Donald J. Trump was a hell of a drug.
The charlatan’s grin. The dark, beguiling comedy. The us-against-them carnival that filled arenas and made a gleeful mess of Twitter.
For five years, the candidate-turned-president offered a segment of white, blue-collar America an ecstatic, twisted high.
But as every addict knows, a high doesn’t make your problems go away. It only offers a temporary escape. And that escape is coming to an end. It’s time to face up to reality: White, working-class America is in a very bad way.
It’s drinking itself to death. It’s sick on opioids. It’s watching too many good-paying jobs evaporate.
And now, the country must tackle these problems in a serious way — to ease the suffering of its citizens, of course, but also to prevent the rise of another demagogue.
Trump could have been more than that. He could have been something like the savior of the white working class that he promised to be.
His disregard for Washington orthodoxy, while often destructive, was also an opportunity to break new ground. During his first campaign and in the early days of his administration, a small group of Trumpist intellectuals began sketching out an intriguing split with free-market orthodoxy — imagining a government that played an active role in reviving American manufacturing and creating the kind of good-paying jobs that can hold communities together.
This industrial policy could have included loan guarantees for banks backing domestic manufacturers or German-style support for research institutes that steer new products to large and small companies.
Instead, Trump’s supporters got a handful of tirades against industrialists moving factories overseas — and mediocre manufacturing job growth.
A destructive trade war didn’t help matters. And the president’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic wiped out factory jobs up and down the Rust Belt this year. There was a 10 percent decline in manufacturing employment in Michigan and similar losses in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
But as Trump floundered these past few years, a Democratic establishment long skeptical of industrial policy began to embrace one. Joe Biden has proposed a $2 trillion climate plan that he said would create millions of jobs: retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient and creating a vast new environmentally friendly transportation and energy infrastructure.
A Republican-controlled Senate would be unlikely to support a plan that sounds a lot like the Green New Deal. But a crop of younger GOP senators including Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, and Tom Cotton are open to some kind of industrial policy; there is room for compromise.
There are other ways to help, too — making it easier to form labor unions, for instance, and using antitrust law to rein in businesses that are gobbling up market share and walking all over workers. Rebuilding the blue-collar economy could go a long way toward addressing some of the other ills afflicting Trump country.
Back in 2015, the husband-and-wife team of Angus Deaton and Anne Case, both Princeton economists, made a startling finding: Death rates for middle-aged white Americans were rising, even as they declined for middle-aged Black people and Latinos.
Poorly educated whites, they found, were driving the increase. And the culprit was not heart disease or diabetes but “deaths of despair” — suicide, alcoholic liver disease, and drug overdoses.
In a book published this spring, titled “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism,” the economists write that many of the accepted explanations for this surge don’t hold up. Yes, opioids are more readily available — but that hasn’t led to an especially high overdose rate among better-educated white people. And poverty doesn’t appear to be a major driver either. Black and Latino people are poorer than white people, on average, but have not seen the same spike.
Deaton and Case settle, instead, on the hollowing out of white, working-class life: a decades-long decline in wages for non-college educated white men and the rise in precarious part-time employment. Day labor. Contract work.
That economic slide has been matched by a worrisome social deterioration. Fewer white, blue-collar men are going to church. And fewer are going home to wives — just four in 10.
These are the conditions that pushed a struggling white America to the bottle and the pill. And they played no small role in the Trumpian affliction of the last five years.
That affliction will not go away with a shift in political power. Even out of office, Trump will remain a potent narcotic. But America will wean itself, in time. And then — even before then — it must do the work of recovery.