April 30, 2017

Finally, the Class War Is Out in the Open; or Why Trump Won the Election


I was in Germany in November at the time of the American presidential election, and wrote the following essay on Nov. 9, the day after. I subsequently gave it as a lecture at the University of Mainz, but was unable to post or publish it because of lecture commitments I had made in Mexico for the spring of 2017. Those commitments have now come and gone, and so I'm free to post it at this time. Most of you will not find any surprises here, because we have been discussing these issues since Trump's victory. Nevertheless, I thought I would take the liberty of posting it; reviewing these things may possibly be of interest, even at this late date. Or at least, I hope so. Here goes:

A few months ago, I read in some online newspaper that the six richest people in the world owned as much as the bottom 50 percent, or 3.7 billion people. This is so bizarre a statistic that one would have to call it surreal. One wonders how we got to this state of affairs. As in the case of so many things, the United States is at the cutting edge of this development. Just for starters, most of those six individuals are Americans. But of course it goes deeper than this. The world economic system is fundamentally an American one, and is sometimes known as neoliberalism or globalization—fancy words for imperialism, in fact. And imperialism is a system in which the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the middle class gets slowly squeezed into oblivion.

American capitalism, of course, has been going on now for more than 400 years, as I describe it in my book Why America Failed. And yet one thing that can be said about social inequality in America is that it was relatively stable from 1776 down to about 1976, i.e. a period of 200 years. It existed, but for the most part it wasn’t harsh or extreme, save during the Gilded Age and the Depression, and it enabled Americans to believe that they were living in a classless society, or even that they were all middle class. As for the Depression, America pulled out of it due to the dramatic industrial development required by World War II, but Franklin Roosevelt was well aware that the nation needed something more viable than a war economy in order to sustain itself. And so in the summer of 1944, a conference on postwar financial arrangements was convened in a small town in New Hampshire called Bretton Woods, and the economic plan that was devised at that conference came to be known as the Bretton Woods Accords. The guiding light was the great British economist John Maynard Keynes, possibly the greatest economist who ever lived.

The Bretton Woods Accords put forward two key concepts. One, that the US dollar would be the international standard of exchange. All other currencies would be pegged to the dollar in value, and could always be traded in for dollars. Two, that the US Government would guarantee the value of the dollar, i.e. back the dollar, by means of gold bars kept in a vault in Fort Knox, Kentucky. The paper dollar, in other words, could be trusted completely. All of this was implemented as soon as the War was over, and it led to a remarkable period of prosperity, worldwide, for the next twenty-five years.

For a variety of reasons, Richard Nixon—not one of my favorite people—decided to repeal Bretton Woods, which he did in 1971. What this did was usher in a dramatic age of finance capitalism. Just to be clear, capitalism comes in three flavors. There is mercantile or commercial capital, in which wealth is derived from trade, and which flourished during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Then there is industrial capital, in which wealth is derived from manufactures, and which characterized the modern era, that is the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. And finally there is finance capital, in which wealth is not derived from trade or manufactures, but simply from currency speculation. This is what the repeal of Bretton Woods allowed, because with the removal of the gold standard, the currencies of the world had no intrinsic (dollar) value; they just floated against one another in a market place of constantly fluctuating exchange rates. Casino capitalism, we might also call it. Those who were rich could make huge amounts of money by speculating on currency rates, because they had large amounts of money to begin with. The rest of us—the so-called 99 percent—didn’t have the luxury of this, and were largely tied to a paycheck, if indeed we even had a job.

The effect of the repeal began to be noticed by 1973, and the gap between rich and poor began to widen noticeably thereafter. Ronald Reagan did his best to make it worse. His so-called “trickle down theory,” by which the wealth of the rich would supposedly spill over into the wallets of the poor and the middle class, was a farce. In a word, nothing trickled down. The rich decided to hang onto their wealth, rather than spread it around. What a surprise! And so today, in China as well as the United States, the top 1 percent own 47 percent of the wealth. In Mexico, thirty-four families are super-rich, while half the country wallows in poverty. And as I mentioned earlier, a handful of Americans own as much as the bottom 3.7 billion of the world’s population. As President Coolidge astutely remarked nearly 100 years ago, “The business of America is business.” John Maynard Keynes’ warning, that the economy was there to serve civilization rather than the reverse, was completely ignored.

