Trump and other far-right leaders are on rise because existing elites have broken their social contract by failing to address longstanding problems or resolve deep inequalities.
This week, another “shot went astray” in the United States and hit an African American man with his hands up in the air. The police claim that they were trying to save the victim from someone they perceived to be a suicidal gunman. It turns out that this dreaded gunman was a poor fellow suffering from autism and holding a toy truck. The police officer who pulled the trigger is unrepentant and claims he made an honest mistake in the split second he had to make a decision.
Meanwhile, China suffered catastrophic floods and Germany experienced the madness of a mass shooting in Munich. In Ukraine, murder was more sinister. Pavel Sheremet, a prominent Belarussian investigative journalist with a reputation for independence and integrity, was killed by a car bomb. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s purge continues after the failed coup. The government is sacking civil servants, police officers and teachers. In his first decree under a new state of emergency, Erdoğan closed 2,341 institutions, including schools, charities, unions and medical centers. Even the elite presidential guard is to disband as Stalinist paranoia thickens the Istanbul air.
The United Kingdom and the United States are responding to such perilous times with much aplomb. British Prime Minister Theresa May declared that she was prepared to authorize a nuclear strike that could kill 100,000 innocent men, women and children. In response to a question in the House of Commons, the vicar’s daughter stated: “The whole point of a deterrent is that our enemies need to know that we would be prepared to use it.”
Yet May is but a wilting wallflower as compared to the man across the pond who wants to be king. Donald Trump is now the anointed chieftain of the party of Abraham Lincoln. The Republican Party and the US have traveled a long way indeed.
So, what is going on?
In 2013, this author published “Happy Birthday America” on the Fourth of July, a day when the US celebrates its independence, arguing that the post-war contract was dead. Companies like Apple, Amgen, Google, Facebook and Uber are still doing superlatively well. The best engineers and designers from around the world want to work for them. People use Uber whether in Mumbai or in Munich. Wall Street is still the financial center of the world and Silicon Valley is the hub for innovation.
Yet manufacturing has been in decline, real wages are falling and a diverse society is becoming more divided. Income inequality is increasing exponentially. A 2011 report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that income grew by 275% from 1979 to 2007 for the top 1% of households in contrast to a mere 18% for the bottom 20%. Thanks to quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve that has boosted asset prices, wealth inequality has grown even more shockingly.
The wealthy are not only beneficiaries of quantitative easing, but also of a most favorable tax regime. Those who earn their money through investments pay lower rates of taxes on their capital gains, while those who work for their living pay a higher rate of income tax on their wages. So, Warren Buffet is “still paying a lower tax rate than his secretary.” More importantly, those who inherit their wealth like America’s infamous trust fund babies pay less tax than those who work to earn it like Joe the Plumber.
Even as real wages have been falling, “the cost of housing – rent, mortgage payments, property taxes, insurance repairs, upkeep, utilities – has been growing steadily.” Obamacare has expanded coverage but costs of health care keep rising relentlessly. Even more significantly, the cost of education has been rising dramatically. Going to university burns a hole in parents’ pockets or saddles students with large debts.
Getting a decent paying job after university is not guaranteed unless you major in computer science. For minorities, jobs are harder to find still. The senior leadership of Facebook is merely “3% Black, 3% Hispanic and 27% women” because appropriate representation at the top “in technology or any other industry will depend upon more people having the opportunity to gain necessary skills through the public education system.” Facebook rightly implies that this system is largely broken.
A 2014 report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) captures in greater detail what Facebook merely alludes to. Access to education is diminishing for ordinary Americans. This, combined with inequality, is lowering social mobility as Brookings’ Hamilton Project policy memo succinctly documents. In fact, as Joe Pinsker points out in The Atlantic, social mobility in the US is even lower than what most economists thought. The Great American Dream is now just a dream with little basis in reality for most Americans.
For many, the dream has now turned into a nightmare. On July 10, this author examined the dark soul of the US in the aftermath of the Dallas shootings. Too many African American men are shot for no reason and locked up at too high a cost, creating a culture of anger, resentment and criminality. Yet there is a pervasive belief that turning soft on crime would lead to anarchy and blood on the streets. Many Americans are terrified of the attacks on the police and scared of Muslims, the new bogeymen that have replaced communists in the American psyche. After all, these bearded followers of a Middle Eastern prophet might just fly planes again into big buildings as on September 11, 2001.
Insecurity and fear now stalk the land of the free and the home of the brave. This is country that is afraid of its own shadow. In a convention that was eerily reminiscent of a Roman spectacle, Donald Trump called this “a moment of crisis for our nation.” He promised “safety, prosperity and peace” to a land reeling under a crisis of confidence despite its repeated chants of “USA, USA, USA.”
Trump is an unsavory character to say the least. This author has called him America’s Silvio Berlusconi sans the Italian’s roguish charm or wit. Sadly, for all his faults, Trump has a point. The elites that run the US have lost legitimacy. They have painfully failed to recognize that the social contract that has kept them on top is broken.
