Trump excels at fueling a backward revolution

BRATTLEBORO — Revolutions rarely are fomented by the people at the bottom. They're fomented by people who sense that things could be different. And that is true whether the revolution is forward looking or backward.

What President Donald Trump has shrewdly fueled is a backward revolution, rallying people who vividly sense how things used to be different. They are neither the down-and-out nor minorities. The angry people at Trump rallies are largely white, blue-collar men with little college education, supported by wives who share their husbands' attachment to traditional order.

And what the men have lost in the course of two generations is self-respect: self-respect that once inoculated them against fear of minorities or immigrants and resentment of liberal elites.

Most noted have been the effects of changes in work. Increasingly since the 1960s:

• Manufacturing work has been moved overseas to where labor is cheap and has few or no rights.

• What manufacturing work remains here has been mechanized, then computerized. Quality assurance is now automated. So many workers who once took pride in their work have been reduced to machine-tenders.

• And the scale of much work has grown exponentially. In 1960, most farming still was done by families, with much hardship but with self-respect. It now is owned mainly by big corporations and the work done mainly by peons. And the scale of most non-government employment - from manufacturing to retail, to health care, to financial and other services - has grown beyond our 1960 imagining. Grown to where employees are interchangeable parts and loyalty to them is rare.

There are still blue-collar workers. Some are corporate employees, others work in civil service, as in public works and fire departments. But a great deal of such work has gone and, with it, the self-respect of people whose lives it once defined.

And meanwhile, there have been two other affronts:

• Union support and solidarity have shriveled. There has been some revival lately, but for service workers more than blue-collar. And corporate attitudes and policies, usually hostile to unions, have been embraced by Trump. So union membership, once at 35 percent, is now at 6 percent of non-government workers.

• Finally, there is the affront by women. Blue-collar workers, almost always, had clear status in home, family, and the workplace. Now that has changed. Men have been disenthroned at home and often at work, displaced or outranked by women. That there now are women “foremen,” women infantry officers, and women candidates for president is an unsettling change to traditional order, especially for the blue-collar worker, already besieged on other fronts.

Threaten self-respect, and we react. And, if the future is unpromising, we turn back. And we strike out at whoever seems, or may be, an oppressor or threat from below.

Trump, in so many ways stupid, has been a genius at arousing the displaced.

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