“Reaganomics,” as it was called, got further entrenched with the fall of the Soviet Union. This event was taken, in the United States, as definitive proof that what was called the “Washington Consensus”—a neoliberal, globalized economy—was not merely the wave of the future, but indeed the only wave of the future. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote a very famous, and very stupid, book declaring that we were now living in a unipolar world; that America, in short, was the end of history. It’s actually a very old idea, going back to 1630, that America would be the model for the rest of the world—“a city upon a hill.” American politicians love to quote that line. Meanwhile, the light of that city was getting dimmer for most of the American population.

And yet, in the face of all this, Americans continued to believe that they were living in a classless society, or that everyone was middle class. You wonder how stupid a nation can be, really; other nations are hardly so deluded. The author John Steinbeck famously remarked that socialism was never able to take root in America because the poor saw themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” As I argue in Why America Failed, everyone in the US is a hustler; everyone is just waiting for their ship to come in.

In any case, Bush Sr. continued the pattern, as did Bill Clinton. The passage of NAFTA benefited the US at the expense of the so-called Third World, with economic bailouts from the IMF tied to austerity measures that sent peasants in Chiapas, for example, into starvation—and rebellion. The rise of Subcomandante Marcos, and the Zapatistas, was to be expected. But the machinery rolled on. Bush Jr. correctly referred to the super-rich as “my base,” and the Obama presidency, despite a lot of flowery language, was a continuation of Bush Jr. After the crash of 2008, Obama didn’t bail out the poor or create jobs; not at all. He bailed out his rich banker friends to the tune of $19 trillion dollars, while the middle class lost their jobs and their homes and lined up at soup kitchens for the first time in their lives. Tent cities for them, and the working class, blossomed across the country, and Obama did nothing. As for Hillary—and this is a crucial point—what she was essentially promising was an extension of the neoliberal regime that had been in place since her husband took office in 1993. When Trump pointed at her, during the presidential debates, and said to the audience: “If you want a continuation of the last eight years, vote for her,” the people whom globalization had destroyed heard him loud and clear.

Trump seemed clumsy and boorish during the debates; in fact, he knew what he was doing. “What does Hillary have to show for thirty years of political involvement?” he cried. “Everything she is telling you is words, just words. She has nothing to offer you.” He was right, and millions of Americans knew it. Her slogans, like “Stronger Together,” were meaningless. He was speaking about reality, while she was reading from a script. She also looked as though she were programmed. Unfortunately for her, she tended to smile a lot, and it was so forced that she occasionally came across as insane.

In any case, things had changed since she was First Lady. After twenty-five years of neoliberal economics, the white working class understood that politics as usual had nothing to offer them; that Hillary was just a variation on the Obama regime, which had hurt them badly. There was now a realization that their ship would never come in, that they would never be able to participate in the American Dream; that they were permanently embarrassed non-millionaires. They had a deep, and justifiable, resentment against Washington, Wall Street, the New York Times, and all such establishment symbols, and their desire was to say to that establishment, and to the American intellectual elite—pardon my French—go fuck yourselves. Precisely by being vulgar and blunt, and not coming across as a smooth operator like Obama, Trump was winning a large part of America over to his side. Even his body language said “fuck you.”

Trump’s authenticity was also noticeable in his adoption of a declinist position, the first presidential candidate in American history to do this in a serious way. After all, if your campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again,” you are saying that the country is in decline, and that’s exactly what Trump was saying. Our airports resemble those of Third World countries, our roads and bridges are falling apart, our inner cities are filled with crime, our educational system is a joke—and so on. All of this is absolutely true, while Hillary could only come up with a feeble, and hollow, rejoinder: “When was America not great?” Give me a break.

Let me return a moment to the matter of the resentment of the American intellectual elite, the so-called liberal or professional class, which includes much of the Democratic Party. This is a largely untold story, and yet I regard it an absolutely crucial factor in the election of Trump. The same year that Nixon repealed Bretton Woods, 1971, a prominent Washington Democrat by the name of Fred Dutton published a manifesto called Changing Sources of Power. What he said in that document was that it was time for the Democratic Party to forget about the working class. This is not your voting base, he declared; the people you want to court are the white-collar workers, the college-educated, the hip technologically oriented, and so on. Forget about economic issues, he went on; it’s much more a question of lifestyle than anything else. This was the key ideology in the rise of the so-called New Democrats, who in effect repudiated their traditional base and indeed, the whole of Roosevelt’s New Deal, which had historically provided a safety net for that base. Bill Clinton was part of that wave, and during his presidency we saw not only a widening gap between rich and poor, but NAFTA, the abolition of welfare, and the so-called “Three Strikes” law, which put huge numbers of black men into prison for as much as twenty years for minor crimes, thereby destroying their families’ ability to survive. Hillary was also part of that wave, and as Trump and his supporters understood, she was going to court the chic and the hip, not the folks that neoliberalism had ground into the dirt. As it turned out, 53 percent of white women voted for Trump; they were not taken in by Hillary’s gender politics. (For more on this see Nicholas Lemann, “Can We Have a ‘Party of the People’?” New York Review of Books, 13 October 2016, pp. 48-50)

