Friday, August 26, 2016

Tearing ourselves apart

The United States faces in my opinion the second greatest political crisis in its history, less serious only than the civil war, largely because the idea of genuine national unity has evaporated.  The two political parties are divided, literally as never before, along lines of race and gender--indeed, those divisions are much more significant than those of class.  Donald Trump, who has run almost explicitly as the candidate of white American in general and white male America in particular, will probably lose the election, but he is likely to win more than 40% of the vote, compared to the 13.5% that George Wallace won playing the same part in 1968.  His voters will probably emerge from the election angrier than ever.  Meanwhile, among the black community, the ideas that discrimination, racism and the legacy of slavery have created specifically oppressive conditions that demand race-specific results seems stronger than ever, as exemplified by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Belonging as I do to the left side of American politics, I am going to focus on what my own side has done to help create this mess.  It is not merely that Hillary Clinton specifically rejected Bernie Sanders's class-based appeal during the primaries, arguing that decreasing income inequality wouldn't do much about racism, sexism and homophobia.  She is also explicitly running as the candidate of women, minorities, and immigrants, and raising the rhetorical ante this week by labeling Trump as the candidate of racist white Americans.  The whole emphasis on racial disparities in the economy, education, and the criminal justice system that began half a century ago has promoted the idea of our economy as a zero-sum game in which white males have too much and everyone else has too little.  The increasingly popular concept of "white male privilege" contributes to the same view.  In my opinion, this view, which is mainstream in the Democratic party and hegemonic in academia, has done a great deal to bring about the rise of Donald Trump.  It has convinced millions of Americans--white, black, and Hispanic--that most poor people are minorities and that most federal programs only help them--two facts that are clearly and demonstrably false.  Our problems, which are not racial in origin in my opinion, are invariably interpreted through a racial lens. The effect of this in many cases is obscure both the scope and the depth of the problems we face, and to make it much harder to address them seriously.  And to illustrate this I am going to take one of the problems most under discussion: the issue of mass incarceration.

The other day, a facebook friend posted this graph and the accompanying story.  The graph shows what happened to incarceration rates in the US from 1960 to 2010, broken down by race and gender.  The headline, typically, stressed that the gap in incarceration rates between whites on the one hand and blacks and hispanics on the other had increased.  Typically--and trust me, from the googling I've just done, I am not making this up--the graph and the story dealt entirely in percentages, not in total numbers.  I decided to look up some census data and get a better perspective on these statistics. Combining different data sets always has problems, and I am sure my figures are not exactly accurate, but they are close enough to paint a clear and true picture.

Because segregation still prevailed in much of the United States in 1960, far fewer women earned their own living, and gays generally had to stay in the closet, it is fashionable to portray the 1950s as a hopelessly unenlightened and oppressive era, one that no one in their right mind would want to return to.  I can assure you without much fear of contradiction, though, that there are 1.5 million Americans today--or as of 2010--who would be delighted to return to 1960 if they could, because they are in prison today and would not have been in prison then.  Leaving race aside for a moment, the increase in incarceration in our society since 1960 is absolutely staggering--one of the biggest single differences, I would argue, between the US then and the US now.

The population of the United States in 1960 was 179 million people.  Of those, according to the incarceration rates in the table that I linked above, 375,790 were confined in jails and prisons. (I used US census data to get to the totals.)  That amounts to .21% of the population, one fifth of one percent.  In 2010 the population had reached 309 million--and the prison and jail population was 2.3 million, .74 percent--more than three times higher.  We had 375,790 people in prison in 1960; we now have nearly 2.3 million, about six times as many.  Even if we apply today's incarceration rate to the much smaller population of 1960, we get a surplus of 1.5 million prisoners--the source of the figure that I gave in the last paragraph.  That is why many states--such as California, the largest--now spend more money on their prisons than on higher education, the reverse of the situation in 1960.  This is an appalling situation--and its effects are not confined to minority populations.

Yes, the incarceration rates for blacks and Hispanics are much higher than those for whites, but the absolute numbers are not.  If my calculations are correct, black prisoners do represent a plurality of the prison population.  I show 830,000 black prisoners in 2010, 815,000 white ones, and 446,000 Hispanics.  (The Hispanic numbers have grown by far the most since 1960 because, of course, their total numbers have grown the most.)  But that still means that there are more than twice as many white people in prison now than there were total Americans in 1960, and the population has not doubled.  In fact, among demographic categories in the table, the biggest single percentage increase in incarceration rates, 1960-2010, was for white women, whose rate went from 11 per 100,000 in 1960 to 91 per 100,000 in 2010.

