If you look at the new supporters of Donald Trump, they tend to not otherwise be so politically or socially involved, and the most likely outcome is that they end up some mix of disillusioned and disengaged. President Trump cannot in fact resurrect the economic fortunes of that group of people.Insofar as Trump voters were not simply Republicans, they were often people without much political engagement, who have not voted much recently, who don't follow the news closely and just feel in their bones that things are bad.
Cowen is saying that nobody can do anything for these people. The world in which you could just drift through high school and drift into the first job you found and still end up in the middle class is dying, and nobody can bring it back. If you want the "American Dream" you have to make it happen: go to college, learn a skilled trade, market yourself, take charge of your own destiny. One of Cowen's favorite lines is "average is over." If you don't fight your way into the successful half of society, you will sink into failure.
Cowen is a right-of-center figure, but I think Obama feels much the same way. When people like coal miners or laid-off factory workers ask, what are you going to do for me? the answer from our whole system is pretty much, "nothing." It's all up to you. The world is through with aging factory workers, so if you want a decent life you have to reinvent yourself. Democrats would in general like to give more help to such people in the way of subsidies for education or training, health insurance, and the like, and they would like to fund those measures with high taxes that will help bring down the rich. But the basic message is the same: the old economy is dying, and you can either join the new one or rust away with the old.
To studies showing that trade with China in particular really has hurt American workers, the elite mostly shrugs. It was bound to happen anyway. If Chinese workers don't take your factory job this year robots will next year. The world is shrinking, thanks to the Internet, container ships, and so on, and any attempt to wall ourselves off from global change is doomed to fail.
On cultural issues Republicans offer a little more support for those befuddled by change, but only a little. By and large the elite response to people upset about gay marriage is, "Get over it." If you don't like all the sex and violence in movies, stay home and watch reruns of "Nineteen Kids and Counting." If you don't like Hispanics moving into your once all white town, you're a racist.
Millions of Americans see that the world is changing in ways that they don't like, and that may render them unemployable – I remember a quarry foreman telling a reporter, "Guys like me, we're being phased out". What they hear from our leadership is, mostly, that the only answer to our problems is more change. Americans who want to thrive simply must adapt. Republicans of the Paul Ryan sort want more capitalism, more trade, more disruption, more thriving on chaos, with a weaker social net for the old and sick. Democrats want faster social change, a radical reworking of our whole approach to energy and the environment, more of the openness that leads to exciting new art and new technology. Bernie Sanders wants a revolution. There is simply no major elite movement in America dedicated to keeping things the way they are, or taking them back to the good old days. People who want exactly that feel like they have been written off, and some of them are not happy about it.
Here's another good elite view on the economy, from Ben Casselman, via 538. He says that many of Trump's supporters say they really expect him to bring back American manufacturing:
They are likely to be disappointed. Many of the economic grievances of the white working class are legitimate: Manufacturing jobs really have disappeared, and those that remain often don’t pay as well or offer the same benefits as the union jobs that workers remember from decades past. Economists, who said for years that trade’s downsides were minimal, have more recently begun to acknowledge that foreign competition has done lasting damage to many communities (though they still say trade is good for the economy as a whole). But despite his rhetoric, Trump offered few specifics during the campaign for how he would change trade policy to benefit workers; the plan his advisers did offer was widely panned by independent economists, some of whom warned it would cause a recession.No solace there.
The larger problem for Trump and his supporters is that there is very little reason to think that any set of policies could meaningfully reverse the long-term decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs. That decline has been driven by a combination of globalization and automation — forces that aren’t likely to reverse any time soon.
And from the Post, here's another way of seeing the dissatisfaction of Trump voters:
According to the Brookings analysis, the less-than-500 counties that Clinton won nationwide combined to generate 64 percent of America’s economic activity in 2015. The more-than-2,600 counties that Trump won combined to generate 36 percent of the country’s economic activity last year.So if you live in the sort of place where people have high tech or management jobs, you are more likely to support Clinton and the status quo. If you live in the sort of place dominated by retirees or workers in industry or agriculture, you are more likely to be dissatisfied with the whole direction of America.
Clinton, in other words, carried nearly two-thirds of the American economy.