15 min read

Why America's Still Trapped by Trumpism

Why America's Still Trapped by Trumpism

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 biggest issues—the ones that matter most.

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Today's Read: 16 Minutes.

America's caught between Trumpism and Bidenomics. Why? We dive deep into how badly broken its economy really is, and how classical sociopolitical vicious spirals explode, as people embrace demagoguery and fanaticism .

 1. The extraordinary story of how the Global Goals came to be. (Nature)
 2. Climate disasters are on the rise. So is disinformation. (MoJo)
 3. The right-wing conspiracy-fest is more bloodthirsty than before. (TNR)
 4. “Stats Bros” are sucking the life out of politics. (Nation)
 5. Is this how globalisation ends? (Prospect)

Today's Issue. America. The World. Trump. Biden. The Future.

Spare a thought for poor, beleaguered America. Where does it go next? Right now, it feels like it's trapped. Stuck. Caught. Between Trumpism and Bidenomics. But it's there for a reason: it's economy is failing, catastrophically. America's economy is badly broken, and that's the root of its recurring, endless, tangled devil's nest of problems.

Let's begin with Bidenomics—which is turning out to be a failed pitch. People, or "voters," as they're called in America, aren't connecting with it. It hasn't caught their imaginations. And so Biden's performance isn't just lackluster—it's stunned party insiders among the Democrats.

'Don’t panic!’ say leading Democrats as Biden’s poor polls cast pall

A CNN survey conducted by SSRS caused shockwaves this week when it put Biden’s approval rating at just 39% and found two in three Democrats say the party should nominate someone else next year. In a hypothetical contest, registered voters were split between Trump (47%) and Biden (46%).

The Guardian

If you're a Democratic insider, a card-carrying member of the DC establishment? Those are shudder-inducing numbers. The stuff of nightmares. Because they force you to ponder the problem that...

Meanwhile, the opposite is true, too. Despite all of it, every American institution under the sun throwing the book at him, from the Jan 6th Committee to state prosecutors to Special Counsel Jack Smith...Trump's poll numbers haven't budged one inch. They're like granite: they appear utterly immovable, impregnable, untouchable. Nothing, it seems, can come close to even denting them.

What gives here, exactly? What's really going on? Why isn't Bidenomics connecting with people—and conversely, why is Trumpism  in such goddamn rude, stubborn, good health, even after all the indictments, charges, evidence, grand juries?

There's a single number you should know. It begins to explain what's really ailing America—and serves as a warning to the world, too. That number's this. 70% of Americans are financially stressed out. In other words, it's the economy, stupid.

70% of Americans are feeling financially stressed

Some 70% of Americans admit to being stressed about their personal finances these days and a majority — 52% — of U.S. adults said their financial stress has increased since before the Covid-19 pandemic began in March 2020


Now, you don't have to take that statistic in isolation. The point is simple. The economy's failing people, at least in real terms. Americans struggle to pay the bills, live paycheck to paycheck, and never seem to be able to make ends meet, plunging into perpetual, lifelong, unpayable debt. That's not a picture of a healthy, prosperous economy. And if anything, it's getting worse. Real incomes fell sharply in 2022.

Poverty Rate Soared in 2022 as Aid Ended and Prices Rose

Median household income, adjusted for inflation, fell 2.3 percent in 2022, to $74,580, as the fastest inflation since 1981 overwhelmed the impact of increased employment and rising wages.


So there's the median income, plummeting. Meanwhile, what level of income does it take to make people feel "comfortable," aka, safe? Over $200K, or almost three times the median income. That's an astronomical amount, in global terms, as we're going to discuss, and it tells us something is badly wrong at the heart of not just the American, but its social contract, too, or lack thereof.

Now. We're facing an economic lost decade globally, as in, around the world. The IMF and World Bank have predicted that economies will stagnate until 2030—and if anything, they're underestimating the problems before us, being altogether too conservative, as they usually are in times like these. So the parlous state of America's economy isn't really Joe Biden's fault—it's the catastrophic outcome of a Grand Social Experiment in turbo-charged, Darwinian, predatory capitalism that's lasted generations.

But while it's not Joe Biden's fault, it's also startlingly tone-deaf to go on trumpeting the message that the economy's doing fantastically well, which is what the Democrats are doing. When real incomes are falling—and that's before you get to the majority of people just struggling to pay the bills—how can it possibly be the case that the economy's doing fantastically well? Of course, it doesn't feel that way to much of anyone who's not named "Elon Musk" or "Jeff Bezos." To most people? Their lived experience of the economy is brutal, painful, dispiriting, demoralizing, and outright traumatic. How am I going to put food on the table? Educate my kids? Retire? Am I even going to be able to ever have a home, wonder most young people. What happens if I get sick, and can't work for a while, wonder many of the middle-aged.

