9 min read

America’s Collapsing Middle Class, Trump’s Criminal Trial, and More

America’s Collapsing Middle Class, Trump’s Criminal Trial, and More

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

New here? Get the Issue in your inbox daily.

Quick Links and Fresh Thinking:

  1. 70% of the World Would Give up 1% of Their Paycheck to Stop Climate Change—But Not America (Fortune)
  2. The Real Difference Between Trump and Biden (The Atlantic)
  3. Almost a Quarter of the World Feels Lonely (Gallup)
  4. The full list of major US companies slashing staff this year, from Paramount to Google and Microsoft (Business Insider)
  5. What the EU’s tough AI law means for research and ChatGPT (Nature)
  6. Gen X will be the first generation to go into retirement with less financial security than their parents and grandparents (Fortune)
  7. Critical Transitions in the Amazon Forest System (Nature)

Trump’s Criminal Trial and How Authoritarianism Happens

Trump’s first criminal trial is set to begin. New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan set jury selection to begin on March 25th—bringing political fireworks through the spring. This trial is about the falsification of business records, or, in plainer English, hush money. Paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels in 2016, described as legal fees, which the prosecution argues was in fact an “unlawful scheme for…identifying and purchasing negative information about him to suppress its publication and benefit his electoral prospects.” 34 counts—and felony charges.

I’d bet that there’s a good chance Trump will be convicted. The case is strong, the charges cut and dried, and Trump’s former fixer slash lawyer has already pleaded guilty. Though of course Trump’s team will throw every trick in the book against the wall—delays, obfuscations, asininities, absurdities, right down, probably to intimidation tactics—the case remains, at its base, strong, and the law here seems clear cut.

That brings us a step closer to the reality of a convicted felon running for…President of the United States. And having a pretty good chance, as things stand, of winning. How does that shake out? By now, we should all know that thanks to the vagaries of American politics and law, it doesn’t have much of an effect on Trump’s standing for President. That issue’s more about the questions raised about the 14th Amendment disqualifying Trump, currently before the Supreme Court, which seems, unsurprisingly, sympathetic to Trump, even if it means ignoring it’s vaunted “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution, which is pretty clear on insurrectionists not being able to hold office again.

And yet this case does matter. It shows us that America’s institutions are working, to a degree. There’s a clear line past which you can see them breaking. At one level, the level of these charges, the rule of law is still…so far…working. These charges, though, are minor-league ones, in the bigger picture. There are plenty of autocrats and tyrants who’ve ended up being convicted of petty corruption, and it’s had little effect on their political fortunes—call it the Berlusconi predicament. Still, it’s a sign that at at least at a certain level, institutions continue to function. 

But cross that line, go up a level, towards that of high politics and law—and as soon as you enter that domain, the question of institutional functionality isn’t so heartening. Trump’s other criminal case is soon to be coming up, and that centers around Jan 6th, and whether or not he incited and led an insurrection, and if so, whether that broke the law. That case, when it hits the dockets, is when the real fireworks will begin.

And yet the Supreme Court’s already shown how maddeningly…delusional?…obfuscatory?…willfully ignorant?…it’s choosing to be. During the questions about Trump’s eligibility under the 14th Amendment, which, remember, is crystal clear about insurrectionists losing standing for office, the Supreme Court decided to play dumb. What is an insurrection, anyways, asked John Roberts, as if armed paramilitaries storming the Capitol and shedding blood on its steps was somehow not an example of one. It hardly takes Socrates or Hegel to play philosopher-king here: if what happened on Jan 6th wasn’t an insurrection—in modern terms, every good political scientist, economist, and scholar under the sun will agree it was indeed a coup attempt—then what possibly could be?

But if the Supreme Court, packed with fanatics, lunatics, and would-be philosopher-kings whose only real skill appears to be playing dumb, even when it means denying their own cherished “originalist” interpretation of constitutionality…if that Supreme Court’s already decided that Jan 6th wasn’t an insurrection, then of course, it’s likely to overturn that next decision when it’s appealed, too. That is a very, very bad place for a nation to be, because that particularity is called a constitutional crisis. When the Supreme Court tells you the constitution doesn’t matter, then the rule of law no longer applies, and democracy’s fundamental rules and principles are abrogated—power is all that matters, then. That’s where America’s headed, I think, and there many paths there, to constitutional crisis, but what’s almost certain is that this Supreme Court, combined with Trump’s naked aspirations to shatter democracy for good—“dictator for a day”—is leading America hurtling down that path. This summer’s events will prove pivotal. 

And that brings me to the next topic that’s worth discussing—the larger context, in a sense, for all this dysfunction and chaos.

America’s Middle Class Doesn’t Exist Anymore, or How Societies Collapse

How do Americans define being in the middle class? What does it mean to them? Excellent, excellent analysis, journalism, and research by the Washington Post reveals quite a bit. Here’s a chart, from there, about what Americans think it takes to be in the middle class.

A secure job. The ability to save. To afford an emergency. Paying the bills without worrying. Healthcare. Retirement. That’s an eminently, eminently sensible list of criteria. And it makes sense to most Americans, too, because huge majorities—90%+—agree those are they key criteria for a middle class life. That’s a good thing, by the way, because it tells us people are still thinking sensibly, in a way, about their lives and futures.

The problem is—and it’s a Very Big Problem—that only a third of people have the ability to meet those criteria. Pause and think about that for a second. That’s a damning finding, an all but startling one. Way, way less than half of people—just over 30%—meet the criteria that almost everyone, 90%+, agree make up being in a middle class.

