I must admit that the election of Donald Trump surprised me. One could say I’ve been obsessing about it. I’m probably overreacting, but the thought of having a president like Trump, who reminds me of Mussolini but without the Fascist dictator’s level of rationality or capacity for self-restraint, scares the shit out of me. I can only hope that the systems we have in place to counter totalitarianism are robust enough to preserve our free society. I would like to believe they are.
It is difficult to believe that voters saw Trump, with his history clouded by plausible accounts of financial failure, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and fraud as a good choice for Commander in Chief of the United States. I don’t think they did. What they saw was someone who doesn’t care about rules, or at least doesn’t let them get in his way when he wants something. They saw a man who ruthlessly uses any means necessary to achieve his ends. Somehow, in their eyes, this privileged and ethically challenged millionaire was reinvented as a common man of the people. They saw a kind of Wild West hero who bucks ‘they system’ and succeeds. This, I think, may have been his appeal.
This leads to another question. Why were people looking for someone, anyone, to buck ‘the system’ on their behalf? The answer to that seems obvious enough. ‘The system’ isn’t working for them.
This, at least, is understandable. In a nation fabled for the success of its middle class and for a system that provides ever-increasing standards of living, rising wages, and upward mobility, people are floundering, struggling to keep afloat. The ladder of success is broken. Their rents are rising, their debts are increasing, and their wages are not keeping up. Hard work is supposed to yield an increased standard of living. That’s part of America’s promise, but it clearly doesn’t work that way any more. People may not understand why the American dream has become more of an endless nightmare, but they feel something is wrong, and they want it righted. Enter the hero who appeals to their frustrations and promises to buck the system.
The real cause of their frustration, I think, goes back to the income and wealth disparity that Bernie Sanders has highlighted during his long political career. It became a rallying cry during his run for the last Democratic presidential nomination, and it earned him considerable support. America is a rich nation. Corporate profits are up. The stock market is soaring. Businesses are making a lot of money, but the wealth pools at the top and too little trickles down. Sanders promised to change that, although I suspect he may have been underestimating the pushback he’d get. I suppose we’ll never know.
I’m not going to get into macroeconomics in this article, but I will say that policy choices made over the last forty or so years, which overturned sound Keynesian principles in favor of ‘trickle-down’ theories that favored owners and moneylenders over workers, exacerbated the disparity we see today. They have allowed the return of speculative bubbles and have encouraged risky financial manipulation. They helped create a system in which about thirty percent of all personal income comes not from work but from rents, dividends, and capital gains. The wealth Americans create is distributed disproportionately to owners and investors rather than to the people who actually do productive work.
Workers have noticed at least some of this, but vested interests have been quite successful in throwing up distractions about the cause. The problem, they say, is ‘government’ or foreign imports or illegal immigrants. It can’t be big corporations and the banks. Those fine institutions are ‘job creators.’ Yeah, right. And I suppose that all the lobbyists they’re paying to influence Congress are a kind of charitable endeavor to protect workers from the grasp of ‘big government.’ That makes about as much sense as a fox telling a chicken all he wants to do is protect her eggs.
I’m not decrying capitalism. It can work well, as it did between about 1935 and 1975. But unconstrained by workers’ unions or by governmental policies, it can be an insatiable devourer of wealth with little or no interest beyond the next quarterly statement. This, I think, is the cause of stagnating wages and the loss in faith in the American Dream. People desperately want that dream back, and Trump promised to ‘make America great again.’ They may not have believed him, but they wanted things to change.
Sadly, I think Trump may be able to change things substantially, although not for the better. His past suggests that he is a man who views people as disposable resources, an impulsive, vindictive con man who has little regard for the humanity of others, and someone who is concerned only for his own financial benefit. He is clearly not a man of the people. His primary concern as president will undoubtedly be the same as it is has always been—the greater glory and ego gratification of Donald J. Trump.