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What I Tell My Non-American Friends

CAMBRIDGE – I frequently travel overseas, and invariably my foreign friends ask, with varying degrees of bewilderment: What in the world is going on in your country? Here is what I say.

First, do not misinterpret the 2016 election. Contrary to some commentary, the American political system has not been swept away by a wave of populism. True, we have a long history of rebelling against elites. Donald Trump tapped into a tradition associated with leaders like Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan in the nineteenth century and Huey Long and George Wallace in the twentieth century.

And yet Trump lost the popular vote by nearly three million. He won the election by appealing to populist resentment in three Rust Belt states – Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – that had previously voted Democratic. If a hundred thousand votes had been cast differently in those states, Trump would have lost the Electoral College and the presidency.

That said, Trump’s victory points to a real problem of growing social and regional inequality in the United States. J.D. Vance’s recent best-selling book Hillbilly Elegy compellingly describes the vast difference between California and Appalachia.