January 20 2017

Understanding the Inconceivable

So it’s official: we are a nation presided over by Donald Trump, a man loathed by so many, but beloved by so many others, who have taken wholeheartedly to his claim that he will “Make America Great Again.” I would say he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, since millions have followed him as if he’s the Lamb of God, but he’s been very prominent in his predator garb since the moment he announced his bid for the presidency.

When it became official that Trump was going to be our 45th president, I was shocked. The image of this man in the White House, in the Oval Office, did not compute. I wasn’t alone in my confusion, as half of the United States shook with horror while the other half rejoiced in the early hours of November 9th.

So, as I do whenever I am anxious or confused, I turned to books for answers. These books – made all the more credible due to their inclusion on the New York Times list of books to read in order to understand a Trump presidency – tell a story that attempts to explain what led to this situation we are in now.

I kicked off my search for answers with The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by The New Yorker staff writer George Packer.
In what has been described as a “nonfiction masterpiece,” Packer explores this “unwinding,” or the method by which the gap between “winners” and “losers” widened significantly, beginning as early as the 1960s. Different personal accounts thread through the book, but the focal point seems to be Dean Price, a man born from a family of tobacco farmers. As that profession dwindled – due at least in part to government regulations on the tobacco industry – Price entered, optimistically, into a different field. He began this post-farming industry Middle American life by opening a series of truck stops. The franchise fared relatively well for the first few years, before big corporations moved into the area, monopolizing the fuel industry with foreign oil. Price recognized, Packer writes, that this injustice was a result of Republican politicians’ relations with “petro-dictators,” but those who would be inclined to agree with him couldn’t get past the Republican Party’s protection of “church and family values” in comparison to what they saw in the Democrat Party, an assembly of hedonistic baby killers and God haters. When Price turned to biodiesel – fuel made from canola grown by farmers, and a business that would create a closed loop system between the farmers, the fuel producer, and the community, eliminating the soul-sucking corporate middlemen – as a way to combat the high prices of foreign oil sold in big chain gas stations, and prevent ill-effects due to the ever looming “peak oil” (the point at which petroleum extraction would begin to fall off), he had to be careful when asking his local citizens for support in the endeavor. Words like “sustainability” and “green” turned off would be supporters because of their “liberal” connotation. Not that it mattered; before Price’s company, Red Birch Energy, could really lift off the ground, fracking caused gas prices to plummet, making oil preferable over the “green and sustainable” biodiesel. Price was left looking for his next big industry idea, one that could combat the big business and foreign markets, as well as appeal to the interests of his conservative neighbors.

Other stories in Packer’s book include the personal accounts of Jeff Connaughton and Tammy Thomas. Connaughton, a self-proclaimed “Biden guy,” spent decades of his life in politics, fighting for his candidates while feeling unappreciated as a team member and growing frustrated with the lack of change occurring in the government, and party, he so believed in. Thomas witnessed her home city of Youngstown descend into crime and poverty after the fall of textiles, mills, and factories, and felt jaded by the Union that couldn’t save the jobs of her and her fellow factory workers; her story culminates with her valiant and tireless efforts to restore her home to its former glory. Other chapters include the story of Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart and source of so much strife in small towns, where the life was sucked from small business owners who couldn’t compete with such “low, low prices!”; Silicon Valley and its utopian bubble of tech billionaires; and Tampa, a place with residents hard hit by the mortgage crisis of 2007. Each story, for the most part, speaks of tragedy in varying volumes, but Dean Price’s represents the sad story of a closet Democrat surrounded by Republican brethren, who, Price is convinced, refuse to see that their problems stem from conservative greed. This story leads nicely into the next book on my list.
Arlie Russell Hochschild, renowned sociologist, wrote Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right after five years of research in Louisiana, one of the poorest and reddest states in the United States. Her subject is the “Great Paradox,” which refers to the habit of middle class Americans voting against their self interests; small business owners vote for the party with candidates who are in bed with big corporations, the working class defends Wall Street even though it is responsible for so much of their suffering, they use government services while voting for their removal, and they vote for the deregulation of oil companies even though environmental ruin has taken over their once beautiful land because of the carelessness of that industry and others. Toxic emissions from plants suggest a suspicious link to the rise of cancer patients in the state, toxic waste dumped into the bayou led to tainted fish unfit for consumption, and animals that once lived on or near the state’s waters quickly died off from the poisons in their home.

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And yet they worshipped the industry that brought so much filth; oil brought jobs, and jobs meant prosperity, despite the dying animals and toxic land. One woman Hochschild interviewed went so far as to proclaim that “pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism” (an eerie statement vaguely reminiscent of “just remember all the good the Purge does”). Because oil brought jobs and an honest day’s work, the hardship the industry brought often got blamed on other parties. Over regulation and government interference led to many of the environmental catastrophes, such as drilling accident that caused the sinkhole that swallowed Bayou Corne and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, or so Hochschild writes as the belief of many of the Louisiana citizens. Nevermind the fact that in both cases regulations were ignored and the consequences of such carelessness were swift. But “red state logic” suggests that the government is the bad guy and wants to make life hard for those in the oil field. Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, went so far as to offer financial incentives – a low corporate income tax and low severance tax – to entice oil companies to the state, and thus create jobs. However, while his efforts did bring in the oil companies, they only opened jobs for 10% of the state population, due to the industry being heavily automated and reliant on cheap labor. Furthermore, the oil companies caused a decrease in the fishing and tourism industries, and the incentives used to bring in oil decreased the public sector budget, leading to the cut of jobs for nurses, teachers, med technicians, and others.