The terrible irony of all this, it seems to me, is that it is probably in the blue states, where the white population (and a substantial chunk of the minority population) is much better off, that the racial disparity in prison populations is the greatest.  There are poor white people everywhere, but there are far more of them, percentage-wise, in the poorest states, which are red states almost without exception.  The Trump voters know all about poverty, crime, and incarceration in their own white communities and they know that the Democratic Party always seems to talk about these issues in racial terms.  I continue to feel it's pathetic that they are voting for man who will do less than nothing for them, but their resentment of my side is quite understandable.

I do not have time today to look up the figure again, but I recently did confirm that most of the people killed by police officers in this country are also white.  Yes, proportionally, they are fewer--but in absolute terms, they are more.  I am afraid that when BLM activists insist on focusing only on black deaths, and when white liberals stress statistical disparities, it does imply that the white deaths aren't important, because they are proof, in some bizarre way, of "white privilege," since there are proportionately fewer of them.  When I pointed this out on a very interracial facebook page, two young black people asked why the white community wasn't more upset about their people who were killed by the police.  That's an interesting question.  It may be that it is an aspect of being part of what has been the largest and dominant group that one does not attribute misfortune to race, and is more likely to blame it on circumstances or, in some cases, on what the victim actually did.  All of us ought to ponder that question.

Let me address my concluding remarks to my fellow liberals, black and white.  For 50 years we have argued that race was the key to problems of poverty, education, and the criminal justice system.  What has happened? Education is only marginally more integrated than it was then, poverty is still very widespread, and the percentage of Americans in prison has tripled.  And it has become much, much harder than in the 1960s to build a political coalition to do something about these problems.  Sadly, it is clear to me that white liberals--especially in academia--see it as a mark of their own virtue to put a racial cast on these problems.  It isn't.  They all affect millions of white people as well--and casting them in racial terms alienates those people and makes it harder to find solutions, as the state politics of the red states prove beyond any doubt.  The nation desperately needs causes around which all of us can rally.  Poverty, education and criminal justice could play that role--if we recognized that they affect us all.

The great winner in this story has been corporate America. Around the turn of the 19-20th century, when Populism swept what we now call the Red States, southern politicians turned white voters against disenfranchised blacks to defect their anger from railroads and banks.  Now both parties are playing the same game from different sides of the fence.  Corporate America has leavened its upper reaches some female and minority executives, but in general, it impartially exploits all the rest of us.  It will continue to do so until we can impartially unite to limit its power, as we did from the 1930s through the 1960s, with extraordinary results.  Both Trump and Clinton are now deepening the racial divide.  They are both members are allies of our corporate and financial elite.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Trump, McCarthy and the Republican Party



Like Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s, Donald Trump has become the standard bearer of the right wing of the Republican Party.  Both rose to prominence by pushing conspiracy theories. McCarthy argued that the State Department and the whole federal government were full of Communists, while Trump began the new phase of his career by suggesting that President Obama was not born in Hawaii, and continues to hint that the President has some unexplained connection to Islam.  Both surprised the Republican party and the nation by the resonance their extreme claims found in the heartland—even among many working class Democrats, as well as Republicans.  And ultimately, both became involved in a confrontation with their own party.  McCarthy’s confrontation led to his downfall.  The last phase of Trump’s confrontation with his party establishment began last week, and its outcome remains uncertain.

When Joseph McCarthy, a junior Senator from Wisconsin, announced in February 1950 in Wheeling, West Virginia that he had a list of Communists knowingly employed by the State Department, he created a sensation.  Like Donald Trump, McCarthy made one sweeping charge after another—none of which ever proved to be true.  But despite numerous newspaper stories and Congressional investigations debunking his charges, his popularity only seemed to grow.  He proved himself a national political power in the Congressional elections of 1950, when he helped defeat several relatively liberal candidates.  The leadership of the Republican Party, increasingly desperate after nearly 20 years out of power, encouraged his attacks, and in the 1952 campaign, Dwight Eisenhower refused to repudiate McCarthy or anything that he had said.  The Republicans won control of Congress as well as the White House that year, and McCarthy became the chairman of a powerful Senate committee.

