The electoral victory of Donald J. Trump was, to most, an outcry of profound malaise from the American working class. Riding a wave of discontent actively stoked by the most egregiously dishonest campaign in modern history, Trump opportunistically positioned himself as a repudiation of politics-as-usual to working class voters in desperate need of help. Since descending upon office, however, he has become a veritable case study in top-down class politics.
The story, in short, was a matter of convincing disgruntled voters that assuming High Office was a matter of rehashing the culture wars by trouncing “social justice warriors” and “globalists”, and defending America from pernicious migrants, then slashing their medical coverage and appointing officials with dreams of an atmosphere on fire and a privatized education system once he got there.
But despite all this, some, particularly conservatives have managed to persist in the delusion that Trump represents some sort of welcome development— a true outsider with the capacity to enact change rather than an incurable narcissist and a pathological liar with no real convictions. This delusion is questionable at best, particularly because it provides no real explanation for the desperation of working Americans, the vast majority of whom have not seen a real income gain since the 1970’s and many who have even seen their real income decline, who opted for the pseudo-radical choice despite his unprecedented unpopularity rather than because of some innate virtue in his part.
In truth, there is very little interesting about Trump himself; the real story lies in the problems which brought him to power. This problem is not explainable through recourse to hopelessly subjective debates about free speech, “political correctness” (as common decency is often labeled by its opponents), out of touch metropolitan elites, or the like. Nor, really, is an honest explanation capable of blaming solely Republicans or Democrats.
The truth is more complicated than that.
Let’s begin at the end of the Second World War. Organized labour was strong, the American middle class was growing, and, in the decades that followed, the Post-war consensus which centered around full employment, capital controls (to cap speculation and other inefficiencies of unfettered market systems), and productive investment blossomed into an era of extraordinary growth and stability. The unique post-war environment and extensive political engagement produced what commentators have since taken to calling the “Golden Age of Capitalism”.
Despite the popular conservative image of government as at best a necessary evil, all this occurred under the aegis of extensive state involvement in the economy, particularly in costly R&D and core industries, while organized labour ensured that wage growth followed roughly in tandem with productivity growth. The story was roughly the same across the Western world.
This period marked the birth of the American middle class.
All this also provided the framework for important displays of solidarity which came to a head in the 1960’s. The Civil Rights Movement was in no small part bolstered by the uptick in democratic participation which the post-war environment encouraged both in government and in the streets. Feminist causes, long since repressed, were also able to militate for equal rights between the sexes (a cause the right has unoriginally caricatured today in the image of the overly-sensitive or self-righteous Social Justice Warrior, a depiction utterly baseless and unoriginal in the history of Feminist struggles).
Ultimately, however, the demands of the labour movement and the achievements of the welfare State— unprecedented triumphs of compassion and solidarity to most people— proved too costly to the powers that be. This isn’t “The Establishment” in the fuzzy sense as is often employed in populist circles. It is the same centre of gravity that has always existed in governmental circles: the business community.
The problem with all of the above is that even if it ultimately raises the living standards of the vast majority of the population, and in the normal sense of the word is accomplishing everything that an economic system is supposed to do, it doesn’t change the fact that elite opinion is always going to be opposed to providing for the very kinds of services we have come to expect in the developed world, since they, economic elites and the business community, are disproportionately the ones paying for it.
For most, the fact that the most affluent should pay for a higher proportion of goods and services seems just. In the practical sense of the term, higher taxes cost them less. But to those confronted with this intuitive argument, their social position presses them to argue that their position entails no corresponding obligation, that their privilege is somehow innate or natural, or that, at their most hysterical, all forms of taxation are simply outright theft.
This was the logic of the Neoliberal Revolution Reagan and Thatcher brought to the West, and which ultimately brought Trump to power. It was a mantra of privatization of public services, deregulation of powerful financial institutions, and unregulated free trade. Its aim was to dissolve the sense of solidarity within the post-war political and economic coalition by seeing a conspiracy against the public interest in all publically accountable institutions, particularly government and trade unions, and, more cruelly still, to preach the free-market gospel to the very people who were most victimized by its logic. In the 1990’s under Clinton, with its relentlessly anti-poor and anti-black “war on drugs”, passing of relentlessly anti-worker Free Trade Agreements (by no means a necessary component of a “globalized” economy), and the “end of welfare as we know it” for good measure, this process continued largely unabated.
The driving logic was ruthlessly individualistic and shamelessly selfish. It preached “all for ourselves and nothing for other people”, incidentally the very doctrine lambasted by the godfather of modern economics, Adam Smith, as the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind”. Predictably, this creed has been anathema to the vast majority of working people: an acid burning into the foundations of solidarity within American society.
In teaching that anything but the vile maxim is utopian or unjust, such a worldview is cancerous to any political community. It makes a virtue of tearing political communities apart rather than bringing them together. But it has also euthanized the labour movement, lowered marginal tax rates upon the wealthiest, greatly increased both income and wealth inequality, empowered neonazis and a politics of anti-empathy, and taught people that the very institutions meant to represent and protect them are actually out to get them.
By that measure, such politics of rage have produced exactly what was expected of it— a shameless, ineffectual, scapegoating figurehead of a politician, ready to sign nearly anything put in front of it by the forces that be. Under such an administration, where fear and rage divide public opinion, there is nothing to stand in the way of private power. And by that measure, self-interest for the few can be maximized at the expense of the many, all under the banner of a faux-radicalism that proposes nothing but the unfettered rein of the forces that be.
Such is the politics of the “Vile Maxim”.
Editor-in-Chief, St Andrews Economist
Committee Member, Socialist Society