Bill Clinton’s siren songs seduced the US and much of the world into a new era of globalization. It promised more democracy, better technology and greater prosperity. Part of this new deal involved revoking Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. In particular, Clinton’s consiglieres repealed the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 that allowed banks to become too big to fail. Critics like Byron Dorgan who made prescient predictions were cast into the shadows. The costs of globalization like the loss of manufacturing jobs and falling real wages were swept under the carpet by the housing bubble and cheap goods from China.
Now, the chickens have come home to roost. An angry electorate is seeking solutions to complex problems. Like many authoritarian figures, Trump is offering quick fixes by picking on minorities like Mexicans and Muslims. Illegal immigrants who kill 21-year-olds like Sarah Root are his bogeymen. Trump paints a picture of “domestic disaster” and “international humiliation.” Iran, Libya, Syria, Iraq et al point to the chaos that has resulted from weakness of a foreign-born Black Muslim president.
Trump is evoking ghosts of the past and drawing parallels from the present. For many like Garry Kasparov, the real estate billionaire and reality television star is a dictator in the making. Glenn Carle, a man who was a high-flier in the Central Intelligence Agency and opposed George W. Bush’s government on torture, has damned Trump for stoking anger, division and hate. In his words, “Our national culture seeks to be inclusive and is not defined by race, color, creed, gender or class. It is forward-looking, not resentment-filled. It is hopeful not vengeful. It is open, not exclusive. It is a series of ideas and ideals, not a heritage of one particular group. That is what separates us in history: we are a nation of ideals, not a nation of blood or soil or class.”
For Carle, Trump is segregationist, racist, xenophobic and populist. Carle is alarmed for the future of his country—its freedoms, its system of government and its social compact. For him, this is an existential moment where the culture, the institutions and the freedoms of the US are at stake. The Washington Post agrees. In its words, “Donald Trump is a unique threat to American democracy.” It dissects Trump with a scalpel, revealing his self-serving dishonesty, gargantuan ignorance and contempt for democratic norms in fine detail. The iconic American newspaper argues that Trump’s snarl and sneer, denigration and division “could strain the bonds that have held a diverse nation together.”
Other Americans take a different point of view. A county in Ohio that picks presidents is leaning toward Trump. One of its residents says that he is fed up with politicians and would like a businessman in charge. Others like Newt Gingrich and Sean Hannity go further. They drool with admiration for Trump and his “beautiful family, well raised, confident, so tied into his crusade.” At the Republican National Convention, many leading lights of the Republican Party stayed away. Instead, Trump was heralded by his rather glamorous family. Like a sycophantic medieval courtier, Gingrich chimed: “Even at their peak, the Kennedys did not have this level of sheer talent and then they were very talented people.”
Most ironically, the nation that once kicked out George III is turning to a nouveaux riche faux royalty to solve its problems. Sadly, the mannequin-like little Trumps with their pomposity, preening and privilege lack any sense of noblesse oblige. These arriviste charlatans assume that they deserve fealty because of their wealth. Their followers buy into the same belief and apotheosize the Trump clan, seeing in it a reflection of family values that could rescue their country.
The apotheosis of Trump and his family is a logical culmination of “the cult of success and the worship of Übermensch” that defines the US. Ronald Reagan inaugurated the “greed is good” era by unleashing markets, beating evil communists, flirting with segregationists and supporting apartheid South Africa. Trump is only a modern-day Reagan with worse hair, shriller tones and greater menace.
In Hillary Clinton, Trump faces a formidable but flawed candidate. In Trump, Clinton faces a tricky demagogue. Already, a poster child of Silicon Valley has fallen to Trump’s charms. Peter Thiel, the godfather of the PayPal mafia and the first investor in Facebook, was at the convention to trumpet Trump’s virtues. This gay German immigrant trashed Wall Street bankers for inflating “bubbles in everything from government bonds to Hillary Clinton’s speaking fees.” Thiel, a modern, real-life Gordon Gekko, lamented the decline of the country that once completed the Manhattan Project and hailed Trump as the man who would end stupid wars in the Middle East and rebuild America.
In Trump’s own words, “something very bad is going on” and Clinton faces one hell of a fight as even venture capitalists turn anti-establishment with a vengeance. Trump is an American phenomenon who is part of a worldwide trend. He represents a global failure of elites. They have failed to address questions pertaining to deep inequalities and collective identities. Their technocratic proclamations are inadequate, insipid and uninspiring.
Hence, after decades of relative obscurity and quiescence, the far-right is back in the fray. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte is urging people to kill drug addicts. Austria faces another election where a Glock 9mm pistol-packing Norbert Hofer has a fair shot at the presidency. In France, Marine Le Pen is the respectable face of the immigrant-bashing far-right and is backing Trump.
This is an age of fear, anger, hate and terror. This is the age of demagogues and it soon could be the age of Donald Trump.
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Why Tony Blair Invaded Iraq
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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Andy Katz