McCarthy by this time had developed a tactic of not only accusing various left-wingers of Communist associations, but also of arguing that anyone who opposed him was a witting or unwitting dupe of the Communist conspiracy.  With the Republicans back in office, their leadership expected McCarthy to confine his attacks to Democrats—but such was not to be the case.  McCarthy and his Senate staff, led by Roy Cohn—later a friend of Donald Trump’s—continued finding supposed Communist influence in various government agencies.  Then they stumbled upon the case of an Army dentist, Captain Irving Peress, who had refused to answer questions about his political affiliations before entering the Army.  It took some months for the Army to discharge him as politically undesirable, and before it had done so, Peress was routinely promoted to major.  McCarthy immediately announced that this proved a Communist conspiracy within the Army, dedicated to harboring and promoting subversives.  He demanded that the Army furnish the names of everyone involved in the promotion and publicly berated the Secretary of the Army.   This led to the televised “Army-McCarthy hearings,” which finally discredited him.  A plurality of the Republicans in the Senate joined in censuring his conduct, and he never recovered. He died less than three years later.

Trump’s appointment of Steven Bannon of breitbnart.com to run his presidential campaign represents a final break with the Republican establishment.  With only a few exceptions such as the elder members of the Bush family, that establishment had rallied around Trump for the same reason that leading Republicans failed to confront McCarthy: he has too much popular appeal, especially among their own base.  Since the convention the papers have been filled with hopeful stories about Trump’s possible “pivot,” his transformation into a normal, respectable presidential candidate who would do what the party elders wanted.  According to a New York Times story that evidently stung Trump, his own campaign leadership asked him to change his strategy a couple of weeks ago in an “intervention”—but he refused.  (Oddly, while McCarthy was an alcoholic, Trump reportedly does not drink at all.)  Instead, Trump hired Bannon, a leading figure within the populist, ultra-right faction of the Republicans represented by Breitbart, the Drudge report, and Rush Limbaugh.  Just as McCarthy began to accuse the Eisenhower Administration, too, of coddling Communists, Bannon and company have labelled mainstream Republicans as RINOS, Republicans in name only.  Bannon was a key figure in the primary defeat of Republican House Whip Eric Cantor in 2014, and he supported Paul Ryan’s primary opponent this year.  Trump has in effect signaled the Republican Party, from Paul Ryan on down, that if he is elected they will either toe his line or face the wrath of Trump voters.  

That Trump actually secured the Republican nomination shows how weak the party leadership has become.  McCarthy was a national political power for four years, but he did not run for President I952 or seek the vice-presidential nomination and there was never any evidence that he could have secured the nomination.  Trump, on the other hand, made short work of this year’s leading Republicans, none of whom came close to matching his appeal.  He is now trailing Hillary Clinton by substantial margins in the polls, however, and the appointment of Bannon, I suspect, will start a hemorrhage of leading Republicans from his campaign.  They will turn against Trump, I suspect, for the same reason the Republicans turned against McCarthy in 1954—because their own political survival is at stake.  That will not be the last of Trump or the forces he represents.  The Frankenstein the Republican leadership helped to create in the Bill Clinton and Obama Administrations is too large and healthy to be slain quickly.  But if Trump loses very badly, it may turn out that this new eruption of the paranoid style of American politics—a term coined in response to McCarthy—has passed its peak.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

A few thoughts on where we are going

I shall defer any further comments on our election for at least a week, to see if present trends continue.  So far, last week's analogy between Trump and Bryan is looking pretty good, at least with respect to how the election seems likely to turn out and what the long-term consequences might be.  But the election of Hillary Clinton will leave us with enormous problems to solve--problems which our establishment, of which she is now the leading representative, has little grasp of.  History is at a turning point, and the powers that be, it seems to me, are doing their best to ignore it.

Last month's attempted coup in Turkey and the Erdogan government's response represent a major world-historical event.  Turkey's Fourth Turning, or crisis, was somewhat delayed.  It was in the 1920s that Kemal Ataturk founded secular, modern Turkey, based on western dress and institutions.   Turkey has been evolving in a much more religious direction for more than a decade, but without any dramatic break with the past. That break has now come.  Whoever was actually behind the coup, the regime clearly used it as an excuse to execute a carefully planned and widespread purge, comparable to what Italy went through in the 1920s and Germany in the early 1930s, when only those who would accept Fascist or Nazi rule were allowed to remain in positions of responsibility.  The Turkish government, meanwhile, has started a worldwide propaganda campaign to blame the coup on an exile living in America, whose extradition was quickly demanded in two separate op-ed pieces in the New York Times.  Turkey is now au authoritarian state,. and a major player in the Sunni-Shi'ite civil war that is tearing the Middle East apart.  Since its accession to the EU was being treated as a real possibility before the coup and the government's response, and since the United States still talks as if Turkey was our ally in the Middle East, this should be moving our leadership a chance to re-evaluate our whole policy--but there is no sign that this is happening.  There are at least two very important conclusions that might be drawn.

