by George Salamon
“A grober yung” means a coarse young man, a crude fellow, an uneducated poltroon.” —The New Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten
THE “STOP TRUMP” campaign is moving full throttle and full-throated. On the 26th of February, the Washington Post published an editorial titled, “GOP leaders, you must do everything in your power to stop Trump.”
What’s going on here? Does the Post, along with other mainstream or establishment media, seriously look upon Donald Trump as a potential American Hitler who must be brought down before he can grab power?
Well, yes. On February 21st the paper published a column by Danielle Allen, a political theorist at Harvard and contributing columnist on the Post, called “The moment of truth: We must stop Trump.” The column plunges immediately into the Hitlerian menace looming over Washington and America:
Like any number of us raised in the late 20th century, I have spent my life perplexed about exactly how Hitler could have come to power in Germany. Leave aside whether a direct comparison of Trump to Hitler is accurate. That is not my point. My point rather is about how a demagogic opportunist can exploit a divided country.
If a comparison was not intended, why raise it as the leading point of the column? Demagogic opportunists have exploited divisions in America’s population before and not drawn the Hitler analogy. Hitler was a German phenomenon, as was the destructive and self-destructive pact he forged with the German Volk. Danielle Allen might want to read J.P. Stern’s splendid Hitler: The Fuehrer and the People (1975) — and the recently published and annotated version of Mein Kampf.
Yet the Post insists on making ludicrous comparisons. In the editorial of February 26th, readers are told Trump would not focus on the usual GOP commitment to “efficient government, free markets and open debate,” but “would round up and deport 11 million people, a forced movement on a scale not attempted since Stalin or perhaps Pol Pot.”
If Trump wins the nomination, will editorials and columns press the comparisons, perhaps asking us to see Trump as another Mao Zedong, Attila the Hun, or Vlad the Impaler?
As much as liberals and progressives, centrists and decent Republicans despise Trump, he strikes some of us more as a blustering Mussolini, making promises and issuing threats impossible to carry out. He cannot deport 11 million people, and he knows it. He cannot revive much of the American economy because it has been outsourced and is unlikely to come marching home. He tells people what they want to hear in the political theater that plays on CNN and gets reported as if it were about the unpleasant realities that plague us but do not entertain us.
He is the outsider-as-a-silly-critic, like Don Rickles insulting his opponents only without being funny or exposing their weaknesses and the degradation of the political system they embody.
SIMILAR FURY and exasperation in the Post‘s comments can be found, along with suggestions for action, in the columns of the New York Times (“The Way to Stop Trump,” by Ross Douthat on January 23rd; “Is There Any Stopping Donald Trump?” by Frank Bruni on February 21st), in the Boston Globe (“Massachusetts voters must stop Donald Trump,” on February 22nd), or on Politico (“What Can Stop Trump?” on February 22nd). Googling “Stop Trump campaign” promises more than 8,000 articles on the subject.
What’s missing is what the mainstream press loathes to approach: the answer to why so many Americans are willing to swallow the snake oil Trump is selling. To delve into that subject would weaken their case against him and could gradually lead to a reassessment of whether or not the political system, with politics as usual and the usual politicians, serves what it is supposed to serve, as stated in the preamble to the Constitution: “to promote the general Welfare.”
The Trump phenomenon, and to a lesser degree the Sanders one, suggests that the people might be considering a “no” answer to that question. Frank Bruni voiced it in different words: “they want to try something utterly different.” Not yet in the system that is run by finance capitalism for the benefit of the rich, but as a starter in the figurehead of that system, the President of the United States. Enter Donald John Trump.
There is no emphasis, in the stories of Trump’s progress, on what paved the way for him: namely, the collective domestic legacy of the last five administrations, those of three Republicans and two Democrats (Ronald Reagan, Bush Senior, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.) What they have done — and Trump began by harping on this point — is to put an end to the cherished “American Dream.”
In 2010, the German magazine Der Spiegel interviewed sociologist Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) for a story that asked “Is the American Dream Over?” Der Spiegel reported: “Today an American CEO earns about 300 times as much as an ordinary worker. In 1950, that number was only 30. The consequence is ‘social segregation,’” Putnam told the magazine, “by which he means that people go to different schools and parties and live in different neighborhoods, and that there is no longer any overlap between groups.”
“The fundamental bargain,” Putnam went on to say, “the core of America, has always been that we can live with big gaps between rich and poor as long as there is also equality of opportunity… If that is no longer true, the core bargain is being violated.”
Americans have seen that core bargain violated for the past three-and-a-half decades, with the support or consent of their political leaders and their elites, and now that the consequences have robbed them of the dream of past generations, they are at least looking at something utterly different in the person of Trump. Whether or not he is really different they have not yet discovered. The salesman disguises the lemons he sells as oranges.
But they can experience the consequences of the divide, the results of the class war the rich successfully waged against the struggling and weak since Reagan waltzed into the Oval Office in 1980. People live with those consequences daily, in the workplace, at home, in their kids’ schools, and at the mall.
The Post is right in saying that Trump is exploiting the divide, but fails to point out the people, parties, and forces which created the divide or looked on as it grew deeper and broader. I don’t recall campaigns to “Stop” Reagan, Bush Senior or Junior, Clinton, or Obama from letting the divide flourish and eat the American Dream. These five, the politicians during their administrations, and the “gurus” they listened to, as well as the media which did not crusade for something “utterly different,” are Trump’s godfathers.
