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(Illustration by Michael Daley)

The outcome of America’s presidential election is perhaps less surprising in light of one salient fact: in 2015 less than 57 per cent of adult Americans turned up on the Labor Department’s payroll survey, against 78 per cent in 1969, and 66 per cent in 1939, at the end of the Great Depression. Less than half of adult Americans have full-time jobs. A sixth of adult American men are idle, living on disability or other government support, sponging off family, or eking out a bare living in the informal economy. In light of the economic facts, the nature of Donald Trump’s campaign as well as the response it received from American voters both seem rational, in contrast to the portrayal of both by the establishment punditklatura.

Something very big is wrong with the United States. Americans do not know exactly what it is. Illegal immigration and job loss due to imports are emotional issues in themselves, but they also stand in for a range of concerns: the federal debt, unsustainable retirement and medical benefits, and growing dependency. America decided on November 8 that the problem requires a dramatic solution of some kind, and chose the candidate who promised to do big things, even if he is not yet sure just what these things should be.

Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” recalls Ronald Reagan and “Morning in America,” but his message is more redolent of Franklin Roosevelt. Not since Roosevelt has such a large proportion of the American population found itself on the economic sidelines, and not since Roosevelt has economic malaise proven so resistant to conventional therapy. In fact, Trump gave a nod to Roosevelt’s appeal to “the forgotten man”, promising in his acceptance speech to stand by “the forgotten men and women of our country”.

Broadly speaking, these are the same people whom Hillary Clinton called the “deplorables”: un-hip, and un-urban, and unsocialised through America’s overwhelmingly left-wing university system. The Democratic message to the “deplorables” resonated in 2012 when memory of the 2008 crash was still fresh. Vice President Joe Biden summed it up well in that year’s vice-presidential debate: the Democrats would not rest until “they have peace of mind and can turn to their kid and say with a degree of confidence, ‘Honey, it’s going to be OK. It’s going to be OK’.”

In 2012 the “deplorables” voted for the party that pledged to subsidise them, and the Democrats were as good as their word. In 2012 the economist Nicholas Eberstadt estimated that in a third of American households at least one member received means-tested government assistance of some kind. The number of Americans receiving food assistance (“food stamps”) rose from 27 million in 2008 to 47 million in 2012. Government transfer payments rose from 14 per cent of total personal income in 2009 to 18 per cent in 2012. The most important lesson to be drawn from Trump’s victory is that Americans do not want to be a nation of layabouts. “Make America great again” means earn a living rather than draw a subsidy.

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