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12:32 21 July 2016

OPINION: The Road to Trump

By James Simms
OVERLAND PARK, Kansas, July 20, Kyodo

The Republican Party had morphed into something extreme and unrecognizable from the party of my youth. Over the past several years, that was the conclusion I had reached, after a year back in the U.S. and producing a series of radio reports for Japanese public broadcaster NHK on the state of America.

And Tuesday, Donald Trump found a new home as he became the candidate of the Grand Old Party. That's no coincidence.

The policies pursued and the rhetoric used by Republicans during the past two decades created a fertile environment for a demagogue to tap into, bringing the tangerine-hued billionaire to just one step away from the White House. Disgust among voters with establishment politicians and economic angst not only helped Trump but self-styled socialist Bernie Sanders as well.

Today's GOP is marked by a free-market and anti-government fundamentalism, obstructionism, arrogant indifference to our weakest citizens and even veiled racism. (Through it's neoliberal economic policies, the other major party, the Democratic Party, also shares some of the blame for Trump's rise.)

During high school and college in the 1980s, I worked on Republican campaigns to elect Ronald Reagan and George Bush. With that experience, I thought that I had a reasonable grasp of the party first identified with President Abraham Lincoln, an abolitionist and a seminal American leader. In my most formative years, the party was marked by more pragmatism -- something that was valued in the Midwest where I grew up, compromise and compassion for those less well off. (Though youthful idealism may have colored what I was seeing.)

Trump's takeover of the party of Lincoln and my youth could be explained in one figure: The death rate for middle-aged, white males with less than a college education. That rose from 1999 to 2014, according to a 2015 Princeton University study, with the direct cause being suicide, alcoholism, liver diseases and addiction to opioid pain killers. At the same time, the death rates for 45-to-54-year-old blacks and Hispanics declined.

That white cohort neatly ties into one of the main pillars of Trump's support, less educated, blue-collar white males. The Great Recession (triggered by the subprime fiasco), loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs and the grim economic outlook are seen as factors driving the higher death rates. Indeed, 81% of all U.S. households saw their income from wages and investments fall or remain flat in the decade through 2014, according to a new McKinsey Global Institute study. That's higher than the 63% in France and the U.K.'s 73%. The hit to the working class is likely higher.

Republican policies promoting greater tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations, financialization of the economy, spending cuts and less regulation have all contributed to the current situation.

Driven by ideology, rather than reversing course or tailoring policies to the facts on the ground, the GOP has doubled down on its way of governing. And while some Republicans say Trump isn't a true party stalwart, the intemperate, racist and anti-intellectual reality TV star has become their standard bearer.

Come November, Americans, as well as the rest of the world, may pay a big price.

(James Simms is a Forbes contributor, freelance reporter and television and radio commentator in Tokyo and is a former Wall Street Journal columnist and former Scripps Journalism Fellow at the University of Colorado.)




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