To begin with, it is time for the US government to abandon the fantasy that it has any real allies in the Middle East.  We still claim to want more allies against various forms of terrorism, led by ISIS; we want political change in Syria, including the end of the Assad regime as presently constituted; and in theory, we want peace between Israel and the Palestinians.  But increasingly it seems that no major Middle Eastern actor shares these goals.  The Sunnis and the Shi'ites are focused on defeating each other, in Iraq, in Lebanon, and above all in Syria.  Turkey seems more concerned with the Assad regime than with ISIS, and perhaps more concerned with the Kurds, as well.  Our other major ally, Israel, seems simply to welcome the increasing chaos among its Muslim neighbors, which leaves it in a stronger position.  The weapons we send to various groups in Syria generally find their way into the wrong hands.  Russia has now outplayed us there by seizing upon one of the truly possible courses of action: supporting the Assad regime.  Having decided that it was too evil to continue, we have had no effective response.

Indeed, important elements within our leadership remain committed to the fantasy of popular upheaval leading to more democracy in the Middle East.  This is the theme of an article in the current New York Review of Books (which unfortunately is available to subscribers only) by our UN Ambassador, Samantha Power, who wants us to do more to show that we are on the side of oppressed peoples and against their governments. She specifically calls on our diplomats not to spend so much time dealing with their host governments--always their primary function--but instead to engage with the people.  "This should include building relationships not only with well-known civil society organizations," she writes,  "but also with groups like teachers’ associations, workers’ unions, and leaders in the business community—and not only with the vocal majorities, but with the minorities who are harder to find and hear. This kind of engagement demands a greater investment in our diplomatic efforts at a time when many governments—including the United States—are facing significant pressure to scale back the resources they dedicate to investments overseas, and to cloister diplomats in fortress-like embassies in the parts of the world where such local connections are actually needed most. So leaders must make the case to the public not only for why we cannot isolate ourselves from these problems, but also why we must widen the scope of our diplomatic engagement as a national security imperative."  With large portions of the world sliding towards anarchy and suspicion of American motives higher than ever, this is a recipe for disaster, not least among the people whom Power wants to help.

Power, essentially, is clinging to the Hegelian vision that has seduced the US foreign policy elite since the fall of Communism, the idea that western values are now destined to triumph everywhere and that we can easily hasten the process.  In fact, the events in Turkey are parallel to events almost 40 years ago in Iran, where another relatively secular, pro-western regime was overthrown by its people and replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini.  The prestige of western civilization reached its peak in the era of the two world wars and began to slip in the last quarter of the twentieth century.  Its retreat is accelerating in much of the Muslim world.  In my opinion, the regimes that we shall have to live with for the next few decades will have less in common with our values than the USSR did.   If we can accept that, we can use the situation to reaffirm our own values, especially at home.  If we remain in denial, we will do more harm than good, and our government's prestige will be further eroded.

Meanwhile, on a broader front, we are coping, in a new way, with the consequences of the nuclear age.  While fears of nuclear terrorism--most probably in the form of a "dirty bomb"--are growing, nuclear weapons have kept the peace among the major powers now for 71 years.  There is in my opinion an excellent chance that they will continue to do so.  That, however, has made it unnecessary for the governments of the major powers to demand the kind of allegiance they received from their peoples during the first half of the twentieth century, or to make comparable claims on their nations' resources either for defense or for other public goods.  I have often remarked that I will not be disappointed to depart the earth without seeing a conflict on the scale of the two world wars, but great power conflict had some beneficial long-term consequences, particularly in the victorious nations.  The whole post-1945 emergence of the American suburban middle class was in many ways a direct payoff to the young men of America who had fought the Second World War, and to their families.  Ordinary Americans are suffering today because the government feels no such obligation to them.  We have, sadly, found no substitute for war to bind us together and exert a claim on our resources for the common good.  All over the world, economic oligarchies control more and more of the economic surplus.

The Trump campaign, I am afraid, will leave any serious attempt to address our problems further away than ever, even if he is soundly defeated.  Trump has made himself the issue, and the incessant focus on his latest outrageous remark leaves no room for any serious discussion of the issues we face.  Clinton seems especially determined to run as the establishment candidate on foreign policy, and Trump will not provide any coherent alternatives.  The establishment is clearly completely out of touch with the more than 40% of the electorate that will vote for him, and many Democrats will vote without great enthusiasm as well. Government will remain divided. Our real challenge--to revive our best traditions and make our government actually work--will remain, whatever the result.



