Length: 8 minutes and a cup of coffee
Constitutional scholars, journalists, even members of his own party worry a President Donald J. Trump will overstep the bounds of due process and free speech. Democrats and some Republicans compare him to a fascist. Psychologists opine he has a personality disorder. All the analysis about Trump miss the point: it isn’t the man the electorate has embraced that we should be worried about. It’s the electorate itself.
The Republican nomination of Trump is the inevitable, unavoidable, and foreseeable consequence of the perversion of capitalism, an electorate uneducated in civics and economics, and a population working itself to death by day and numbing itself out by night.
What happened to capitalism?
Our modern economy had its start with the first person who realized doing everything all by himself was inefficient, and said, “hey, I can make this hammer better than you and you can make nails better than me; let’s specialize and trade”. Entire countries have gone from hunter-gatherer to models of society and civilization because they realized they had one thing in surplus that another country needed and vice-versa.
Not too long after our first hammer craftsman went into business, I suspect, another budding entrepreneur realized she could sell her beautifully woven garments. Neighboring tribeswomen didn’t need fancy dresses; they wanted them. And since then, a good chunk of demand has been for things we want rather than need. And that’s okay. No one should have to give up their ipad, their Rocky Road ice cream, or their closet full of painful-yet-adorable shoes. But when did want overtake need? And what is the cost to society?
In the forties, workers went to textile mills to produce the uniforms our boys fighting the Nazis needed; Americans built ships and technology which aided in their victory. Meanwhile, families rationed meat and gasoline; they willingly and graciously embraced shared sacrifice because a.) they could easily see how it benefited those they cared about and b.) they trusted their government to properly utilize what they gave up. The nobility of the greatest generation was built upon a social contract of people and institutions taking care of each other. When soldiers returned to their homes and factory jobs they expected – and received – a lifetime of stable work, enough pay to support a family, and a pension at the end of their service. Americans entered into a social contract with executives leading this country’s economy – as the ‘company man’ – because doing so was a safe bet.
As that generation and the next enjoyed prosperity, a shift occurred. The ad men of Madison Avenue began finding new, innovative ways to sell us products we didn’t know we wanted. It started as selling efficiency – items that would make our everyday lives easier. But then companies began hiring psychologists and scientists to come up with ways to trick our brains into believing a bigger television screen, a flimsy mass-produced pair of sneakers, or a shiny car would make us happier. Suddenly want was conflated with need. Happiness, which all people need in some measure, is equated in today’s society with satisfying a craving for something we want.
That shift complete, Americans’ jobs and the survival of our economy is now dependent upon on those very Americans buying more things they can’t afford and don’t need. Think of the evening news on a December night. The anchor announces Christmas sales at big-box retailers are better than expected. Good news! Everyone, from stockholders to officeholders, breathes a sigh of relief.
But what price have we paid?
Everyone, from the incensed Bernie Sanders supporters, to the backers of Donald Trump, understands American jobs aren’t what they used to be. Gone are pensions, job security, or a living wage. Ask a supporter on one side and they’ll say the cause is corporate greed and government enabling; the other and you’ll hear it was unions’ greed and government meddling.
An educated electorate is now a contradiction in terms.
Meanwhile, Americans no longer learn the critical thinking skills needed to understand and analyze which side is correct or the promises politicians make to address economic woes. Civics is an educational relic of a by-gone era.
Today’s election debacle was foreshadowed in 2000, with voters caring more about which candidate they wanted to have a beer with than who had the best ideas for our country. Disdain for intellect and thoughtfulness is nothing new amongst the uneducated. But rather than fight back, both political parties, the press, and strategists like myself cowtowed to that sentiment of simpleton leadership. We led the race to the bottom, and the bottom is surely where we sit, aghast, today.
An uninformed, uneducated electorate can’t understand or defend itself against an economy based on gratuitous crap instead of need or efficiency. But that electorate, while uneducated, isn’t dumb. They know when they’re being screwed, though they know not whom to blame.
