-hour minimum wage or chanting for the return of good-paying American manufacturing jobs. They were conducting a frightening, but failed attempt to keep Trump in office.

It turns out many of them were people who’ve benefited from an economic system that supposedly has left Trump supporters behind. They included business owners, CEOs, state lawmakers, off-duty police officers, retired military officers and a bare-chested guy wearing horns who, after he was thrown in jail, demanded to be served only organic food.

A Texas woman, who works as a real estate broker and radio talk show host, flew in with friends “to storm the Capitol” on a private jet.

Oh, and they were virtually all white.

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But even though many weren’t worrying about where their next meal was coming from (except maybe the guy wearing the horns), some experts say there is an economic component driving people toward extreme right-wing politics, white supremacy and QAnon deep state conspiracy theories. 

“Obviously many factors explain how people politically act, including cultural as well as economic issues,” Tim Bartik, senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, told me. “And they interact. Perhaps you have certain cultural views, but if the economy is worse, you are more likely to emphasize certain cultural identity issues that give you a sense of meaning and efficacy.” 

You don’t need to be behind on your rent and without a job to blame immigrants, elites and globalists for destroying your way of life. You can be doing well financially, but just living in an economically depressed area can affect your political outlook.

And there are plenty of those places in Michigan.

“If you’re doing well but live in a community you perceive to be struggling, you’re more likely to vote in populist, anti-immigrant ways,” said John Austin, the former head of the state Board of Education and a Brookings Institution nonresident scholar.

Citing data from recent congressional elections, Austin found that Trump support is growing in mostly white, struggling Michigan counties, including Bay, Calhoun, Jackson and St. Joseph counties. These counties, where good-paying manufacturing jobs have plunged, also have per-capita incomes well below the state average.

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Michigan has been ground zero for Trumpism. The 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and China’s 2000 inclusion in the World Trade Organization has led to massive offshoring of auto parts and other manufacturing jobs.

During his 2016 campaign for the presidency and his four years in office, Trump constantly blamed global trade and immigration for stealing American jobs.

His “America First” mantra struck a strong chord in Michigan, where nostalgia for the days of dominant “Big 3” domestic automakers, the gigantic downtown Detroit Hudson’s store and a 1950s social structure still runs deep.

But there are communities that are making the transition to a more welcoming and knowledge-based economy, Grand Rapids and Marquette among them. Kent County (where Grand Rapids is located) and Marquette County are traditional Republican strongholds that swung to Biden, who comfortably won the state in 2020.

Well-off communities certainly have their share of residents who have supported Trump for his traditional Republican policies. Many upper-income people have become even wealthier from the Trump tax cuts. Others agree with his restrictive views on abortion, immigration and government regulation.

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But some researchers say stronger local economies can reduce the spread of populism, which could spiral into fascism.

“Communities that feel more optimistic about their future appear to gain the psychic space to be reflective, tolerant, and forward-looking,” Austin and several others wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

How do we create those communities? Bartik advocates for “place-based” economic development in which government incentives for business attraction and talent development are directed toward communities most in need.

Others, including Biden, have called for the United States to reestablish ties with European allies in which they share values, and boost trade with them, reducing dependence on China. That could restore at least some faith in a global economy.

It’s a dangerous time for democracy. Actions to root out white supremacists and others seeking to overthrow the government must go far beyond strengthening the economy. 

But building healthier, more equitable local economies that reduce the chance of people succumbing to the allure of populism, or worse, must be part of the effort.