This is, in short, not a natural place to refine the common touch. It’s gilded and gaudy, a dreamscape of faded tapestry, antique clocks and fresco-style ceiling murals of gym-rat Greek gods. The throw pillows carry the Trump shield, and the paper napkins are monogrammed with the family name. His closest neighbors, at least at this altitude, are an international set of billionaire moguls who have decided to stash their money at One57 and 432 Park, the two newest skyscrapers to remake midtown Manhattan. There is no tight-knit community in the sky, no paperboy or postman, no bowling over brews after work.
For all of Trump’s public life, tastemakers and intellectuals have dismissed him as a vulgarian and carnival barker, a showman with big flash and little substance. But what those critics never understood was that their disdain gave him strength. For years, he fed off the disrespect and used it to grab more tabloid headlines, to connect to common people. Now he has upended the leadership of both major political parties and effectively shifted the political direction of the international order. He will soon command history’s most lethal military, along with economic levers that can change the lives of billions. And the people he has to thank are those he calls “the forgotten,” millions of American voters who get paid by the hour in shoes that will never touch these carpets—working folk, regular Janes and Joes, the dots in the distance.
It’s a topic Trump wants to discuss as he settles down in his dining room, with its two-story ceiling and marble table the length of a horseshoe pitch: the winning margins he achieved in West Virginia coal country, the rally crowds that swelled on Election Day, what he calls that “interesting thing,” the contradiction at the core of his appeal. “What amazes a lot of people is that I’m sitting in an apartment the likes of which nobody’s ever seen,” the next President says, smiling. “And yet I represent the workers of the world.”
The late Fidel Castro would probably spit out his cigar if he heard that one—a billionaire who branded excess claiming the slogans of the proletariat. But Trump doesn’t care. “I’m representing them, and they love me and I love them,” he continues, talking about the people of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, the struggling Rust Belt necklace around the Great Lakes that delivered his victory. “And here we sit, in very different circumstances.”
The Last, Greatest Deal
For nearly 17 months on the campaign trail, Trump did what no American politician had attempted in a generation, with defiant flair. Instead of painting a bright vision for a unified future, he magnified the divisions of the present, inspiring new levels of anger and fear within his country. Whatever you think of the man, this much is undeniable: he uncovered an opportunity others didn’t believe existed, the last, greatest deal for a 21st century salesman. The national press, the late-night comics, the elected leaders, the donors, the corporate chiefs and a sitting President who prematurely dropped his mic—they all believed he was just taking the country for a ride.
The starting point for his success, which can be measured with just tens of thousands of votes, was the most obvious recipe in politics. He identified the central issue motivating the American electorate and then convinced a plurality of the voters in the states that mattered that he was the best person to bring change. “The greatest jobs theft in the history of the world” was his cause, “I alone can fix it” his unlikely selling point, “great again” his rallying cry.
President Barack Obama identified it early, back in 2005, as a newly elected Senator delivering a commencement speech at tiny Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. Obama’s hymn to “the forgotten” was his ticket to the White House. “You know what this new challenge is. You’ve seen it,” he said. “The fact that when you drive by the old Maytag plant around lunchtime, no one walks out anymore … It’s as if someone changed the rules in the middle of the game and no one bothered to tell these folks.”
As Obama explained it, the American promise was being put up on cinder blocks, buttressed by massive economic forces. His vow, repeated in his final 30-minute-long television ad in 2008, was change for the struggling, help for those who needed it, security for the ones who felt themselves slipping. Four years later, he would return to the same playbook to defeat Mitt Romney, casting the Republican nominee as an obtuse private-equity moneybags aiming to bankrupt Detroit. A quote pulled from a focus group—”I’m working harder and falling behind”—became the watchwords of Obama’s 2012 re-elect, hung on walls and placed atop PowerPoints. He had identified the issue, and as long as his name was on the ballot, no one could beat him.
But Obama never fully delivered the prosperity he promised. There was certainly help on the margins, slowing cost growth for health care and providing insurance to millions, for example. He started some pilot projects for manufacturing hubs, increased incomes marginally in the past couple of years and led the nation to recover from a vicious recession, with the federal government directly creating or saving millions of jobs. An unemployment rate that peaked at 10% in October 2009 has been halved to 4.6% now, at the end of his term. But the great weather systems of global change continued under his watch. Ultimately, he grew resigned to the fact that there was only so much he could do in office.
The most recently available data tells the remarkable story: between 2001 and 2012, the median incomes of households headed by people without college degrees—nearly two-thirds of all homes—fell as they aged, according to research by Robert Shapiro, an economist who advised Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. As American productivity and gross domestic product grew in the first decade of the new century, median wages for all Americans broke away, effectively flatlining. Most Americans making less than the median income, but not so little as to qualify for poverty benefits, suffered income losses of about 5% between 2007 and 2013, according to research by Branko Milanovic, a former World Bank economist.
If you lived in the nation’s great cities or held a college degree, you probably didn’t feel the full fury of these forces. Average income declines for top earners were closer to 1% during the postrecession years. Global change is tricky that way. It enriches those in the developed world who can handle bits and bytes, create something new or sell their work at a distance. And it elevates the fortunes of the global poor, largely in Asia, pushing about a billion people from poverty into the beginnings of a new China-led middle class.
But for the working men and women of developed countries, many of whom had made good livings in the 20th century, the price of others’ success could be seen all around, in peeling house paint and closed storefronts, in towns that went belly-up when one of the two big employers closed shop. The pressures pushed across the Atlantic Ocean. The size of the middle classes, as measured by those who earn 25% above or below the median income, dropped in the U.S. from the 1980s to 2013. It also dropped in Spain and Germany, the Netherlands and the U.K. It is no accident that all those countries now find themselves in the midst of political upheaval as well.
The reasons for the shifts are more complex than the simple offshoring of manufacturing plants to Mexico or China. Global trade and new technology also pressure wages on jobs beyond the assembly line. When combined with rising health-insurance costs and incessant shareholder demands, companies found themselves unable or unwilling to give raises. Automation also accelerated as factories turned to robots, checkout lines retooled with self-operated terminals, and engineers developed self-driving trucks and taxis. Political gridlock in Washington, and the mild austerity it created, weighed everything down.
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