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Bernie, The Donald, and the stunning rise of Ignoreland

On bashing free trade, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have found a message that connects with voters who'd given up on politics. But what does that mean for America?

These bastards stole their power from the victims of the Us v.
Them years, wrecking all things virtuous and true.
The undermining social democratic downhill slide into abysmal
Lost lamb off the precipice into the trickle down runoff pool.

R.E.M., "Ignoreland"

For the most part, U.S. trade policy debates run in the newspaper somewhere between the Pet of the Week feature and the crossword puzzle. OK, actually that was a joke -- U.S. trade policy doesn't even run in the newspaper at all. And besides, what's a newspaper?

My point is this: At the start of a fraught presidential campaign, with at one point 23 people vying to replace President Obama, no one had "trade" near the top of the list of what voters might identify as a top issue. Typically that top slot goes to either "the economy" or "security," depending on whether it's been Wall Street or ISIS that's been preying on the public most recently, following by issues such as "taxes" or "crime" or "the environment" or "schools," often depending on one's politics.

Mention an issue like the TPP, at least a few months back, and a typical voters might think you were talking about a new kind of toilet paper rather than the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the massive proposed deal to liberalize trade between the United States and 12 Pacific Rim nations.

But there are also enclaves of America -- the rural town in Georgia with the abandoned textile mill, the industrial neighborhood on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border that looks like the aftermath of a neutron bomb, the Kentucky farming community where the young people have left and the older folks stay inside watching the latest terror alerts on Fox News -- that started 2016 with a trouble so deep that it didn't even have a name. The elite political pundits have their own unknowingly dismissive term for a lot of these folks -- "flyover country" -- but I prefer to think of a favorite REM song title from the end of the Reagan-Bush 41 years.


Maybe no one was putting a name to the problems of the shrinking industrial and rural middle class in America because our elites, including the media, were so good at, well, ignoring them. Much of the nation was shocked during the Super Bowl to watch not one but two ads for pharmaceuticals targeting the fast-growing market of people who can't poop properly because they're hooked on opioid painkillers. Maybe that's because most Americans didn't read the report about rising death rates among middle-aged white men, much of that linked to alcohol and drug abuse or suicide.

It's important to note that deindustrialization -- and the grim pathologies that tend to follow -- have ravaged urban communities, including ones with high minority populations, for decades, and the political consequences of that have been felt since the 1960s, '70s and '80s. The deepening despair of predominantly white Middle Americans that Richard Nixon once called "the silent majority" is a newer phenomenon, which is why its fallout on the 2016 race seems so profound.

It's no secret that such voters are fueling the political rise of Donald Trump that has so confounded the pundits as they busily fly over Kentucky between the Oscar-night parties and their gig on CNN's 19-member election-night pundit panels. One of the best deep dives into the Trump phenomenon found the No. 1 factor that determines whether a voter is for The Donald is whether he or she feels voiceless.

The Atlantic piece cited a RAND Corporation study that "voters who agreed with the statement 'people like me don't have any say about what the government does' were 86.5 percent more likely to prefer Trump. This feeling of powerlessness and voicelessness was a much better predictor of Trump support than age, race, college attainment, income, attitudes towards Muslims, illegal immigrants, or Hispanic identity."

Here's what one Trump voter told the New York Times back on Super Tuesday:

"This isn't about whether he's going to do a better job or not," said Ken Magno, 69, leaving his polling place in Everett, Mass., Tuesday morning, wearing a red Donald Trump winter hat. "More or less, it's the statement: Listen, we're sick and tired of what you people do. And we're going to put somebody in there — now that it's our choice, we're going to put somebody in there that basically you don't like."

