Today, in the sixth essay about the loss of America’s sense of common good, I want to summarize where we’ve come by focusing on one of the worst consequences of the loss: the emergence of Trumpism, and the despair that has brought it. Many Americans will abandon democracy.
In the seventh essay in this series, starting next week, I’ll talk about what I believe we can and should do to revive the common good.
It is easy for many of us to condemn fellow Americans who have succumbed to Donald Trump’s lies and deceit. It’s convenient for us to assume they’re ignorant, or racist, or naive idiots. But what if their willingness to trust and support Trump makes sense, given what has happened to them? I’m not suggesting that this is appropriate, only that it could be interpreted.
As we have seen, many of our society’s major political and economic institutions have abandoned their commitments to the common good—and so have the bottom half of the adult population, especially those without college degrees. To the people.
The result has been disastrous, especially for the bottom half. The erosion started 40 years ago. By 2016, when Trump was elected president, the total wealth of the typical American family was 14 percent less than that of the typical family in 1984, while the richest tenth of 1 percent owned more wealth than the bottom 90 percent overall.
Income has become almost as unequal as wealth: Between 1972 and Trump’s election in 2016, the typical American worker’s wages declined 2 percent, adjusted for inflation, even though the US economy nearly doubled in size.
Most of the income gains have gone to the top. The 2016 Wall Street bonus pool was larger than the annual earnings of all 3.3 million Americans working full-time at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
While 90 percent of American adults born in the early 1940s were earning more than their parents by the time they reached their prime earning years, this proportion steadily declined. Only half of adults born in the mid-1980s are now earning more than their parents in their prime earning years.
Average weekly nonsupervisory wages, a measure of blue-collar income, was higher in 1969 (adjusted for inflation) than it is now.
Most Americans without a college degree are working longer hours and taking fewer sick days or vacations than decades ago, and they have less economic security.
Nearly one in five American workers is in a part-time job. Two-thirds are living paycheck to paycheck. Along with salaries, employment benefits are also decreasing. The life expectancy gap between the country’s richest people and everyone else is also widening.
Increasing numbers of working Americans are becoming victims of opioids. The death rate among Americans with no more than a high school degree is rising due to suicides, chronic liver cirrhosis and poisoning, including drug overdoses.
Americans, who have been on a path of economic decline for decades, have become easy prey for the evil ones practicing the politics of hate.
The standard explanation of why the US has become so economically imbalanced is that most Americans are no longer as “worth” as they were before digital technologies and globalization, and so now have to settle for lower wages and less security. Will have to do. If they want better jobs, they need more education and better skills.
But this explanation does not explain why other advanced economies facing similar forces did not succumb to them as dramatically as the United States.
Or why America’s U-turn in the late 1970s and 1980s came so quickly from widely shared prosperity to stable wages for the most and great wealth for the few.
This doesn’t explain why the pay of top executives at big companies has increased so dramatically since then, or why Wall Street’s denizens are now paid tens or hundreds of millions annually.
To attribute all this to the impersonal workings of the “free market” is to be blind to the political power that America’s economic elites have gained over market rules – and to use their power to deliver rising or stagnant incomes and jobs. His failure in the face of most of the rest of the country.
Since 1971, when Lewis Powell urged the leaders of American corporations to devote a portion of their profits to politics, America has seen the largest and strongest system of legalized bribery in its history.
This money – supplemented by the excess wealth of the super-rich – has rigged the “free market” for the benefit of big corporations and the rich.
And what have they got with their money?
-Lower trade barriers have enabled corporations to outsource overseas, making more goods in lower-wage countries and then selling it back to Americans, who get the benefit of cheaper goods but also higher-paying and more secure jobs. Also lose. As a result, entire parts of America have been deprived of manufacturing jobs.
– Deregulation of Wall Street has enabled corporate raiders (now called shareholder activists and private-equity managers) to force CEOs to abandon all other stakeholders except shareholders.
– Deregulation of finance allowed high-paid bankers to pocket large sums of money while exposing most Americans to extraordinary economic risks, culminating in the Wall Street crisis and taxpayer-funded bailouts of large Wall Street firms. Americans who subsequently lost their jobs, savings, and homes were naturally angry – especially when these same bankers were never held accountable. Within a few years of the financial crisis, most bankers returned to accumulating vast wealth, but most other Americans were still living with the consequences.
– Weak unions, which has caused the unionized share of the workforce to decline from 35 percent of all private sector workers in the 1960s to just 6 percent today, and wages have stagnated.
– Laws against monopolies have been weakened.
– Laws preventing corporate insiders from becoming rich in the stock market by using confidential information have been struck down.
