Trump: Déjà vu, all over again

The polls may not have predicted it, but the underlying causes of the upset outcome are evident. So what do we do now?

Donald Trump

Many in Britain will have had the same sinking feeling on waking up to hear the outcome of the US presidential election as they did in June after the Brexit referendum. At time of writing, the final tally is awaited, and Hillary Clinton may even be slightly ahead on the popular vote, but the picture is clear (and remarkably similar to UK):  a nation dramatically divided 50/50 with the former industrial ‘rust belt’ states (read northern Labour heartlands) swinging decisively against the so-called establishment elite.

Back in the summer, this is what I said here in Briefing about the outcome of the UK vote:

“The major corporations need to wake up to the fact that trickle-down globalisation isn’t working.… Simply put, owners of capital have done just fine since the global financial crash, and that includes many Western baby-boomers; but middle wage earners have not. Our great corporations like to present themselves as a much-misunderstood force for good. Western voters clearly disagree.”

My analysis focused on the political consequences of the economic pain felt by ordinary workers. I noted that real wages have been falling in the UK over the last decade, with median earnings down 10%. For those at the bottom, the reality has been worse. It’s the same story in America, where median earnings have stagnated over the last 15 years, despite large productivity improvements, and those on the lowest wages (the bottom 10%) are worse off now than a generation previously. Someone is getting the fruits of that productivity growth and it isn’t the employees.

Time will tell about the wider consequences of a Trump presidency, with a Republican-controlled House and Senate removing the constraints of gridlock. Much attention will focus on the little matter of international security alliances and the infamous anti-immigration wall, and everything toxic that goes with that mentality. High up the list of concerns ought to be the future of free trade agreements – which have brought so much prosperity for some and dislocation to others – and the historic Paris climate change agreement (and American money for the transitional Green Climate Fund – cancellation of which may yet unravel the whole thing).

For professionals working in CSR and corporate sustainability, I can only repeat my exhortation that our emphasis has to shift decisively to questions of economic impact and equity. That’s issues like pay differentials, contractual security, training and employment versus employability, taxation, outsourcing and the ‘gig economy’, and wider global inequalities.

The irony is that we’ve got good at managing, measuring and reporting on environmental impacts. We’re getting better at social impacts too, like community investment, human rights in the supply chain and product responsibility issues. But on the economics – which as businesses we should know all about – most are largely silent, even among the leaders.

Fixing that is at least a start on the journey back to normal politics again.

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