Of course, Trump's not the only candidate making the formerly "silent majority" feel like speaking out; Sen. Bernie Sanders has been winning this voting bloc on the Democratic side, helping him stay alive despite solid black and Latino support for his rival Hillary Clinton. On some level, both Trump and Sanders take traditional political messaging and turn the volume up to 11, or maybe 17. Trump is a bully who punches down, bypassing traditional coded "dog whistles" to instead sound loud, audible racist alarms about Mexican "rapists" or banning Muslims from America. Sanders punches up at the actual millionaires and billionaires who've leveraged most of Congress with their campaign checks, which lead to tax breaks for those millionaires and billionaires and for their companies even as they move millions of jobs out of Ignoreland.

But the radical new twist from both Trump and Sanders is their willingness to bust loose from decades of Republican dogma as well as the selling-out of Democratic elites to the highest bidders, and take clear stands against the pro-globalization, free-trade orthodoxy that took root in the 1990s.

For Trump, a lot of his "trade policy" is his typical vague, bombastic bluster -- to negotiate better deals with China (perhaps confusing the leadership in Beijing with Merv Griffin) and stand up to Mexican leaders who are smart enough to be "cleaning our clock" yet weak enough to bullied into paying for the Great Wall of Trump. Still -- as much as it pains me to credit Trump for anything -- he has also called attention in this campaign to some things that should be getting attention in this campaign, like Philadelphia's Cardone Industries laying off 1,300 workers and adding jobs in Mexico.

Sanders has been more clear in his protectionist stance, playing up his vote against the Bill-Clinton-era North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, and promising that proposed or pending new deals like the TPP won't happen under his watch. For both Trump and Sanders, this stating of the obvious that most other politicians won't acknowledge -- that these trade deals haven't brought jobs to the Heartland and that any economic benefits went solely to mega-rich CEOs and investors -- finally gave the crisis a name.

Paul Krugman, the Nobel-laureate economist and New York Times columnist, wrote today that "a protectionist backlash, like an immigration backlash, is one of those things where the puzzle has been how long it was in coming. And maybe the time is now."

Indeed. And that great automotive state of Michigan is where the rubber hit the road on Tuesday night.

A lot of the credit goes to Sanders, who fine-tuned his message for the Wolverine State so that it was less of jab at greedy Wall Street millionaires and billionaires -- a shtick that most of the Democratic electorate has heard, again and again and again, by now -- and more targeted on the trade issue. Last week, the Sanders campaign tweeted out pictures of hideous urban decay and wrote, "The people of Detroit know the real cost of Hillary Clinton's free trade policies." Exit polls showed that six of the 10 Democratic voters in Michigan believed that free trade was costing U.S. jobs, and Sanders beat Clinton by about 10 points among that group.

Both Trump and Sanders won the primaries in Michigan with strong support from voters in the small cities and communities that have seen hundreds of thousands of jobs in automotive and related industries vanish since the 1970s. But here's what's arguably even more important -- turnout in both parties was, to steal from today's Daily News front page, yuge! The 2.5 million primary votes shattered the state record set in 1972 (when the racially-charged Democratic winner, George Wallace, set a template for Trump '16.) The elites must take notice. The masses are waking up.

As discussed here and countless other places this winter (winter?), it's going to be hard for either Bernie or Manhattan's short-fingered vulgarian to thread the needle and become the 45th president. Clinton, who has the best pathway despite a campaign ineptness that is shocking only if you slept through all of her 2008 campaign, has moved left, for now, on the trade issue to head off the Sanders revolution. Unless our deadlocked nation turns its lonely eyes to President Mitt Romney, American trade policy could be in for a radical overhaul during the next four years.

But that's also too narrow a takeaway from Tuesday's fairly shocking turnout and results. The next president will need to offer middle-class America not just scapegoats (and certainly not racist or xenophobic ones) but solutions. Trade policy is a beginning, but the answer should include banning the now-legal political graft that made politicians vote for those bad trade policies, as well as living wages, more universal health care, and hope for young people of an affordable diploma.

In 2016, Ignoreland is rising the ballot box. Where will they go next if that doesn't work out?