– Laws that prevent wealthy and large corporations from bribing politicians in the form of campaign donations have been weakened or repealed.
It has been a vicious cycle. Each change in laws moves wealth and power upward, making it easier for the rich and powerful to achieve further legal changes that move even more wealth and power upward.
All this has had a deep impact on public confidence. Most of the public no longer trusts that America’s major institutions are working for the many people; They are ships for some people.
When the game is widely seen as rigged in favor of those at the top, society shifts from a system of mutual obligations to a system of private deals. Rather than being founded in the common good, political and social relationships are increasingly seen as contracts whose participants try to do as much good as possible, often at the expense of others (workers, consumers, the community, the public). But those who do not attend the table.
When it comes to negotiations, a person “gets ahead” by getting ahead of others. Duty has been replaced by self-praise and self-promotion. Calls for sacrifice or self-sacrifice for better deals have been replaced by individual demands.
Some conservative commentators seeking explanations for the decline of the working class and the rise of Trumpism have turned to social Darwinism. He believes that struggling white people, like poor black people, are losing the race for survival.
In his 2012 book Coming Apart, sociologist Charles Murray, a darling of conservative intellectuals, attributed the demise of America’s white working class to what Murray described as the loss of traditional values of diligence and hard work.
He argued that he brought his problems by becoming addicted to drugs, failing to marry, having a child out of wedlock, dropping out of high school, and being unemployed for long periods of time. He argued that the government has aided and abetted these social pathologies by providing aid that encouraged them.
Murray and others like him – such as J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy (and now a Republican senator from Ohio) – did not notice that white working class wages had stagnated or declined for the past 40 years, stagnating for them. Available jobs have disappeared, the economic base of their communities has eroded, and their share of the country’s income and wealth has declined dramatically.
These are the underlying sources of the social pathology of the Murray Chronicles. Drug addiction, out-of-wedlock child birth, lack of education and unemployment are its symptoms, not its cause.
As Bernie Sanders charged in the 2016 Democratic primaries, “This type of rigged economy is not what America deserves.” Hillary Clinton said at the beginning of her 2016 campaign that “the tide is still stacked in favor of those at the top.”
Donald Trump declared that “the system is rigged against the citizens.” Trump said he was the only candidate who “cannot be bought” – a statement he repeated all the way to the White House. And in his inaugural address in January 2017, he alleged:
“The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victory is not your victory; Their victory is not your victory; And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was nothing to celebrate for struggling families across our country.
Trump’s coup attempt could not have progressed this far – and it continues to this day – without the deepening anger, despair and suspicion that has gripped a large portion of the American population.
This is especially true for Americans who do not have college degrees, who do not have good jobs, whose wages have stagnated, who have little or no job security, and whose adult children no longer support them. Are not doing better – in places that have been hollowed out and abandoned economically.
It is wrong to assume that their anger and frustration are primarily rooted in racism or xenophobia. America has harbored white supremacist and anti-immigrant sentiments since its founding. This anger and frustration has come as a result of four decades of growing inequalities and political corruption.
Trump has responded by portraying himself as a strong man who will fight for “forgotten Americans.” He has responded to their skepticism by giving them a set of villains who, he claims, have conspired to keep him down – the so-called “Deep State”, the cultural elites that support it, and the political establishment that protects it.
And now, in his third run for the presidency, he is presenting himself as a martyr on their behalf – linking his identity with theirs. When he announced his candidacy in March 2023, he told supporters, “In 2016, I declared: I am your voice. Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your vengeance.”
Last June, after being charged with withholding government secrets, he told a Republican gathering in Michigan: “I’m being blamed for you.” On August 3, the day he was indicted for trying to overturn the 2020 election, he posted in capital letters, “I’m being arrested for you.” A week later, at a campaign event in New Hampshire, he said, “They want to take away my freedom because I would never let them take away your freedom. They want to silence me because I will never let them silence you.”
In his 2024 campaign, Trump is using the criminal proceedings against him as a means to connect his identity with the millions of Americans who have felt abused and bullied by the system. That’s them. This fusion is the hallmark of authoritarian fascism.
Hopefully democracy will survive in the 2024 elections. The long-term challenge for America will be to respond to the anger, despair, and doubt of those left behind with hope rather than neofascism. We must emphasize the common good based on democracy, rule of law and a system that works for the well-being of all.
How and where do we start? In the following chapters, I will present some ideas. Thanks again for joining me on this journey.
These weekly essays are based on chapters from my book The Common Good, in which I apply the book’s framework to recent events and the upcoming election. (Should you want to read the book, here’s a link).