That’s terrible. Horrible! I mean it! The economist in me—and remember, I’m the guy on lists of the world’s Top 50 Thinkers, blah blah blah—absolutely shudders at these findings. Why, though? Think about it with me.

“Middle class.” When I say that, you imagine a bell curve, probably. And in that bell curve, because it’s “normally distributed,” the very meaning of that phrase is that huge majorities of people should be…in society’s…middle class. What does “huge majority” mean? That depends on the vagaries of statistics and “standard deviations,” which I don’t need to bore you with, but depending on which boundary you pick, 67%, 95%, 99%. We don’t see anything remotely resembling that sort of distribution in America, or in the world, today. 

Instead, we see something more like…can I call it this? Just let me, because it’ll be instructive, maybe…a Distribution of Doom. What shape of a distribution are we talking about when instead of huge majorities, 67%, 95%, 99%—that’d be the hump in the middle—just 30% of people or so can afford what’s a middle class life? Clearly, that distribution doesn’t have a big bell shaped hump in the middle. Instead, it’s “skewed,” severely lop-sided. The majority of people fall under the halfway point, where the hump’s peak should be—way under it. So this distribution is “bimodal”—a lop-sided mountain, which contains most people, and then another peak, even higher, with a relatively tiny number in it, who have most of the wealth.

That’s a terrible, terrible picture of a society. Not just in my idle opinion, but because of what it predicts and explains. The bell curve of a true middle class is a healthy picture. It’s what we should want to see, and most of us know that, intuitively. But why? Why exactly is that “healthy”? Precisely because it creates a kind of cascade of stability. Individual and familial stability gives way to social and political stability. That, in turn, creates economic stability—people who are affluent enough to be stable in this sense can afford joint investment back in society, which creates the virtuous circle of modernity, through public goods, which elevate everyone’s possibilities (think public healthcare, education, retirement, and so forth.) But people who aren’t stable in this sense can’t afford joint investment, and so such societies tend to destabilize, and plunge into downward mobility, due to a lack of investment. As they do, bonds sunder, ties break, old hatreds re-emerge, because of course life is now a bitter, brutal battle. Insecurity fuels a turn to demagoguery, as people seek illusory safety in the arms of strongmen. The battle for subsistence becomes one for existence, as scapegoating and spite and lies and violence replace norms of peace, coexistence, tolerance, and truth. Anxiety, fear, and despair push whole social groups over the edge, and conflict begins to tear democracy apart.

All of this is exactly what happened to America. I emphasize that because too often America’s picture of Trumpism, of what happened to it—at least that presented to it by pundits—is that all this emerged “ex nihilo.” From the void. In other words, “it just happened.” But it’s not a coincidence. 

Think about the research above really shows us. America doesn’t have a middle class anymore. It has what we might call a phantom middle. 90%+ of people agree on what a middle class life is—and here, we’re not talking about people wanting to be super rich, just to be normal. But only a minority in society can afford even that much. Just a minority! Pause and take that in, because it really, really matters. The phantom middle: Americans want to be middle class, but only a small minority of them are. The vast majority, then, aren’t even middle class. So what are they? 

In a sense, the old labels don’t apply anymore, in this age of implosive, end-stage capitalism. We don’t really have “middle” and “working” and “lower middle” and “upper middle” classes anymore. What America has, this research appears to show, is something more like a permanent underclass, made up of the smoldering ruins of both the middle and working class. That’s empirically—sure, in terms of identity, people might think differently, and say they’re still “middle class,” or what have you—but in factual terms, just a minority of people meet anything close to that criteria. 30ish percent are middle, which isn’t really a middle at all, but more a disappearing class entirely, eroding fast, meaning that the true picture of America socioeconomic structure is more like a small minority of very, very wealthy, the 1%, the 30% desperately clinging on to the middle class that should’ve been, and perhaps once was, more like 66-95% of people, and then…everyone else. Which is the remaining 70%, the vast, vast majority of society. 

That’s an underclass if ever there was one, though perhaps even that label isn’t a very good, or evocative enough one. The implosive class? The “precariat,” as the modern day left says? The remnants of what should’ve a middle class? Up to you put a name on it, I suppose. The point is what matters.

This is serious, real, and implosive collapse. For a society to not have a middle class anymore is a very, very troubling thing—not just in and of itself, though certainly in those terms, but also in terms of what happens next. And that kind of society is also very different from one that fails to develop a middle class. Losing one, history warns us, is almost sure path to autocracy, often through the abyss of fascism and authoritarianism. It’s in this sense that I speak of “American collapse”—not to scare you, or be hyperbolic, but to be factual and empirical. What we see in America is a structural socioeconomic collapse—an imploded middle. And a society with an imploded economic middle often becomes without a functioning political center anymore, too—which is what the end stage of destabilization is.

That’s the larger context for Trump’s criminal cases, and the complicit, corrupt, Supreme Court playing duh-Ma-was-that-really-an insurrection dumb to ensure he can finish the job of wrecking democracy. These are macro forces of history, and against them? We must understand them well, in order to resist, buck, and reshape them. Left to their own—the destiny they write is all but certain.

❤️ Don't forget...

📣 Share The Issue on your Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

💵 If you like our newsletter, drop some love in our tip jar.

📫 Forward this to a friend and tell them all all about it.

👂 Anything else? Send us feedback or say hello!