Which brings me to the final point. If the liberal class abandoned their traditional working-class base; if they had stopped, from the early 1970s, fighting for the New Deal ideology; then what ideology did they adopt? This is the saddest, and most ridiculous, chapter in the history of the left in the US: they became preoccupied with language, with political correctness—the sorts of things that not only could do nothing to improve the condition of the working class, but which were actually offensive to that class. God forbid one should say “girls” instead of “women,” or “blacks” instead of “African Americans,” or tell an ethnic joke. Left-wing projects now consisted in rewriting the works of great authors like Mark Twain, so that their nineteenth-century texts might not give offense to contemporary ears. The children of the rich, at elite universities, had to be protected from any kind of direct language. When some students at Bowdoin College in Maine, in 2016, decided to hold a Mexican theme party, complete with tequila and mariachi music, the rest of the campus was in an uproar, calling this “cultural appropriation.” Apparently, only Mexicans are allowed to drink tequila, in the politically correct world. Personally, I regarded this party as a tribute to Mexican culture; what does “appropriation” mean, anyway? In 2015 I published a cultural history of Japan, called Neurotic Beauty. Am I not allowed to do this, because I’m not Japanese? Should Octavio Paz have never written about India? All of this is quite ridiculous, and amounted to a callous neglect of the working class on the part of people who had traditionally fought for that class, for its survival. So while the working class and the middle class found itself confronted with real problems—no job, no home, no money, and no meaning in their lives—the chic liberal elite was preoccupied with who has the legal right to use transgender bathrooms. Well, I’d be angry too.

Just as a side note: In 1979, Christopher Lasch wrote a book called The Culture of Narcissism, in which he argued that during the sixties, we discovered that we were powerless to change the things that really mattered, namely the relations of class and power. As a result, in the seventies we decided to pour our energies into the things that didn’t matter at all, and political correctness is a good example of this. It’s not really politics, in other words; it’s a substitute for politics, and thus a waste of everyone’s time.

In any case, Hillary never understood this. She attacked Trump in the debates for being politically incorrect, when it was precisely that incorrectness that was the source of his appeal. She called his followers—many millions of Americans—“a basket of deplorables.” They didn’t appreciate being looked down upon, especially since the liberal elite had gotten wealthy at their expense. In her pathetic concession speech, on November 9, she still kept appealing to “Diversity,” to “Stronger Together,” and said how she hoped she would be an inspiration to little girls—apparently, in her politically correct world, little boys don’t count. The only one thing she got right in that speech was her observation that the nation was deeply polarized—“we didn’t realize how deeply,” she added. No kidding. The “deplorables” proved to be not so deplorable after all. They knew who their friends were, and they knew she wasn’t one of them.

There is a lot more to be said on the subject of Trump, of course. His belligerent stance toward Mexico, for example, or China. His appeal to nativist sentiments, to bigotry, racism, and anti-Semitism. And while I respect the rage of his followers in terms of their desire to strike back at the economic forces that had destroyed them, I have to admit they aren’t my folks, so to speak. These are people who live in rural areas, go to Little League baseball games, join the Rotary Club and the Elks and the Kiwanis, dislike outsiders, hold church picnics, and reject any form of government support as “socialism,” even though they desperately need that support. We are still a nation of cowboys, and Trump is the biggest cowboy of all. By 2004 I saw that I simply didn’t fit into America, whether it was the cowboys or their opposite, the Harvard intellectual elite; and by 2006 I had moved south of the border. The last eleven years have been the happiest of my life, and I have Mexico to thank for it.

In conclusion, let me say that the American press has persistently labeled Trump as an anomaly, a kind of quirk or historical accident. He isn’t. He represents the constituency I just described, and they comprise a very large part of the nation. He is also the ultimate hustler, whose life is about money, and in that sense as well he is America writ large. The comedian George Carlin used to say, “Where do you think our leaders come from? Mars?” In the last analysis, we got Trump because we are Trump. Above all else, that is how he came into power.

©Morris Berman, 2017