Friday, August 05, 2016

Who is Trump? An historical view


Much of our punditry and political leadership still seems to be in denial about the nomination of Donald Trump.  Republicans talk of an "intervention" to turn him into a respectable candidate, and one story after another, all evidently made out of whole cloth, speculates about his withdrawal from the race.  While it is beginning to look as though he will in fact be soundly defeated, we must still face the fact that he commands the support of a large majority of our white population and over 40% of the nation as a whole.  Meanwhile, people search for analogies to this phenomenon--of which there are, frankly, none.  Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate in 1940, was, like Trump, a businessman who had not run for office, but he had been chosen by the Republican eastern establishment as an alternative to conservative candidates from the Midwest.  Barry Goldwater comes closer, but he was part of a broad conservative movement in a way that Trump is not.  I shall pass over other possible analogies for the moment--except for the one upon which I want to focus.  In my opinion, the closest analogy to the Trump phenomenon--with respect to the source of its appeal, the areas of the country in which it is popular, and, very likely, in its impact--is the 1896 campaign of William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat, who was soundly defeated in the balloting by William McKinley of Ohio, a Republican.

There were, to be sure, various ways in which 1896 differed very much from 2016.  Bryan, to begin with, belonged to the party in power--but he was the Bernie Sanders of his day, running against establishment Democrats such as President Grover Cleveland, who was then finishing the second of his two non-consecutive terms (1885-1889 and 1893-97.)  The country was in the midst of severe economic crisis that had begun three years before, not the kind of long-term stagnation that we face today.  Bryan was a very young politician--he turned 36 in 1896, by far the youngest major-party candidate in history--rather than an aging businessman.  Yet both of them appealed to the same kinds of class resentments, and both of them stood explicitly as foes of economic orthodoxy and the effects of world trade.  And both appealed to the same parts of the country: the South, and the plains and mountain states. 

The late nineteenth century was, like the early 21st, a deflationary period in economics.  Both prices and wages were falling, driven down by agricultural surpluses and cheap labor, which in those days was entering the United States, not taking away jobs abroad.  The vast farm population, still regarded as the backbone of America, was hit especially hard, because it could was finding it harder and harder to afford the credit farmers needed every year in anticipation of the harvest.  They were rather in the situation of underwater mortgage holders, although they were far more politically powerful.  The radical solution to the nation's ills was the inflation of the currency, to be accomplished by a massive coinage of silver.  That, it was thought, would reduce value of debts, while increasing wages and prices.  The opposite view, represented by President Cleveland and most of the Republican Party, held to the gold standard and "sound money."  That was the establishment position the world over, and especially in the world's financial capital, London.  To the Establishment, free silver seemed as subversive and disastrous as Trump's protectionist ideas seem today.  It would force the United States inward, taking it away from the world economy, and threaten chaos.  The nation's press lined up behind McKinley, just as our punditry is abandoning Trump today.

William Jennings Bryan resembled Donald Trump in one respect: he built up his campaign singlehandedly, coming out of nowhere to become a major party nominee.  He did so by rallying free silver forces all over the South and Midwest.  There were of course no radio or television debates in those days, but there were national conventions, gatherings of party activists and leading state and national officials who autonomously chose their nominees.  When the Democrats met in Chicago, Bryan took the convention by storm, delivering his famous "cross of gold" speech during a debate on the platform.  Bryan was helped, like Trump, by a terrible vacuum in the leadership of his party.  I consider myself relatively well versed in the history of American politics, but I could not tell you anything about R. P. Bland, Henry M. Teller, David B. Hill, and Henry M. Teller, Bryan's losing opponents in the balloting for the nomination.  In another 130 years, I suspect it will be equally hard to find anyone who can identify Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, or Ted Cruz.  The political fervor in the South and West was all anti-establishment, and some of it went into other parties, such as the populist People's Party, which endorsed Bryan. 

In a sense, my comparison of Bryan to Trump is unfair to Bryan.  He had both a coherent program--whether or not it might have worked--and a sincere feeling for the less well off members of American society.  Trump has neither.  But both are appealing to southerners and westerners who feel profoundly alienated from our economic establishment, and with good reason.   Bryan, like Trump, argued for the adoption of his policies no matter what the rest of the world thought--he argued that Britain would have to adopt some form of "free silver" too, if the United States did so. Trump is the first candidate to have come to popular attention through television; Bryan became the first to run a national campaign tour. Both came out of nowhere, and threw a terrible scare into the establishment, both of the other party and their own.  The Democrats had a substantial cadre of northeastern poltiicians who remained committed to conservative politics and the gold standard, and many of them--like more and more northeastern Republicans today--refused to back their candidate.

