Economics read more

Desperation nation

Rust Belt despair translated into support for Trump — and Putin

Rust Belt despair translated into support for Trump — and Putin

The mysterious warmth between Donald Trump and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin was one of the odder elements of the 2016 presidential race. But Trump’s affection for the former KGB officer — not generally a figure of great appeal to Americans — also spread to his supporters.

In late 2016, approval of Putin was up sharply among Trump voters, reaching 35 percent in December, compared to 21 percent for the country as a whole and just 8 percent among Clinton voters, according to research by polling firm YouGov.

It’s not completely clear what led Trump voters to suddenly see the sunny side of one of the U.S.’s top global adversaries, but the ideological ground had already been softened up by years of favorable right-wing coverage of Putin’s social conservatism and Syrian military adventures, set against a supposedly feckless Obama administration.

The blending of outright pro-Trump Russian propaganda from entities like Russia Today into the polarized media diet of right-wing Americans likely also played a role, as did Trump’s bizarre and relentless positivity toward Putin, with whom he shares authoritarian tendencies.

But the growing willingness among Americans to see the bright side of non-democratic systems predates Trump. An attention-getting paper in the Journal of Democracy last year found rising support for authoritarian alternatives to democracy among well-established democratic nations. In the U.S., for example, the share of people who agree that it would be better to have a “strong leader” who didn’t “bother with parliament and elections” rose to 32 percent in 2011 from 24 percent in 1995.

I couldn’t help but think about those shifts of political sentiment while reading through the devastating new paper from Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton and Princeton health economist Anne Case.

In the already dismal science, the husband-and-wife team have broken depressing new ground in recent years, sifting through U.S. mortality data and spotlighting a truly shocking rise in deaths among middle-aged white Americans who don’t go to college, a trend that stands in sharp opposition to overall trends among most countries, as well as declining death rates among better-educated whites and Americans of color who are the same age.

In their new paper out last week, Case and Deaton update and expand their original analysis — which went through 2013 — to 2015, finding that death rates for middle-age, working-class whites continued to rise relentlessly in the most recent data. The result? In 1999, the mortality rates of whites aged 50 to 54  without college degrees were 30 percent lower than blacks in the same age group. In 2015, the white mortality rate was 30 percent higher, driven by jumps in drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related liver disease.

The uptick in such “deaths of despair,” as economists call them, is often thought to be rooted to stagnation in economic opportunities. And there is likely some link. But it can’t be the whole story, as incomes among black Americans stagnated in similar ways over the same period, but they saw no spike in death rates. The broader story, Case and Deaton write, is related to “the collapse of the white, high school–educated, working class after its heyday in the early 1970s, and the pathologies that accompany that decline.”

In other words, the spike in death rates is related to the end of an era.

And it’s hard to overstate the significance of an uptick in mortality along these lines. Few examples in modern times — such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic that pushed mortality rates sharply higher in sub-Saharan Africa — seem comparable. But there is one comparison worth thinking about.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s was followed by the worst economic crisis the world has seen since the Great Depression. Estimates said the GDP of the former Soviet states collapsed by as much as 40 percent, in a chaotic process of privatization, corruption, currency collapse, and violence. Seemingly overnight, the old order disappeared. And while it had been rife with inefficiencies, corruption, and repression, at least the old order was some kind of order.

Lost amid the American triumphalism of the period was the fact, for an entire generation of Russians raised in the certainty of the Soviet system, the end of the USSR was not only a personal financial disaster, it was profoundly painful and socially disorienting. The costs of the transition to capitalism, in terms of human life, were incredibly high.

Between 1990 and 1995, the spike in mortality rates above trend was roughly equivalent to over 2 million additional deaths. Russians lost five years of life expectancy between 1991 and 1994. The surge of deaths was mostly concentrated in those between the ages of 30 and 60, and largely due to increased alcohol consumption. The worst of the crisis was over by 1995, after which mortality rates stabilized. (Though life expectancy in much of the former Soviet Union didn’t return to 1989 levels until 2013.)  

But in retrospect, the trauma of the post-Soviet transition largely doomed Russia’s fledgling democracy. By 1999, a relatively unknown former KGB agent named Vladimir Putin had maneuvered himself into position as the acting president of the Russian Federation. His grip on power has only tightened since then, as he’s refined his trademark brand of authoritarianism, press repression, nationalism, and heavy surveillance, packaged under a thin veneer of democratic legitimacy.

Which is not to say that Putin isn’t genuinely popular. He is. Largely because his rule has coincided with rising living standards and sharp downturns in the mafia-driven violence that dominated the early 1990s. Putin is seen as a guarantor of order and economic prosperity, and, thanks to a series of audacious international gambits— including the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s bold-faced interference in the U.S. presidential election — he’s the man who has put Russia back on the map in terms of national dignity.

My point is you can see the appeal of strongman to a culture that’s gone through the social stress of an economic collapse that erased the old order and the way of life that went with it.

True, the decline of the U.S. industrial economy hasn’t been as dramatic as the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the entry of China into the world economy, cemented by its arrival into the World Trade Organization in 2001, was a clear tipping point.

Before that, U.S. manufacturing employment was largely flat, though shrinking as a share of total employment. Since then some 5 million manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and that’s having profound implications on communities and human lives. There’s a lot of desperation out there.

And it seems some of that desperation translated to support for Trump. A recent research brief by sociologist Shannon Monnat showed that Trump performed much better than Mitt Romney did in counties with higher rates of suicide and alcohol and drug deaths.

That despair drove some not only to Trump, but — if their views on Putin are any guide — to something other than traditional American democracy.

M-F 7:30PM HBO