All of that is profoundly real. Think of the way that young people in America exhibit skyrocketing rates of suicide and depression. That shouldn't be happening, as a social trend. When we see young people falling apart as a social group, we should wonder: what's going wrong here? And the answer to that question is what it usually is, in the absence of some kind of obvious outside effect: they don't feel they have much of a future. Young Americans? They're the fourth to fifth generation in downward mobility, depending on how you count it. No wonder they're emotional wrecks. They bear the brunt of a failed economy, shouldering the bulk of its costs, risks, and traumas, too.

You can think of the way, too, that elderly people feel. Disheartened. Troubled. What happened to my nation? My society? The future? This isn't how things were supposed to turn out. And what'll happen to...me, as I grow frail and age?

Americans take a dim view of the nation’s future

Americans’ negative views of the nation’s future are influenced by their bleak assessments of current conditions. Only 19% of Americans say they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country, while 80% are dissatisfied. Ratings of the economy remain largely negative, and an increasing share of the public expects economic conditions to worsen over the next year.

Pew Research

So Americans aren't just pessimistic about the economy. The American economy is one of the modern world's great failures. It's emphatically not a success. At least not for the people in it, in basic, generally accepted, common sense terms. It may be a success in other terms—the abstract ones beloved of beancounters and pundits, like efficiency, innovation, or of course, profit-maximization, but for the average person? The American economy's been failing for generations.

So along come the Democrats, and proclaim everything's great and wonderful and fine. Who's going to fall for that? Nobody much, as it turns out. And that leaves the space wide open for Trump to retain this maddening bulwark of strength that he shouldn't have at this point, really.

You see, one of the pernicious things that's happened in America over the last decade is that its intellectuals, pundits, commentators—by and large, they deny that there's a...real problem behind Trumpism. They'll go out of their way to savage the idea that Trumpism has an economic basis to it—they're all just dumb racists! Ha-ha! Look at those foolish hillbillies! In other words, in America's discourse, which becomes its ruling ideology, Trumpism is just a cultural phenomenon—with no material substance underlying it.

This is shockingly poor thinking. It's not even thinking—it's the lack of thinking, really. Because what was the single greatest lesson of the 20th century? Fascism arises in periods of economic decline and trouble, collapse and ruin. Did the Nazis emerge during a Golden Age for Germany? Of course not, duh, they rose from the ashes of the Weimar Republic, which is synonymous with hyperinflation and chaos. Did the fascism in Italy join it because Italy was roaring, happy, and joyous? Of course not—like Germany, Italy was in a period of turbulence and chaos, too. This was the great John Maynard Keynes' point, and it's literally how and why the world was rebuilt after World War II.

Creation of the Bretton Woods System

The United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference was held in July 1944. Delegates from forty-four nations created a new international monetary system known as the Bretton Woods system. These countries saw the opportunity for a new international system after World War II that would draw on the experience of the Great Depression and provide for postwar reconstruction. It was an unprecedented cooperative effort for nations that had been setting up barriers between their economies for more than a decade.

Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

See that? "The experience of the Great Depression"? The great lesson of the 20th century. Fascism arises from stagnation.

Yet because America's class of thinkers has gone out of their way to deny that this lesson of history exists...for the better part of a decade by now...a funny thing's happened. America still doesn't have a functioning theory of Trumpism. By and large, America's power centres are still baffled by Trumpism. What's wrong with these people? Why do they worship Trump? Are they just dumb hicks? Jesus, how can this still be happening? What's going on here?

And that creates problems like this one: America trapped between Trumpism and Bidenomics. After all, without a working theory of fascism, one that can account for much of anything, you can't explain it—and it's thus that much harder for you offer a more compelling alternative to it. All you can do is...be baffled by it. And worse, you can fall right into the trap of not even understanding why people are seduced by it, attracted to it, ensnared in it. And even worse for a society than that, you can be the fascists, and become the beneficiary of this  lack of knowledge, contact with reality, this absence of history—and laugh all the way to the bank, because to your amazement, the door's been left wide open for you.

That's where America is right now. Why doesn't Trumpism die? It's not that Trump's the greatest demagogue slash cult leader of all time. The truth is that figures like him are a dime a dozen—it's structural holes in the prosperity of a society that creates vacuums for them to rise. When holes exist where a functioning social contract should be, then a contest between demagogues emerges. Who's the most seductive Big Liar? Who can point the finger at the most powerless scapegoats, the most angrily? Who can alternate between coddling people savaged by the trauma of the feelings of abandonment and betrayal, and thundering at them in violence and rage and murderous fury?