William McKinley, the Governor of Ohio and former Congressman who secured the Republican nomination, was, like Hillary Clinton, a devoted party loyalist and a pillar of the establishment, represented by his patron and campaign manager, Mark Hanna.  Just as Clinton essentially endorses the economic course we have been on for the last 25 years or so--while promising, of course, to alleviate some of the hardship it has created--McKinley stood for sound money and good establishment principles.  Cheap money and inflation, he argued, would hurt everyone, especially workers--and apparently, most workers agreed with him.  McKinley successfully painted Bryan as a wild, fringe candidate in both the north and the midwest--and, crucially, brought about a major political realignment as a result.

In 1896, national politics had been balanced on a knife edge for 20 years.  After the disputed election of 1876--in which the Republicans had managed to maneuver Rutherford B. Hayes, the real loser in the voting, into office--three extremely close elections had followed, one won by the Democrats and two by the Republicans.  Every election result from 1876 through 1888 depended on the votes of one state, hotly contested New York.  In 1892, Cleveland, running for the third time in a row, had won a more impressive victory, adding most of the Midwest to New York and the entire Democratic South.   We too live in an era of relatively close elections.  George Bush also would have been defeated in either 2000 or 2004 if a single state had gone the other way, Barack Obama won re-election in 2012 with just 51.1% of the vote.

As it turned out, Bryan's campaign was a disaster for the Democratic Party in both the short run and the long.  In November 1896, the states of New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin all shifted from the Democrats to the Republicans.  McKinley won with 271 electoral votes to 176.  And thus began an era of four consecutive presidential elections in which the Republican Party was never seriously challenged.  Bryan remained a hero to the party faithful throughout, running again in 1900 and 1908, but without ever coming close to victory. Only its split, in 1912, into Taft and Roosevelt factions, allowed Woodrow Wilson to win the White House with a substantial minority of the popular vote.  After Wilson was re-elected by the narrowest of margins in 1916, the Republicans won three more landslide victories from 1920 through 1928.  By 1932, when FDR won the first of four terms, the Democrats had a whole new constituency--the immigrant masses of northern cities--to add to their southern base.

Will Trump, in this respect, mirror Bryan's impact on national politics?  The political establishment, now represented by Hillary Clinton, is weaker today than in 1896.  The Republicans had no trouble picking a safe, uncontroversial candidate then--and Clinton remains very controversial and disliked by many.  But Clinton, like McKinley, may well combine the centrist wing of the opposition party with her own base and win a smashing victory.  The Republican party's base of disaffected white voters will continue to shrink.

To Democrats like myself who favored Bernie Sanders, this would be a welcome, but not inspiring outcome.  The economic grievances of Trump's voters are very real, and the establishment--including Clinton--is disconnected from the public at large.  Yet to compare Trump to Bryan also reveals how low American politics have sunk.  Bryan was a brilliant wordsmith and orator, a highly intelligent man, and--despite the reputation he earned fighting against evolution--a serious and principled thinker.  Trump is none of these things.  The 1890s were still an age of print, and politicians needed literary skills that have become quite unnecessary.  In the coming weeks we shall find whether Trump is destined to share Bryan's fate--and whether we are destined to continue for decades more in our age of inequality.




Thursday, July 28, 2016

Cassius was right

Last week, I, along with some unknown number of my fellow Americans--I would guess less that 100,000--read the New Yorker  article by Jane Mayer about Tony Schwartz, Donald Trump's ghostwriter on The Art of the Deal, and his guilt over his role in creating the Trump phenomenon.  I found Schwartz's personal drama sad and a bit pathetic, but as so often happens, the story set me thinking about much broader issues.  Donald Trump is, even by American standards, a unique individual--yet he would never have gone as far as he has in business, entertainment, and politics if he had not tapped into some profound problems in contemporary American life.  That indeed may be his secret:  one by one, he tapped into critical trends in business, publishing, the entertainment world, and now, politics, bringing him to the threshold of the White House.  His story is also a parable of the dark side of his, and my, Boom generation (Trump as it happens is one year older than I am.)  These subjects could fill a whole book, and some day I hope some one writes it.  This week I can only make a few broad points.

