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He’s cruising towards clinching the nomination—as we all knew he would. The dreaded Trump-Biden rematch appears to be squarely in the sights.
And there are many, many theories being floated about Trump’s resurgence. Did he ever really go away, though? Still, it’s worth examining them for a moment. Trumpism’s a form of racial power, in a society divided. Trump’s power’s amplified by technology and society’s dependence on social media. Trump might win, but the coalition’s going to be so unstable he won’t accomplish much. It’s the last gasp of a nation facing demographic change. And so on.
I think that all these carry water. But I also think…there’s a truer truth at work here. Perhaps, in a sense, Trumpism’s America’s destiny. I know that’s a provocative thing to say, but I don’t mean it that way. I just can’t help thinking it lately, because…
What’s the most salient fact about America? Americans? Even—especially—Trumpists? The vast majority of Americans want a very, very different society. A more…can I say it? Liberal one. Even Trumpists don’t agree with most of Trump’s policies—they just support Trump, the Father Figure, come hell or high water. But when we ask Americans what kind of society they want, invariably, the vast, vast majority will plead for things like healthcare, childcare, retirement, stability, security. In short, Americans want eudaemonia—genuinely good lives.
But a kind of Stockholm Syndrome’s set in. They won’t…choose that form of sociopolitical economy. Even when it’s offered to them time and time again, whether in the way of a Bernie, or a Liz, and so forth.
Why is that? What explains that? This isn’t just “voting against your own interests”—it’s something stranger, deeper, weirder: remember, even Trumpists don’t agree with much of Trump’s agenda. So what can explain this pattern persisting over decades?
Let’s look at America objectively for a moment. What do you see? We’re going to speak factually, empirically—this isn’t about politics at all, really.
America’s a nation which failed to modernize, as I often say. It didn’t invest in itself. Europe and Canada’s investment rate is about 50%—while America’s is just 20% or so. Hence, Europeans and Canadians have cutting edge social contracts—made of the very things Americans desperately lack, like universal healthcare, childcare, high-speed rail, retirement, and so on. It’s true that in recent years, for example, in Europe, investment hasn’t kept pace—and hence, pessimism has grown there, too.
But America’s a special case. Its flatly refused to build a functioning social contract for…the entire modern era. Decade after decade, America’s rejected basic public goods. And so the result of course is that Americans pay eye-watering rates for everything that’s free in most other rich nations—education, healthcare, etc. My favorite example is universities. Harvard will set you back north of $60K a year—the Sorbonne in Paris is free. That’s the difference a functional social contract makes.
America’s social contract, sadly, is more pre-modern, Darwinian, Victorian: the strong survive, the weak fall and or perish, and that’s what’s not just right and just, but “efficient” and “productive.” Life is dog-eat-dog, and brutal competition defines every aspect of life. But how has that worked out?
Before we get there, another question needs to be asked. Why did—do—Americans fail to choose a modern social contract, time and again? There are many reasons, each one like the layer of an onion. It wasn’t offered to them. They were offered a lukewarm choice between Reaganomics, and then Clintonomics—etcetera. All of these, while they differed in the details, were variants of the same form of economy: nobody should have anything much as a basic right, everything should be financialized and capitalized, profit-maximization in “free” markets would unleash prosperity for all, and the wealth would trickle down.
But the very opposite happened. The wealth trickled up. We recently discussed how billionaires have gotten so much richer just during the pandemic that every American household would be $40,000 better off. That’s more than the median income—an astonishing statistic. And that comes after yet another wealth transfer upwards, during the last few decades—$50 trillion to the very richest. That’s half of the entire world’s GDP. Another startling statistic.
America, in other words, was the subject of Grand Social Experiment. Call it what you like—hypercapitalism, free markets, neoliberalism. We’re at the point where labels don’t matter much anymore—just the point does. The experiment failed. I’m not saying that American life is all bad, but I am saying that the results are self-evident: democracy’s on the brink, there’s a feeling of hopelessness on every side, among every social group, generation after generation’s experiencing rapid, sharp downward mobility, and young people say they “can’t function anymore”—just a smattering of statistics of social collapse.