The most-skilled demagogue wins, but there's a reason demagoguery happens at all. When it does, we know—know—that an economy's going wrong. Because in happier, more prosperous times, times of plenty, abundance, ease? Nobody has time for it. There's no reason to really listen to it. At least in modern societies, where there's work to be done, a status ladder to be climbed, a life to be lived. Go ahead and tell me how often fascism's arisen when people are happy. I'll wait. We'll both be here a very long time, since there isn't a single example of such a thing at all.

Why aren't the Democrats able to connect with voters? Why isn't their pitch working? Because the economy sucks, in real terms. Why is Trumpism still not dead, even after the arrows and rocks that've been hurled at it, from Congressional Committees to Grand Juries—but as stubbornly healthy and alive as ever, not even wounded, for Pete's sake? Because the economy still sucks.

Now, you might think that "sucks" is a strong term. It's not. Let me assure that when real incomes are falling, an economy sucks. There's no way around that. Let's go into that for a moment, because it's important to understand.

What do we call it when an economy shrinks, for a quarter or two? A recession. What about when it shrinks for a year or two, by double digits? A depression. The average person's real income has fallen. So why isn't the economy shrinking as a whole? The answer to that's that the rich have gotten mega-richer. The only reason, really, that the economy as a whole isn't shrinking is that the rich have gained while the average person's lost.

If you think that sounds suspicious, that's because it is. We should never, ever see an economy functioning like this. The rich getting ultra richer—while the average person's real income shrinks? That tells us something funny's afoot. It points to wealth extraction by the rich, from everyone else's pockets. After all, how else do you gain, while everyone else is losing? Either it has to be a huge historic coincidence, or the simplest explanation is the correct one: that wealth has been siphoned off, and transferred upwards.

To what degree? $50 trillion. Stop and really think about that for a second, because it's a shocking, colossal, history-altering number.

The Top 1% of Americans Have Taken $50 Trillion From the Bottom 90%

According to a groundbreaking new working paper by Carter C. Price and Kathryn Edwards of the RAND Corporation, had the more equitable income distributions of the three decades following World War II (1945 through 1974) merely held steady, the aggregate annual income of Americans earning below the 90th percentile would have been $2.5 trillion higher in the year 2018 alone. That is an amount equal to nearly 12 percent of GDP—enough to more than double median income—enough to pay every single working American in the bottom nine deciles an additional $1,144 a month. Every month. Every single year.


To put it in context, that's half the entire world's GDP. So when America's pundits say, "Trumpism has nothing to do with economics," they're asking us to believe in a clownish sleight-of-hand: that modern history's greatest upwards wealth transfer, one that would shake the entire world to its roots, had no sociopolitical consequences. None. Zero. Definitely not the obvious ones. But is that really even remotely plausible? Especially given what history says about fascism?

So when the average person's experience is that "wow, the economy sucks," it means something. Something pretty dire, often—an economy's become an extractive, vampiric one, which feels rigged against you, not a productive, creative, healthy, vibrant one. One in which no matter how hard you work, you never quite feel you can make it, like real prosperity, stability, and security are always just out of reach—and there's the growing risk that if things go wrong, it could suddenly wipe you out, cost you everything, and you'd never recover. Is that where America is? That's what the statistics say, over and over again by now.

All this is a portrait of a dramatically failed economy. An economy that's failed in simple, literal terms: to produce enough prosperity for people to enjoy modernity's basic bargain—you get a life of relative comfort, plenitude, and upward mobility...and you leave everyone else alone to enjoy the same thing, too. That's not Biden's fault, by the way: these are historic choices which go back half a century or more. While Europe and Canada were busy building modern social contracts—America was mired down in Reaganomics, "I won't pay for those dirty peoples' kids' healthcare! Schools! Educations!" So of course now America doesn't have a modern social contract—and the result is that growing numbers of people feel that the bargain between society and institutions, even between each other, is broken.

When that bargain is broken? Then it's open season. "Them" and "us." People turn on their neighbours, friends, colleagues. They seek scapegoats, in the place scapegoats are always sought: from amongst the most powerless in a society, the already hated ones. Demagogues rise to power, carried aloft on this wave of anger, rage, resentment, and bitterness.

A society's turned from modernity's bargain, to anti-modernity's zero-sum one: that means for me to win, someone else has to lose. In America, the rich went from merely rich to super to ultra to mega to giga rich by breaking modernity's bargain—I win, because you lose. And that norm was spread far and wide as acceptable, at least for them. Is it any surprise that the average working or middle class person facing a future of decline and impoverishment began to say, hey, if they can exert that power over me, then I should find someone else to exert it over, too?

