Trump’s Election, the Dark Side of Care, and Care’s Potentially Bright Future

The 2016 US Presidential election holds some important lessons about the place of care in American politics today. Some of these lessons are cautionary, but others are surprisingly encouraging.

Although American voters expressed dislike for many of the things Donald Trump said and did and were generally dubious about his campaign promises, many voted for him because they said they felt like he cared about them. These voters – particularly those in coal country and the rust belt – felt like other politicians had ignored them. These were people who had watched major industries move away from their towns and no longer had the good job opportunities that their parents and grandparents had enjoyed. They were scared and maybe even a little bit desperate about their future and the future of the country. Trump provided them reassurance and hope. He told them that “I” will make things better for “you,” “I will make American great again.” Even while painting a very gloomy picture of the present state of things, he promised a better future.

Underneath his bombastic claims, there was something new and important in Trump’s rhetoric. Trump broke from the neo-liberal discourse that has dominated American (and much of world) politics since the Reagan era. Trump did not say that government was the problem but rather that the government was broken and needed to be fixed so that it could better help the American people. Trump did not say that markets were the solution but rather that President Obama and other politicians hadn’t done enough to make sure markets worked for the American people. Trump, of course, still favored some elements of the neo-liberal agenda, such as lower taxes. But his overall message was far from a neo-liberal one. Whether he was talking about the economy, immigration, or national security, Trump asserted a robust role for the government in making people’s lives better and giving them a real opportunity to find jobs and care for themselves and their loved ones.

I don’t want to downplay the role that racism and sexism played in this election. Trump directed his message primarily to white voters and some of the people who voted for Trump did so for abhorrent reasons that had nothing to do with care. Hillary Clinton ultimately lost the election, however, not because of racist or sexist voters but because she lost a significant percentage of voters in a number of key states that had traditionally voted Democratic. And to listen to these voters’ explanations for why they voted for Trump, it was because they felt like he cared about them and their problems more than Clinton did.
The discouraging lesson from all this is just how easily people can be manipulated when they feel their needs are being ignored. Many voters seemed desperate to support someone – anyone, regardless of his flaws – who would pay attention to them and help them. In the right hands, these anxieties might have been forged into a new progressive movement uniting poor and working class voters with immigrants and educated and wealthy voters. Trump, however, used people’s anxieties to generate hostilities against “outside groups.” He blamed immigrants, refugees, Mexicans, Muslims, China, and many “others” for the problems that white working class (and middle class) voters were facing. This is a danger that always exists in mixing care and politics. Strong psychological tendencies incline us to care for our own (however defined) and distrust the other (however defined). It takes a skillful hand to expand the circle of care to include “others,” particularly when individuals already feel threatened. As Trump acutely recognized, it was much easier to exploit people’s fears and bolster his support by scapegoating various groups for undermining people’s ability to care for themselves and their “own.”

Another discouraging element of the election was Trump’s paternalism. This, too, seems a danger of care. Particularly when feeling insecure, people are likely to seek out a secure base for their personal and political anxieties. In promising to take care of their problems, Trump played the role of the political father perfectly. He told people to give him power, trust him, and he would take care of everything. Trump’s campaign thus brought together two potential dangers of a care movement: the demonization of outsiders and the valorization of a political father/demagogue.

The encouraging lesson from all of this is that a real care movement is perhaps not as far away in places like the United States as many of us have believed. People care about care. It is a powerful force in politics. A growing number of people in the United States appear to want a government that will protect them and help them to care for themselves and their families. Clinton unfortunately never articulated a coherent, inclusive, and democratic vision of care to capitalize on this political yearning. Many of the elements were there in her long list of proposals. She promised improvements to Obamacare, a new paid parenting leave program, more support for childcare, racial justice, and many other care-related programs. But her campaign slogan, “stronger together,” shifted the responsibility to the American people for improving their lot. It lacked the force and directness of Trump’s assertion that he would fix the government and take care of people’s needs.

Just as importantly, Clinton and the Democratic Party failed to articulate a compelling response to globalization. Trump and reactionary populists everywhere blame globalization for the loss of industrial jobs, increased security threats, and the dissolution of community. Their solution is to close borders, impose tariffs, and bring back a mythic golden age when life was supposedly simpler and better. Although this narrative is misguided in a number of ways, it makes sense to many people – particularly working class whites. The Democrats, by contrast, have no captivating counter-narrative of globalization. Clinton failed to explain how liberal immigration and refugee policies coupled with properly regulated trade and work policies and a responsible foreign policy could be good for the American people, including the white working class.

A comprehensive care program can provide the vision that Clinton and the Democrats lacked in this election. A slogan like “Together we care” could have united Clinton’s racial justice, immigration reform, national security, paid parenting and medical leave, health care, early childhood education, and other proposals under a powerful umbrella idea. A commitment to care and development, manifested through more support for parents and children and improved education and job training, provides one answer to the challenges of globalization. High capability workers are the best asset in a globalized economy. A comprehensive high quality child care program alone could generate billions or even trillions of dollars to the US economy over the long-term through cost savings and economic growth. A set of policies oriented around “making businesses and corporations care” could have further addressed concerns about falling wages, poor workplace conditions, lack of worker control, and outsourcing. The promise of a new caring economy, including guarantees of good pay and good working conditions for care workers, could have been used to explain how government reforms can create millions of new or improved jobs for those who want to enter caring professions, broadly defined, and innumerable business opportunities for those who want to serve this new post-industrial middle class. Since immigrants have traditionally provided much of the caring labor in the workforce, a care program also provides one way of highlighting the positive contribution this groups makes to American society.

This is not the place to outline all the elements of a comprehensive care program. Care theorists have discussed in detail the democratic commitments, welfare state policies, business arrangements, immigration policies, and international relations approaches associated with care ethics. Some work nonetheless still remains to be done to pull all these ideas together. In these dark days following Trump’s election to the Presidency, my main point is simply to say that there is a glimmer of hope for those of us who care about care ethics. Although some portion of the American electorate may not be ready to care broadly for others, they do want to feel cared for and appear willing for the first time in decades to look to the government to fill this role. President-Elect Trump was able to garner a significant number of votes simply by offering a very partial and reactionary answer to people’s care-based anxieties. Whether Clinton would have won if she had articulated a clearer and fuller vision of care is hard to say. But a care program can provide a compelling response to many of the challenges associated with a changing workplace and changing world, ranging from concerns about safety and immigration to frustrations about work-family balance and the loss of industrial jobs. Many Americans appear closer today than they have ever been to supporting a care-based political program. The future task for care theorists and activists is to organize people around an inclusive and democratic vision of care that avoids the dangers of Trump’s divisive, paternalistic, and reactionary movement.

About the author: Daniel Engster

Daniel Engster is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is the author most recently of "Justice, Care, and the Welfare State" (Oxford University Press, 2015), and co-editor with Maurice Hamington of "Care Ethics and Political Theory"(Oxford University Press, 2015).