So. America was a nation that failed to invest in itself—the Grand Social Experiment. We can put it in yet another way, a more philosophical one: all the old guff about “standing on your own two feet” and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” and whatnot. The results have been catastrophic: now democracy itself faces an existential challenge from a figure who’s already tried to unseat it once.
How are those two things linked? I think they’re connected in many, many ways. You see, when people experience what Americans have, especially those in the former working and lower middle class—a profound sense of dread, hopelessness, even trauma, shaped by downward mobility, and the disappearance of a future, community, social bonds, security, stability—they seek just strength and succor in the arms of demagogues. Those wounds open the door for an omnipotent Father Figure—they practically invoke the need for one.
These are shades of Weimar Germany, of course. The demagogue arrives, and scapegoats long-hated groups in society, blaming them for the woes of the pure and true. Isn’t that more or less what Trumpism’s appeal is based on? And doesn’t it begin to explain just why plenty of those who support Trump as demagogue even when they want a very, very different society from the one he’s going to deliver? They’re not thinking straight, as we all say. But there’s a reason why. The wounds go deep, right into existential territory itself. And then there’s an existential backlash, too. It’s me or you. I’m the master, you’re the slave. I deserve to live, you deserve to…
All Grand Social Experiments need…maybe not propaganda, but a certain ideological hardening to take place. They can’t happen otherwise. And this, too, is what happened in America. People were fed the myths of “free markets” and “trickle down economics” and so on for decades. So much so that even to this day to challenge them is to be labelled a “socialist.”
This was a process of ideological politicization. That is, these were all theories. Politics trucks in theories. But when those theories come true—or not—then we’re in the realm of empiricism, facts, reality. Americans were told that these theories had to come true. So much so that both parties offered slightly different versions of them. Sadly, that’s still true today—the Democrats are there for democracy’s sake, true, but they’re hardly offering much in the way of a modern social contract. Yes, on issues like abortion, the Democrats offer something better than theocracy. Still, their notion of progress falls well short of a truly modern social contract. Both parties agree, basically, that a modern social contract isn’t something Americans enjoy. That’s how deep this ideological hardening goes.
“Conditioning” might be too strong a word—but certainly, Americans were told to believe in the Grand Social Experiment for decades, to the point that any other alternative was considered “radical,” or even “communist” and so on—even while Europe and Canada proceeded to forge a different, socially democratic path. And of course it’s eminently true that there was a racial component to all this: Americans were told to reject “paying for those people’s schools” or educations or what have you, the clear implication being that “they” were different, lazy, foolish, liabilities. No clear aspiration to universalism was had, and in no sense were Americans bonded together as equals—the strong were to survive, and the weak perish, and that was what was moral, just, true, and theoretically sound, the key, somehow, to prosperity. Lead was to turn to gold. And to question it was taboo.
America still lives in the residue of this process of ideological hardening. This conditioning, though like I said, I think that’s too strong a word. I think that’s what explains this strange Stockholm Syndrome: Americans want a modern social contract, by and large, and yet here they are, unable to bring themselves to back one. In that vacuum, in that gap, what choice is left? The insecurity and instability, the fear and trauma—they turn people towards demagoguery. They reopen old wounds of hate and spite, instead of healing them with prosperity and trust and progress. They reduce people to their animal selves, seeking what stability and security they can find in older hierarchies of power and dominance, in which there appears to be some nostalgic certainty.
That’s a lot to chew on. I’m not saying I’m right. But I am saying that this may be where a society that fails to forge a modern social contract ends up. Haven’t we seen just this in plenty of “third world” countries? This oscillation between democracy and authoritarianism? I’m not saying America’s a “third world” country—don’t kid yourself, it’s not exactly Bangladesh. But I am saying that this place isn’t a stable equilibrium. The place the Grand Social Experiment—everyone’s a competitor, rival, adversary, in a brutal game called only the strong survive—ends? It might be right here. Destiny.
Destiny, of course, isn’t fate. It can be made and remade. But will America understand that before it’s too late?
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