In 2016, Americans were asked to pick their poison.
On the one hand a highly competent, highly qualified mainstream pro-Wall Street pro-corporate candidate who would in most regards hold the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama trajectory—while entirely missing the desperation working Americans were feeling.
On the other hand a corrupt businessman calling bullshit on the entire system, willing to burn everything down to Make America Great Again—meaning give working people back the dignity (and manufacturing jobs) that had been stolen from them by the evil cabal of globalist elites. The fact that he was lying was entirely beside the point for his supporters.
And many Americans were willing to live with his exploiting of resentments and divisions to get anything that wasn’t business as usual.
What was business as usual?
- Real wages for American workers were exactly the same as they had been in 1980. Upward mobility was a distant memory for most.
- 49 million Americans experienced food insecurity daily.
- There were 1.68 million African-American men under state and federal criminal justice supervision, and they were receiving sentences 19 percent longer than white male convicted of the same charges.
- The purchasing power of the minimum wage had been falling since 1968.
- 40 percent of Americans could not handle a $400 emergency.
- 71 percent of young Americans would be unfit to serve in the military if they enlisted because they’d either fail the physical or be unable to read at a sixth-grade level.
- Our students ranked 26th out of the 34 wealthiest countries in math, despite the fact that we spent the 5th most on education.
- The prevalence of lobbyists in Washington meant that the percentage of Americans who supported a law had 0 percent bearing on whether that law would pass. Citizens’ impact on public policy was statistically non-significant.
- Lawmakers in Washington spent 70 percent of their time raising money for reelection. In some Senate races candidates had to raise $45,000 a day, 365 days a year, for 6 years in order to have a shot at winning.
- America had the most expensive—and infuriating—health care system in the world.
Because Trump was lying, as soon as he won he set about doing the opposite of what he’d promised: exploiting the presidency to make money and helping his friends and relations loot the country even more spectacularly than his predecessors.
Jobs continued to bleed out of the country, and after Trump cut taxes on corporations and the rich, he didn’t care that those corporations bought back stock and lavished bonuses on their executives instead of raising worker salaries and investing in new production.
Ironically, all this may be why he was exactly what we needed. Because it wasn’t just Hillary Clinton who missed how angry Americans had become. With the exception of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, everyone missed it. And missed it big: missed the opioid epidemic, the deaths of despair, the disintegration of families and the local institutions that had supported them.
It took Donald Trump to give one last shove to our societal infrastructure before its rotten foundations started to collapse. And what was revealed was not just that America didn’t work anymore, but that the people at the top—the lawmakers and the wealthy who patronized them—either didn’t know or care that it didn’t work. They were utterly insulated from its not-working because capitalism had long since morphed into something that insulated them, something ugly and toxic: oligarchy.
In America, hard work and talent should be rewarded, but let’s not pretend that in the past 40 years everyone in the top hundredth of a point got that much more brilliant and productive. Let’s not pretend that bail-outs and stock buy backs and venal corporatism entrenched by $3.47 billion in annual lobbying is a “free market.” Let’s not pretend that the people engineering mergers and acquisitions were doing so to enhance the competition necessary for capitalism to thrive.
As Rick Wilson has said,
Once corporations discovered it was cheaper to lobby than to compete and innovate, the game was over. It was permanently rigged. I was having a drink with a lobbyist for the financial industry who looked me in the eye and said, “If America had any fucking idea what we do to them, they’d burn this fucking city to the ground and kill every one of us.”
If liberals like us can agree this bigly with Rick Wilson, then perhaps this is where we can all meet. Perhaps anyone not irredeemably corrupt can be made to care about this kind of unfair, rigged-game corruption, from Bernie Bros to suburban women to Obama-Trump voters to Never Trumpers to libertarians to country-club Republicans to diner-dwelling coal miners who are no doubt exhausted of being anthropologically studied over their cup of morning joe.
And we are seeing surprising opportunities for agreement, from Marco Rubio to Bernie Sanders, from Josh Hawley to Cory Booker, that the way business and government interact must be changed. They might have different opinions about how we got here, who is to blame, and what we need to do now, but many of their ends are the same: enforce competition in the marketplace, protect the small against the large, end corporate welfare, and reestablish the principle that corporations have a responsibility beyond their shareholders and the next quarter’s bottom line.
Now let’s ponder this: If we were in year 3.5 of a Hillary Clinton presidency, where would be in our discussions of income injustice? Corruption in government? Dignity of work?
Maybe all the pain and division and loss and fear of these kidney-stone-excruciating years brought us an opportunity for insight and actual change. Maybe we had to see all this barely-beneath-the-surface hideousness in such undeniable fashion to make sure none of us would be willing to go back to the way things were before.
If we do set course on this incremental journey back to wholeness, then Donald Trump ultimately—paradoxically—will have MAGA because the greatness of America will be in its repudiation not just of him but all the toxicity he forced to the surface.
In 2016, America picked its poison, a poison that forced a national reckoning.
Whether that proves to have been the right poison is up to us now. And what we do next.
We might not recover from a second dose.