The political philosophers and economists, who warned us of where our leaders, representatives and elites were taking us, were dismissed as Cassandras or unpatriotic critics of our usual orgy of self-congratulations we substitute for self-examinations.
What would self-examination have revealed, and what has it discovered today? The path to Trump was conceived as early as 1968, when the old New Deal order was still alive within the Democratic Party establishment and America’s unions were still strong. With Nixon, his campaign adviser Alan Greenspan came to Washington, and he envisioned and eventually helped install a new economic order — which became what Washington accepted and followed since the election of Ronald Reagan twelve years later.
AT THE HEART of the new economic order was Greenspan’s embrace of philosopher Ayn Rand’s notion, as he phrased it, “that capitalism is not only efficient and practical, but also moral.” The early 1980s gave Reagan and the Republican lawmakers the opportunity to reshape the country and deregulate the shipping and telecommunications industries, commercial aviation, and the banks, decimate the unions, and lower the maximum tax rate from 70 to 28 percent.
Reagan’s “morning in America” ushered in a different country, a bold and free one, conservatives insisted, one not restrained by government regulations and programs. The newly deregulated financial markets awakened interest in in stocks and financial investments. The financial industry doubled its profits since the 1970s, and shortly before the 2008 financial crisis, about 40 percent of America’s corporate profits were made in banking. The country’s economy experienced a massive structural change. Since the 1980s, American companies have been dominated by investors interested primarily in quick and large profits usually achieved by cutting the workforce. Between 2000 and 2010, almost 6 million jobs were cut. By 2010 only 9 percent of Americans were working in manufacturing, half as many as in 1985.
No administration after Regan has succeeded in stopping or reversing the loss of momentum in our economy. Nor has any administration been able to do what Paul Volcker proposed as essential for our economic well-being: “rebuilding its industrial sector.” And what about the morality gene Rand and Greenspan endowed capitalism with? Then-editor of the Washington Monthly and National Book Award-winning author Katharine Boo got it right in 1992: “Why we need a New Marx,” was the question she posed and answered: “Because the market isn’t moral.”
The Americans who suffered the most, no one will be surprised, are middle-class, working-class, and poor people. That is not a new story, and it is one the New York Times has covered well:
- “Low-Income Workers See Biggest Drop in Paychecks” (September 3, 2015)
- “Class Divisions Growing Worse From Cradle On” (December 18, 2015)
- “Life Spans of the Rich Leave the Poor Behind” (February 13, 2016)
- “Poorest Areas Have Missed Out on Boons of Recovery, Study Finds” (February 25, 2016)
The great divide between the top 10 percent and the rest, affecting every area of our lives — housing, health, education, security — is here to stay. An IRS study labeled it “life-long.” In a country already hobbled by a “limited concept of social cohesion” (Der Spiegel) what hope can poor people nourish when much of the country’s elite pronounces any social thinking to be socialist?
BUT THEY can fall back on some ugly alternatives to hope. And that brings us back to the “Stop Trump” movement. The Boston Globe is correct when it says that “Trump’s campaign has revived some of the ugliest traditions in American politics, including the scapegoating of religious minorities and immigrants.”
Those traditions are tapped into by his campaign, but they were revived and they flourish because five administrations have abandoned millions of Americans to the consequences of stupid and thoughtless economic priorities and policies and to foreign policy misadventures.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was asked in 1936 by a Canadian journalist what he meant to accomplish as president, he said: “To do what any honest government of any country would do — try to increase the security and happiness of a larger number of people.”
What administration in the past half century, by Roosevelt’s definition, has tried hard to do that? Which one would qualify, therefore, as an “honest government?” Not one I can think of.
Ninety percent of the American people have become unhappier and less secure economically during the past three decades than they were before. The government is helpless, clueless, indifferent. The professional classes, the 9 percent that provide the “brain work” for the top 1 percent — the scientists, academics, managers, journalists, lawyers, civil servants — ape the behavior and values of the rich and have surrendered much of their moral integrity.
Crusaders against Trump might want to understand why so many Americans are willing to take the “Anybody But” path — anybody but Clinton or Bush or Christie or Cruz — toward Trump. Their savior, they found out, will not come from our political elite, indeed, from any segment of the elite. They believe that maybe the crude, rude, bully — the grober yung — and sly real estate wheeler-dealer can force through change to brighten their future, as a “strongman” president who doesn’t just utter the usual flapdoodle about hope and change.
I think Trump supporters are foolish in their willingness to swallow a different brand of snake oil. But I try to understand why they are willing or desperate enough to try it.
Reviews in the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review discuss “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond. Both reviews cite this sentence from the book:
No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.
America became what Desmond describes with wrenching, heartbreaking honesty and compassion under our political and economic system, and under politicians the Times would prefer in the Oval Office to Trump. I say what they have allowed our country to become is much worse than anything the GOP’s bad boy has done, and I’m not sure he could surpass the moral depravity of the class war they allowed to devastate the lives of millions.
The February 28th New York Times features this Page One headline: “South Carolina Hands Clinton Robust Victory/ Black Voters Pivotal/ Sanders is Foiled by His Rival’s Strength With Obama Loyalists”
Foiled? As in the classic line uttered by villains: “Foiled again!”
George Salamon taught German at several East Coast colleges, published a study of the German-Jewish novelist Arnold Zweig and a reader in German history. He worked as a business reporter and served as editor on a military magazine. He now writes for the Gateway Journalism Review, The New Verse News and Jewish Currents from St. Louis, MO.