Q: During the US election, a rather strange and heated debate took place between liberals that insisted the rise of Trumpism could be blamed on 'economic anxiety' or on racial resentment, as if it had to be one of the two. How would you theorize the relation between economic motivations for voter rebellion and other perhaps complementary causes for the huge transformations we saw in 2016? Do economic problems cause racism or nativism to emerge, for example? Historically how has this usually worked when inequality gets out of control?
M. I really do not think that the causality runs one way only: either from economic problems to racism, or from racism to economic problems. I think that the two work together. But I think that it was always wrong to blame support that Trump has received only on racism or misogyny. By doing this, one commits two mistakes: first, writes off that portion of the population as “irredeemable” since their racism or misogyny makes them impervious to any rational argumentation; and second, entirely plays down economic factors and thus fails to propose any change in economic policy. The view that nativism alone was responsible for the rise of right-wing populism in the US, or even more bizarrely the view held by some that the “losers” in rich countries should not complain because they are better off than workers in China, were just wrong answers to a very real problem.
Q. This kind of an interpretation has received strong pushback in the United States since Trump's victory, with mainstream Democratic supporters calling it either hopelessly leftist or tantamount to rationalizing away racism. Others point to the fact that many rich people supported Trump (as admittedly often supported other Republican candidates). What do you make of this criticism?
M. I do not understand the pushback. Do they really believe that Trump, Brexit, Le Pen, the rise of many right-wing populist parties in Europe etc. have nothing to do with economics? That suddenly all these weird nationalists and nativists got together thanks to the social media and decided to overthrow the established order? People who believe this remind me of Saul Bellow’s statement that “a great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is strong”.