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Maps of Misery Only Partially Explain Trump's Appeal

Posted by Matt Power, Editor-In-Chief

Feb 7, 2017 8:58:37 AM

Where do happiness, upward mobility and Trumpism interconnect?

If you look closely at the three graphic depictions of data I've include below—all taken from different sources—you can start to piece together how we ended with the guy we did in the Whitehouse. But in many ways, the charts are contradictory to the stories we're being told.

This wasn't an article I planned to write. It was a discovery I made, while researching another article about the economic health of various U.S. regions. Social and financial issues intersect in sometimes surprising ways. Taken together, they map the emotions of the American public. As the Donald understood all too well, elections are always about emotions first. Let the facts fall where they may.

Let's look at three charts that show different aspects of what's going on in the U.S.:


Misery Loves Scapegoats. Let's start with one of the most powerful memes of the American psyche: Upward Mobility (also called socio-economic mobility). This is the idea that we all have an equal chance to rise from lowly beginnings to great wealth and prestige—to shift from one class to another. And yes, class in America is very real. It's the primay reason that Americans are willing to accept the greatest wealth divide in human history without much griping. The idea of upward mobility suggests that we all have a good chance of one day BEING the billionaire at the top, so why would we rock the boat?

Here's the reason this matters. Wealthy elites—people who play with huge sums of other peoples' money—are rocked only when enough people stop believing this myth—and they put endless effort and funds into making sure that doesn't happen. When the mobility myth finally does start to crumble, as it has in recent years, the tactic shifts. This is where angry populism has been has been so effectively used by Donald Trump. It's textbook. Redirect blame for class stagnation at those least likely to fight back: immigrants, minorities, and women. It's the oldest trick in the book.

In fact, we went down this road in the U.S. In the 1700s, when America's well-to-do referred to German and Scotch-Irish immigrants in condescending terms. George Washington called German immigrants "ignorant," and Ben Franklin said they were downright "stupid." But that anti-immigrant sentiment reversed leading up to the Revolutionary War, when Americans began to look at reality, not preconceptions. Germans and Scotch-Irish were helping defend the new American colony.

“After 1763, British authorities began to limit immigration because settlement of the West made the colonies harder to defend. In 1774, Parliament cut off immigration to the colonies entirely. The colonists, on the other hand, were by now so thoroughly convinced that immigration meant growth and prosperity that the British domestic policy of restricting emigration was listed in the Declaration of Independence as one of the reasons for breaking political ties with the mother country.” Source

As the chart above shows, upward mobility is not guaranteed. It's a longshot even in the most thriving parts of the country. Trump's dark vision of a nation in despair plays well to people who aren't achieving the social mobility they believe to be their birthright.

If you're born poor in the wide swath of America between Virginia and Orlando, Florida, chances are good that you will stay poor, or at least you've got a very slim chance (around 4 percent) of ever making it into the top earning bracket. If you're in Mormon country, however, it's blue skies all the way for about 11% of the population. That's still a one-in-ten lifetimes opportunity, not a golden ticket. But it beats your chances of winning a state lottery.



The Happiness  Paradox: These last two charts need to be looked at together. Mainstream news pundits are constantly telling us that the reason we have a Trump presidency is because people are hurting financially, and poor economic performance is the fuel that powers populist uprisings.When people are unhappy and unemployed, they often turn to what they perceive as a strongman who will right the ship, even if it will involve breaking some heads. This happened in Germany and Italy in the 1930s. Is it happening here? These charts would appear to suggest otherwise. Actually, something else is going on. Let me take you there one step at a time.

First, take a look at the States with the lowest GDP. Compare them with the "happiness" rankings. Floridians should be miserable, but they sail along without too much complaint. Mainers should be pretty grumpy too. But we're a happy lot, despite our limited advancement prospects. And Vermont, with the lowest GDP in the nation, walk around smiling most of the time. Texans, on the other hand, have decent upward mobility, a strong economic base, but dour and unhappy citizens.

There seems to be a disconnect between economic prosperity and happiness. Texas is miserable, but its population overall makes a lot of money. Or does it?

Drill a little deeper (an appropriate metaphor) and you'll find that while the Texas GDP is high, there are many discrepancies in how that income is distributed. As Washington Monthly notes, "Texas does not have an income tax. But Texas has sales and property taxes that make its overall burden of taxation on low-wage families much heavier than the national average, while the state also taxes the middle class at rates as high or higher than in California." In addition, "unlike in California, middle-class families in Texas don’t get the advantage of having rich people share equally in the cost of providing government services. The top 1 percent in Texas have an effective tax rate of just 3.2 percent. That’s roughly two-fifths the rate that’s borne by the middle class, and just a quarter the rate paid by all those low-wage “takers” at the bottom 20 percent of the family income distribution. This Robin-Hood-in-reverse system gives Texas the fifth-most-regressive tax structure in the nation."

Under the American mythos, the States with the highest GDP SHOULD have the happiest populations. But as you can see by this small sample, nothing is that simple.

My point is that it's too easy to acceptive narratives that are carefully packaged by mainstream news organizations or mean-spirited "anti-government" organizations such as Breitbart. The truth is that we're a fickle nation, often motivated politically more by vague, emotion-based, media instilled fears (thus Trump's victory in happy Florida) than logic and genuine distress. 

The reason we have a Trump presidency is not because we NEED him to fix things. It's because we've been sold a bill of emotional goods that make us believe in myths about America that are only partially true—and often simply exaggerations intended to keep us distracted, disgruntled and docile.

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