Let us begin at the beginning: Trump, like so many well-known Boomers, was not only born into privilege but entered (and transformed) his successful father's profession.  His father was a very successful real estate developer who, typically for that bygone era, made his fortune building relatively small suburban homes for working Americans.  The suburbanization of America left empty pockets in our major cities, and Donald was one of the developers who stepped in to fill the vacuum with commercial buildings or luxury properties.  Trump's life in this respect is parallel to two of the previous three Republican Presidential candidates.  Mitt Romney's father built family cars; Mitt became a private equity magnate.  George W. Bush followed his father unsuccessfully into the oil business, and then made a fortune as an owner of the Texas Rangers by arranging for local authorities to build a new stadium.  On the Democratic side of the aisle this trend is noteworthy in politics. Al Gore Sr. was a Senator (and a far more liberal one than his son) whose connections obviously eased Al's way into politics.  Governors Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo both succeeded their own fathers.  The Presidents from the GI generation, from Kennedy through Bush I, included three truly self-made men: Nixon, Ford, and Carter.  By this time next year we will have had three Boomer Presidents, and the only one who rose from modest origins, interestingly enough, will be Bill Clinton.

Trump's economic rise, of course, represents all that is worst about our new economy. He rose by making deals, which involves using other peoples' money to acquire property and build things, taking quick profits off the top,. and letting his investors take any losses.  That is another form of the technique of private equity firms who buy existing enterprises, sell of their assets, and liquidate them.  I haven't seen anyone mention this, but The Art of the Deal came out almost at the same moment as Wall Street, Oliver Stone's extraordinarily generational film about the prototype of the new kind of tycoon, Gordon Gecko.  Trump probably recognized a kindred spirit.   The 1980s were the Reagan era, and for the first time since 1920s, great wealth and ostentation became something to be proud of, to study, and to dream of.  The hit dramas and comedies of the 1970s--All in the Family, Laverne and Shirley, The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show--dealt with ordinary people or young professionals.  The hit shows of the 1980s, Dallas and Dynasty, focused on the super rich,. Eventually Trump became the star of his own show.

It was in the mid-1980s. before The Art of the Deal, that Trump began building Atlantic City casinos.  Now in his (and my) father's world, earlier generations had tried to make it difficult for businesses to profit from human addictions.  They had outlawed illegal drugs, pornography, gambling--and even, in a failed overreach, the consumption of alcohol.   The Boom generation, of course, rebelled against all such restraints, and corporate Boomers found ways to capitalize on addictive substances, including opioids. (The greed of big pharma is mainly responsible for the current opioid epidemic, which is taking thousands of lives a year.)  Most states now have lotteries, which prey on the poorest members of the population, and gambling is legal in quite a few, including New Jersey.  Trump climbed on that bandwagon, and although his casinos often went into bankruptcy, he managed to escape ahead.

And that leads me to perhaps my most important point: Trump's business success could only happen in a business environment in which most of the players had allowed their lust for ever-growing profits to overwhelm their rational faculties.  The inability of money managers to make realistic choices has been the great lesson of all our recent booms and busts, most notably, of course, with respect to the housing bubble.  Trump has earned his contempt for the rest of us, in a way, because he built his fortune on the gullibility of others.  Now he has won the Republican nomination the same way.

This brings us to the story of The Art of the Deal, the subject of the New Yorker article, which reads to me like a parable of the decline of modern publishing.  Half a century ago writing non-fiction books was an honorable profession out of which men and women (see Tuchman, Barbara) could make an excellent living.  The reading public, which had memories of one of the great heroic ages of western civilization (1933-45), had a taste for serious subjects.  In addition, because the higher education system was much more rigorous in the first half of the twentieth century, successful businessmen and political leaders could often write their own autobiographies.  By the 1980s, the era in which publishers no longer marketed books, but marketed names, had begun, and ghostwriting--while hardly a completely new phenomenon--was becoming more widespread.  That is why a publisher was willing to offer a $500,000 advance for The Art of the Deal in 1987--an investment which, as it turned out, paid off very handsomely.  But in fact, the problem was even deeper than that: according to Mayer's article, it was the owner of Random House, Si Newhouse, who had the idea for the book in the first place.  Neither Trump nor any nonfiction writer was interested in the project--but Newhouse, focused on the bottom line, recognized its possibilities.   The days in which publishers felt any obligation to market quality products widely were passing away, ushered out by the Boomer MBAs who were becoming so influential in all lines of work.

The story of how Schwartz became the ghostwriter for The Art of the Deal (a title he claims to have coined) is equally revealing. Schwartz, as it happened, had written an attack on Trump as a predatory landlord in New York magazine just a couple of years earlier--for which he presumably received a couple of thousand dollars.  To Schwartz's amazement, Trump made clear that he loved the article simply because it painted him as an outsize figure.  And here, a key paragraph of the story needs to be quoted in full.