This is how a society breaks. It's how a failing economy begins to become something more. Social bonds rupture. Ties are broken. Trust implodes. Those modern values of community, tolerance, nonviolence, peace, all degenerate into their opposites—enmity, hostility, rage, violence, intimidation, hate. And as those new values and norms rise, its not just that demagogues rise to power atop them—having gained power, they begin to formalize them, too, as rules of law, as institutions, as rituals.

And you can see that in everything from Florida's new educational "curriculum," which, helped along by a far right group implying it's a university when it's not, likens climate change denial to...fighting Nazis. In women not being able to use highways, because they're "suspicious." The examples, by now, are endless.

Why isn't Trumpism...not just dead, but not even wounded? It's not that it's somehow invulnerable, it's that the economy still sucks—but the Democrats are making the classical, textbook mistake that centrists opposing fascists almost always make. For reasons of vanity, hubris, myopia, and to protect their own insiders, their old paradigms, they rarely acknowledge how deep a society's troubles really are, particularly its economic ones, which, left to rot, lead down into the abyss of scapegoating, violence, hate, and ruin. Instead, they tend to think that by just championing a cheery kind of false optimism, they can somehow fool or trick or just persuade people into going along with them. It almost never works.

This is one reason why fascists, when they rise towards power, tend towards victory, too, historically. Not because they're geniuses—they're not, they're usually even more cruel, wanton, and thoughtless than they appear—but because centrists tend not want to own up to the basic truths of a declining status quo in a troubled society. They're the establishment, after all, and so they use its playbook, too: "always say everything's great! Because otherwise, you'll have to take responsibility for it! Don't take that risk!" That playbook works in normal times, somewhat, even if it produces thoroughly mediocre leadership. But in troubled ones? Not owning up to obvious truths leaves far too many people shaking their heads at the centrists, wondering, "what are these guys talking about? Don't they know I can't pay my bills? Are they delusional?"

All this is where the Democrats are right now—and the GOP, is too. America still doesn't understand fascism. You do, perhaps, dear reader. But at a social level? Fascism's still seen as a cultural phenomenon, not an economic one—but it is an economic one, and we know that from literally all of 20th century history. Yet left with this rickety-non-explanation of fascism as a purely cultural phenomenon, American pundits are baffled, and so are the Democrats. They're left telling feel-good stories, which used to just sound ridiculous—but now, as things go from bad to worse, they sound insulting. And so Biden's sinking in the polls, while Trumpism is wierdly, eerily untouched.

Which of our Megatrends should we file this under? Democratic Collapse. The Age of Rage. Civilizational Risk. Trumpism's still the chief movement teaching the world's autocrats how to take modernity apart.

None of that's to say Bidenomics is bad. It's not. It's a good thing, and a brilliant set of ideas. For the long term, and at the macro level. It'll take half a decade, a decade, more, to really turn America's economy around. And even when it does...the average American will still be faced with the same set of problems. Which is a nonexistent social contract. Jesus, how can being sick have practically bankrupted me? What if I lose my home? How will I ever retire? How can I educate my kids? The prices are too high, because of course America privatized what should've been public goods—and that's how it ended up in a situation where the rich became super ultra mega rich by making the average person poorer, so much so, that now, 70% of Americans struggle, and 80% think the future's only going to get worse. Those are shocking levels to see in any society, but in a "rich" one? They're breathtaking.

Bidenomics won't fix that. It can't fix that, because it's not about that. Only a proper, full-blooded, robust attempt at even a rudimentary level of social democracy can. That's way beyond what Bidenomics is proposing, which, while being good and wonderful and nice, is still basically neoliberalism, with a green tinge. That's better than nothing, and it's necessary, because, well, or else the planet becomes a cinder. But for the average American?

What happens as our lives become one long, endless, brutal, Darwinian struggle? Our horizons narrow and our worlds shrink. We become myopic. Life is just about the next day, fight, scrap, morsel, meal. Our bonds sever, and we regard people who used to be, could be, should be, friends, as little more than potential, or actual, enemies, rivals, adversaries. Everything becomes existential, and our vicious passions and dark superstitions are aroused. I'm cursed—and it must be their fault. Those dirty not-even-people. I...I hate them. They're evil. They're out to get me, and always have been. Me, my children, my land, my soil. My soil. My blood. It's only fair and just and logical that I annihilate them first.

This is how fascism develops into moral law, political institution, and social convention, from economic ruin. And it's exactly what's happening, still, in America, in such a classical form, you could practically just substitute the words in the textbooks. Isn't it about time that we got it?

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