Then the government was the problem in other respects. The Tea Party formed out of its belief that, one, the government had curtailed the church (Republicans are the party of God and family, remember, and Democrats are decidedly not), two, taxes were too high and progressive, and, three, honor was lost. Men could no longer provide for their families they way God intended them to because those pesky Democrats cared more about the environment. Then they have the gall to allow – and encourage! – “lazy” minorities to “cut” in line, in front of the honest, hard working middle Americans, pushing them further away from the American Dream (a problematic metaphor, this cutting in line business, as it implies there are some who deserve to be in front of others). The Tea Party supporters and other conservatives thus point fingers at the people they believe are granted “special breaks” and at the government they believe has forgotten them.
However, it seems it has forgotten them, at least according to bestselling author Thomas Frank. His book, Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? explores the idea that Democrats have forsaken those they swore to protect. The divide between the elite of the nation and the rest of America has widened so ostensibly that in many states the difference between well to do regions and those pegged with unemployment and poverty is a stark horror. And, according to Frank, Democrats have done little to remedy that, when they could have.

A lot of the problems lie in the Democratic Party’s shift in interest from the working class to the professional class. This “meritocracy” has created a country where there is “rule by expert” rather than “rule by the people” kind of government, where administrations are filled with Ivy League graduates and intellectuals, who look down from their ivory towers pasted with framed professional degrees, shrugging at the philistine masses below and declaring that if they want success they need only seek higher education. This “let them eat cake” mentality of people who just don’t get it is made all the more ridiculous when it is remembered, Frank points out, that at one point in American history, and even in countries today – Germany, for instance – it was and is possible to earn a good and comfortable living with nothing but a high school diploma. The image of inequality as a “you” problem rather than a systemic issue is also erroneous, as it ignores the statistics that show that, before the late 1970s, working class productivity and wages increased at a constant and fair rate. By the early 1990s, however, productivity was rising while wages remained all but stagnant, and the same is true today. As President Bill Clinton noted in his 1992 campaign, Americans were working “harder for less.”

Frank talks about President Clinton. He calls out politicians who were so focussed on election and reelection that they compromised their democratic values, moving towards the center and embracing Republican ideas and policies. Despite raising minimum wage and imposing a “modest” tax increase on the wealthy – very liberal pursuits – President Clinton “rammed” the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through congress, signed the Republican bill that repealed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and increased mass incarceration with a 1994 police-state bill. These supremely un-liberal policies led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of American jobs, state controlled welfare programs that left multitudes of single mothers vulnerable, and outrageous numbers of minority men unfairly imprisoned for “crimes” that white persons easily escaped punishment for. These actions alone could cause a voter to lose faith in the “Party of the People,” but President Obama’s actions added their burden, Frank writes. President Obama handled the recession, by popular opinion, poorly. Instead of holding the Wall Street personnel accountable for creating the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, he protected them from bankruptcy and punishment, and allowed them to continue the actions that landed the United States in the recession in the first place. And not only should he have, but Frank claims President Obama could have fired the regulators responsible for the crisis, pushed to allow bankruptcy judges to modify mortgages, enforced the laws of the land to stop the monopolization of the nation by big businesses like Wal-Mart and Big Pharma, and held Wall Street accountable instead of letting it off the hook, because of the belief that punishing them would affect the economy worse – further showing that class status is inversely proportional to punishment for crimes. President Obama did none of this. President Clinton scratched the backs of Republicans. The Democrats left the people they were supposed to serve alone and vulnerable, leaving the leadership position of the Party of the People up for usurpation.
The last book on my list was The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics by celebrated writer and editor John B. Judis. Judis begins by explaining populism, the way of thinking about politics that has gripped the nation and rejects specific party ideology (populists can align right, left, center). He includes a quote by historian Michael Kazin that best describes the movement: populism is “a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class; [they] view their elite opponents as self serving and undemocratic; and [they] seek to mobilize the former against the latter.” Basically, populists fight the Man. Certain distinctions separate the left leaning and right leaning populists; left leaners champion people against an elite or an establishment; right leaners champion people against an elite that they accuse of “coddling” a third group (today, meaning minorities, immigrants, Muslim Americans).

Populism has been around as early as 1891, with the People’s Party, which arose due to the drop in agricultural prices and the subsequent raise in transportation costs by the unregulated railroad company, an action seen as unjust. George Wallace was a populist, and a New Deal Democrat in the 1960s, who felt Middle America was neglected (Middle American whites, that is, he had little cares for the plight of African Americans). More recent populists include Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, two men who ran in presidential elections and criticized the loss of jobs to foreign markets.