 “I was shocked,” Schwartz told me. “Trump didn’t fit any model of human being I’d ever met. He was obsessed with publicity, and he didn’t care what you wrote.” He went on, “Trump only takes two positions. Either you’re a scummy loser, liar, whatever, or you’re the greatest. I became the greatest. He wanted to be seen as a tough guy, and he loved being on the cover.” Schwartz wrote him back, saying, “Of all the people I’ve written about over the years, you are certainly the best sport.”

Now unfortunately--as I know only too well myself--it is a human trait to be sensitive both to the feelings of people you have treated badly, or--worse--who have treated you badly.  In each case, they have a power to move you with kindness, precisely because it isn't what you expect.  And thus, when Trump turned around and offered Schwartz the deal of his life [sic!] to ghostwrite his autobiography, Schwartz said yes.  

Beginning the project, Schwartz immediately found that Trump was impossible to work with, and nearly gave it up.  (This was confirmed by his agent at the time.)  But for whatever reason--financial or other--he could not tear himself away.  Here again we encounter one of the dreadful facts of our age:  the extreme inequality of wealth in our society makes it very difficult for anyone in the lowest 90% to say no to some one at the top.  Writing the book, Schwartz realized that presenting the real Trump was not an option.  Trump had no attention span and couldn't talk about anything but himself for more than a minute or two.  He also constantly lied.  “'He lied strategically. He had a complete lack of conscience about it,'” Schwartz told Mayer.  "Since most people are constrained by the truth,' Trump’s indifference to it 'gave him a strange advantage.'"  To get this aspect of Trump into the book in some acceptable fashion, Schwartz invented the phrase "truthful hyperbole" and put it into Trump's mouth.

I encourage readers to follow the link and read the whole article, but I shall stop recapitulating it here to return to broader issues.  Newhouse's judgment was vindicated: the book was one of the great publishing success stories of the 1980s, parallel to Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (a throwback to the past) and Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (which business people bought because they thought it would enlighten them about the threat from Japan.)  Significantly, no book like those two could possibly become a best seller today, but celebrity authors (like Bill O'Reilly) still rise high on the best seller lists.  Tastes had changed.

I have not studied the question in detail, but it seems to me that what did the most to keep Trump high in the national consciousness in the early 1990s was his first divorce and his remarriage, which were huge in the tabloids and on tv.  That was apparently unplanned, but he still milked it for all it was worth.   Then in the next decade came the reality TV era and The Apprentice, which I have to admit I watched for two seasons.  He never impressed me, but I'm a sucker for any kind of competition (I haven't missed more than five episodes of Survivor in the whole history of the show), and I was curious about him.  Thankfully, I did not get hooked.

What Trump grasped some time ago, I think, was that our political world had become just as morally and intellectually bankrupt as the world of finance, and that he could achieve success within it by a mixture of bullying, self-promotion, and pandering to our worst instincts--hatred and fear in politics playing the role of greed in business.  But what also strikes me is that Trump is very obviously trading on his utter lack of self-restraint.  His calculated insults, his obvious lies, and his hateful rhetoric excite a substantial portion of our population, who have not been taught, as other generations really were, that they must keep certain feelings under control, or at least out of sight.

And here I come to the bottom line.  Trump's success in any field depended on the increasing corruption of the world he lived in.  He would never have gotten very far in a business environment in which investors had a sound sense of the worth of a project, or in a publishing world dedicated to bringing out quality work--or in a political system that still served the needs of the American people.  He is not the only candidate who is only intermittently constrained by the truth.  In nearly every speech, Hillary Clinton conflates two years with the Children's Defense Fund more than 40 years ago into a lifetime of struggle for the less fortunate.   In the same way, Hitler took advantage of the German elite's catastrophic plunge into the First World War, their decision to inflate Germany's currency out of existence rather than solve their budgetary problems, and their inability to ease the German people's distress during the great depression.  Hitler was more dangerous than Trump--but Trump has already been far more successful electorally than Hitler.  Before Hitler took power and controlled the machinery of terror, the Nazi vote peaked in July 1932 at 37% of the total. Trump will do much better than that in November whether he wins or loses.  In Germany in 1932 as in the United States today, the old order had fallen apart.   The country was vulnerable to a vision of a new order--whether it had the slightest basis in reality or not.

The question is not about Donald Trump, so much as it is about how we have become a society that about half its voters would support.  "Cassius was right," as Edward R. Murrow said at another moment of national crisis. "The fault, dear Brutus, was not in our stars, but in ourselves."