In the Harsh Light of Trumprise

So he isn’t gonna lock her up, after all. Surprised? You probably shouldn’t be. One of the pithiest insights during this year’s campaign came from the Atlantic writer who observed that Trump’s liberal critics (and the press) were taking the candidate literally but not seriously, while his supporters were taking him seriously but not literally. It seems clear now that any number of Trump’s inflammatory campaign vows were little more than cheerleading bravado at a raucous pep rally. And come January 20th, the cheerleader will be our President.

Many factors contributed to his win. Read David Cole on “What James Comey Did,” and you might be persuaded that Comey caused it. There’s also the so-called “alt-right” movement and the rise of whiteness as an identity-politics force. As for Trump himself, the man was both a distraction from the main issues and a blazing expression of them. The distraction was his egregious talk and behavior, which for many people (like me) made this an election about basic fitness. I still view Trump as arrantly unqualified, and I’m chagrined that we chose a preening, lewd, selfish braggart, who thrives on pissing matches and behaves like a blowhard in a bar, to lead our country. It’s true that Trump’s loudmouthed “incorrectness” was a big part of the attraction for many of his supporters -- but only, I recognize now, to the extent that it offered them hope that in other, more important ways he would also be someone who didn't play by the rules; that he would deviate from the ruling consensus and try different measures.

To what end? The economy, stupid. This is what I mean when I say that Trump’s bellicose style blazingly expressed the main issue. Have you seen the Youtube video of Michael Moore giving a heated recitation of the reasons to vote for Trump? If not, it’s definitely worth watching. Moore wasn't endorsing him, of course, but he brilliantly channeled the angry sense of marginalization driving Trumpistas to deliver what Moore called “the biggest fuck-you in history” to the powers-that-be. That fuck-you impulse is what I tried to illuminate in my election postmortem column, and three weeks later I keep returning in my mind to the Trump voter -- a middleaged white male -- who told me how angry he gets when he watches the nightly news and sees investment commercials pitched at people tweaking the details of their comfy retirement, while he himself has lost his job, is upside-down on his mortgage while trying to support two kids, and has no retirement fund at all.

I believe the election of 2016 will go down as the moment when we grasped how starkly the past thirty years deepened class divisions in the U.S., creating toxic levels of inequality. The change happened gradually, but the Great Recession and its aftermath put a big stamp on it, with Wall Street getting off scot-free, and the investor class prospering via a long bull market, while the debtor class languished. Globalization has taken its toll, eliminating jobs that helped the working class get a foothold in middleclass life, forcing people into part-time, low-paying jobs in the service economy – even as the professional class flourished.

Let’s put some numbers on this. U.S. Census data for 2011 peg median household net worth – not income, but total wealth -- at $68,828, which means that fully half of all U.S. families had less than that. (Take away home equity, and the figure plummets to $16,900.) Meanwhile, median net worth in the upper quintile was $630,754.  In other words, the typical family in the top 20% had almost ten times the wealth of the typical middleclass family. (The racial breakdown is more extreme, with median black family net worth a paltry $6K.) Families in the top 10% now command 75% of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 50% -- half our nation – owns just 1%. And these divisions are growing. Between 2003 and 2013, median household net worth dropped by 36% while increasing 14% in the top 5%. From 2010 to 2014, the number of American households with $1 million-plus in assets jumped by one-third, and for this group, wealth grew by 7.2 percent annually, while everyone else stayed flat. So while middle-class prospects have stagnated – at best -- the period since the Great Recession has been a boom time for the well-off. And that caps a long trend. A detailed study of wealth by Edward Wolff of NYU shows that while the top quintile experienced robust prosperity growth over the past three decades, median net worth (in constant 2010 dollars) shrank from $73K in 1983 to $57K in 2010 – a 27% loss.

That’s the math of inequality. Then there’s the reality of daily life. Sometimes you have to traverse decades to discern the extent of change. I grew up in a small city in New England in the 1960s and 70s. Almost nobody in our town had any serious money -- any wealth, that is. You had your salary, you saved, you lived within your means, and the wealth differential between, say, the household of a physician like my father and that of a pipefitter at the General Dynamics shipyard wasn't extreme. And everyone’s kids played together and went to school together. Things are so different today. A lot of those manufacturing jobs have gone away, causing millions of Americans to lose their foothold in the middle class, even as the upper 20% of our society has become an investor class. I was sitting at a school concert at my daughter’s grade school the other day, and the woman next to me, who was maybe 65 and ostensibly there to see her grandson perform, spent the whole time checking her stock portfolio on her Smartphone and enthusing to me, sotto voce, about how well she was doing. This was at an urban school, meanwhile, where the average household income is on the order of $25K. (The woman was white and, like me, an outlier by both race and class at the school). It was a trenchant contrast.

There was a story in the Times this past spring, titled “In a New Age of Privilege, Not All Are in the Same Boat,” part of a series called “The Velvet Rope Economy,” describing the ways in which Midas-like perks for wealthy customers are spurring “a money-based caste system.” The article told how cruise lines are creating ship-within-a-ship structures for higher-paying customers, via premium services including concierges and butlers, separate pools, sun decks and restaurants – and, for those uncomfortable moments when they have to mingle with the hoi polloi (at a show, for instance), gold cards to cut lines and snag the best seats.