Part of populism’s charm is its bold claims and demands with no reasonable path to success. On the off chance that the demands of the populist party’s demands are met, they often quietly dissolve or merge more solidly with the right or left. But the parties and politicians mentioned above did not represent what the majority of Americans wanted, it seems. They were “protest” candidates and “super” presidents: unreal, too rebellious, and too big. Much of the same can be said of the “parties” that are relevant today, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. The groups, both connected through social media and lacking in any clear, meetable demands, suffer from disorganization and serve mostly to join together like minded individuals in movements against the traditional two party system. However, while a bit directionless, the two populist parties served to impact the world symbolically, alerting the country to their concerns and hardships.

Two candidates emerged from that impact, as the populist, “protest” candidates, in the 2016 presidential election. On the right, we have Trump. Donald Trump, billionaire, New Yorker, and former seeker of the 1999 nomination for president from the Reform Party, until he backed out claiming it wasn’t a “viable vehicle” for his candidacy (i.e. he knew he wouldn’t win).  Judis lists the proposed policies of Trump, including a 45 percent tariff on China’s exports to the United States, claiming this would force China to “revalue” its currency, making their exports more expensive and American exports to the country cheaper. Trump criticized NAFTA and other trade agreements that allow corporations to take advantage of the ability to outsource labor to other countries. His solution? “Tax the hell out of them.” And of course, much of the blame must rest on the shoulders of an outgroup, in keeping with the trend of right populism. According to Trump, Judis writes, undocumented citizens “[drive] down wages and [raise] social costs,” putting another burden on the poor working class. But Trump moves beyond economic concerns in regards to immigration and points to it as a source of crime, going so far as to suggest the Mexican government is sending drug dealers and rapists. It is a view of his campaign, Judis notes, that became central to his “appeal.”

The second populist candidate to emerge was Senator Bernie Sanders. A self-proclaimed social democrat (which he described as someone wanting to create a world in which all human beings have a “decent standard of living”), Senator Sanders spent his years in Congress fighting a lot of the injustices he saw done, not just by Republicans but by his own party. He opposed NAFTA and trade treaties with China, tax cuts on business, budgets that reduced social spending, and financial deregulation. He filibustered budget and tax agreements worked out between President Obama and Republicans, agreements that prolonged the Bush administration tax cuts on the wealthy. His proposed policies during the presidential campaign included Medicare for all (guaranteeing health insurance as a right), free tuition to public college (financed by transaction tax on Wall Street), and a proposed carbon emissions bill to tackle the problem of global warming. They were demands fit for a populist’s campaign, as Senator Sanders himself noted that it would take a “political revolution” for them to be met. But the post-Occupy Wall Street climate called for that. And while Senator Sanders and Trump agreed on some points – both not fans of trade treaties and foreign investment – they disagreed on where to place the blame. Trump seemed intent on fingering the immigrants, while Senator Sanders focussed his combatant rage on the “billionaire class.”

Senator Sanders garnished a lot of support, particularly from the young college age demographic, who have understandable fears about what lies ahead in the employment sector after graduation, and who have taken out loans for their education that will surely mean years of debt. But their support was not enough to overcome those who couldn’t get over the idea of Senator Sanders as a “socialist,” or those like Dean Price’s neighbors or the Louisiana citizens who couldn’t get over his social policies. So he lost the nomination to Secretary Hillary Clinton, and the populist candidate became the Republican nominee, Donald Trump. You know the rest.

So, do I understand, now, why he is our new president? There’s some clarity, sure. The people in the books I read were kicked around and neglected by both political parties, and if that happens for too long, eventually they’ll look for a “savior.” But finding that savior in Trump is extreme, to say the least. His campaign included some of the most heinous elements ever seen in a presidential race; his blanket statements about minorities, his sexist comments and refusal to apologize to the women they were directed at, his encouragement of violence towards those who do not share his views, and his overall immaturity do not, in my opinion, make him fit to lead this country. And his voters, who either agreed with his hateful speech or were else indifferent towards it, put Trump in what should be the most respected office in the United States, and instead feels today like a mockery of what we have been striving to become: a nation that treats everyone equal, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or religion, where there is no line to the American Dream, but a steady march as we all move towards it together.
The Democrats have been wrong on counts, yes, and they’ve hurt people. But so has Trump (usually I hate making “look at them” arguments, but it must be said). Trump’s business practices have hurt people in the past and present. Not to mention, Judis writes in his book that economists believe Trump is deceiving his supporters by promising them jobs that can never be restored. Which may be accurate; Trump noted in The Art of the Deal that a “little hyperbole helped sell products.” So America bought him. And whether this administration will go down as one of the longest cons in history is yet to be seen.

Despite everything I still believe the Democrats are the good guys. They’re the ones who fought for marriage equality, they’re the ones fighting for reproductive freedom, and they’re the ones who did all they could recently to ensure the Affordable Care Act remains operational. But I think Trump’s election needs to be our wake up call, to realize we haven’t been doing our job right. Maybe one day we can figure it out again; I hope we can bring the fight for equality – economic and social – back to the agenda of the Party of the People. Then maybe one day we can all march, hand in hand, towards that American Dream, which has become so elusive for most.

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