The aim, of course, is not to stir outrage on behalf of lower-paying customers on a luxury cruise ship, but rather to suggest an apt metaphor for what society itself has become in our new Gilded Age. As the article points out, the upper strata of society are flourishing as never before, while the rest struggle; and citizens in those upper strata increasingly self-segregate in private enclaves, so that the vertical mingle that is one hallmark of democratic society has dwindled (including, significantly, class intermarriage). “We are living much more cloistered lives in terms of class,” the Times quotes Thomas Sander, who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “We are doing a much worse job of living out the egalitarian dream that has been our hallmark.” Sociologists across the ideological spectrum from Robert Putnam to Charles Murray have said as much.

Right around the time of the cruise-ship article, the Times published an information-packed essay by the invaluable Thomas B. Edsall, “How the Other Fifth Lives,” exploring the extent to which “the top 20 percent is steadily separating itself — by geography and by education as well as by income.” Edsall wrote that “the self-segregation of a privileged fifth of the population is changing the American social order and the American political system, creating a self-perpetuating class at the top, which is ever more difficult to break into.” He cites studies showing the drastic depletion of middle-class neighborhoods – a 33% decline in the past forty-five years – and quotes the author of one study who concludes that “The well-to-do are isolated from the day-to-day struggles of the middle class and below.”

And those struggles are intense. In another Atlantic essay, “The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans,” author Neil Gabler cited a Federal Reserve Board survey that revealed an astonishing fact: fully half of all Americans could not come up with $400 in an emergency situation without either borrowing it or selling something. Four hundred dollars! That single fact speaks volumes about the daily reality of tens of millions of Americans. Gabler calculates that what we have traditionally considered middle-class existence – payments on a modest home, a car, an annual vacation, and enough to cover educational and health costs – now requires around $130,000 in household income. And how many households command that? About one in ten. In other words, middleclass existence requires upper-class resources. In other words, it is vanishing.

Gabler’s article also sheds like on the frantic nature of middleclass American economic life these days, its daily panic in the face of looming downward mobility. Fully one-half of all part-time workers are part time involuntarily. What has been called “the gig economy” can be seen as a systemic downgrading of socioeconomic status  – no stability, no security, and forget about ever retiring even semi-comfortably (or at all). As Bernie Sanders said on the campaign trail: “Mom is out working, Dad’s out working, the kids are out working, and the family’s still not making ends meet. Something is wrong in our republic.”

Meanwhile, in upper-middle-class circles it is commonplace for families -- what with two professional salaries, plus housing that's owned outright and has grown in value, plus some smaller or larger input from inheritance -- to have amassed $1 million in total worth. Many have more. These are hardworking professionals, and they don't think of themselves as rich; in fact, most tend to look upward at the extravagantly rich and feel small in comparison. What they have lost sight of is the huge chunk of America below them - those “forgotten people” Trump spoke of in tones of elegy, solidarity anger and pride -- that doesn't even begin to approach this kind of security. These are the “can’t raise $400” households, where earnings have been downscaled, retirement plans thrown in jeopardy, pensions cut back, retirement health plans cut back or dumped entirely, and very little saved up. And the kind of jobs that could rescue them are being shipped to Mexico or are evaporating as the Chinese economic engine revs up.

Over recent decades the Democratic party left these people behind, in order to become a party of coastal metropolitans plus social-issues progressives plus minorities, in thrall at the top to a globalization and financialization of American life that has benefited elites. Just as the cloistering and clustering of the upper 20% has spurred a mindset of socioeconomic separation, so too has the “hypersegregation of the truly advantaged” — a phrase coined in a 2013 article by Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson — altered the Democratic Party. It’s true that upscale Democrats have provided crucial margins of victory where party candidates have won. But the focus of top-quintile Democrats is on social and environmental issues -- women’s rights, reproductive rights, gay and transgender rights and climate change -- and less on redistributive economic issues. Comfortably cocooned, isolated from the realities below, these upscale Dems experience diminished understanding of the majority of the electorate. Meanwhile, as businesses cater to the upper 10 --20% with its disproportionate resources, the baubles of privilege are increasingly put right in the face of the excluded, giving daily life the aspect of a humiliating spectacle.  

Given all this, is it surprising that Trump’s angry message resonated? He roared in and scooped up the left-behind people, and it's easy to see how. Over and over he promised to do four things: 1) scrap trade deals;  2) beat up on China;  3) force U.S. companies to stay here;  4) keep out cheap immigrant labor. A lot of this message got expressed or was interpreted as xenophobia, racism, nationalism, etc. But in fact these are all economic measures, and when you come down to it, “Make America Great Again” is a direct vow to push back against globalization, financialization and all it has represented by way of the evaporation of middleclass security and the glittering success of globalization's winners.

Whether Trump is the person to do this is another topic; as countless commentators have noted, it would mean breaking with conventional Republican policy on multiple fronts. But what’s undeniable is that he was the one with the antennae to  pick up the signal. Another amply supported Times article by Thomas Edsall, written last July, took up inequality and the phenomenon of “relative deprivation,” noting that “Trump’s white working-class supporters have suffered a stunning loss of relative status over the past 40 years.” The article was spot on; and anyone paying closer attention to it then might have done a better job of reading the leaves of the bitter tea we are drinking now.





Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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