While everyone can agree the American promise is not what it once was, the way we deal with it is becoming increasingly toxic to our democracy.
People feel disenfranchised, sold-out, and hopeless. To make themselves feel better, they keep buying junk at the mall. A mountain of debt doesn’t matter when true prosperity is such a distant dream.
We numb out. On booze and opiates, on McDonalds and television, on fantasy and resentment. We work harder for less spending power used to purchase things that make us feel even more powerless.
The opiate addiction in this country is reaching epidemic proportions, particularly in rural populations, where economic opportunity is minimal. At the same time, we see skyrocketing obesity and children spending the equivalent of a half-time job watching television each week.
As we swipe right, like posts we have barely read, and change the channel when someone has a differing opinion, America has reduced its collective attention span to that of a gnat. And these technologies are actually an improvement for us; as we work harder, more efficiently, and are generally busier, they give us a platform for the connectivity humans yearn for.
But technology has also fed the thoughtlessness, the reactivity, and the short-tempered frustration that has been simmering for decades.
This atmosphere make a Trump presidency possible because it allows him to capitalize on poorly articulated truths the average voter senses without understanding the reasons behind: Americans have no real (political or consumer) power today; government is too monolithic to address social imperatives without overspending and creating bureaucracies which critically miss the point of their own existence. The media is a pale comparison to the thoughtful critique of Edward R. Murrow; the lines of journalism (meant to help inform thoughtful civic engagement), sales (of yet more needless products which we now need to forestall economic collapse), and entertainment (which is the new American pastime for numbing out) have been so blurred that not only does the electorate not trust the media, they revile their only mechanism for checking politicians and corporate leaders.
Let’s face it: the fifties, which Trump and so many of his followers yearn for, was the height of the white man’s economic opportunity and power. By campaigning on “making America great again”, Trump wisely capitalizes on the increasing powerlessness of this demographic. And the dumbed down information about our collective economic decline allows him and his followers to conflate their loss of power with the rise in women’s rights, African-American rights, and overall parity.
Rather than examine who is pulling the strings in our economy, people like Trump point the finger at a liberal agenda of equality, as if opportunities for women and blacks comes at the cost of the white man’s economic opportunity. They fail to see the pie is shrinking for everyone and are fighting for crumbs, rather than to grow the pie itself.
The culprits at the heart of Trump’s ascendancy are the elite moguls who shape our financial, political, and media life. Most don’t share the fear of women or minorities, but they benefit from a public that does. These few (mostly) men at the top have benefited since the dawn of our democracy from an uneducated, ill-informed electorate. But in the past 70 years, their greed has grown to new heights. And just as Icharist’s wings melted too close to the sun, the vehicle for bring them tremendous wealth is now congealing under the weight of their collective hubris.
As the poor, ignorant, unschooled consumer base they have cultivated in earnest supports the train wreck that is the Donald Trump candidacy, these leaders stand back in horror. Billionaire Koch Brothers are sitting out the election, Wall Street hedge fund managers are holding their breath, and Harvard’s Republican Club says Trump’s policies would “throw our economy back into recession”.
As opinion-shapers have rightly articulated for months, if Trump wins, the economic and constitutional consequences would be catastrophic. But what if he loses? What steps will our leaders suggest to avoid a repeat this election? Restructuring the power of electoral college? Restrictions on party nomination qualifications or increasing the number of super-delegates? Tests to become a voter? The danger to our democracy is just beginning.
When asked what form of government the Constitutional Convention had formed, Benjamin Franklin replied, “a Republic, if you can keep it”, warning us this experiment was very much fluid and dependent on the vigilance of business and political leaders, as well as average plebeians.
As easy as it would be to lay the blame exclusively at the feet of the elite of this nation, we average Americans shoulder as much responsibility for Donald Trump as they do. We have the right, responsibility, and yes, the ability, to address the conditions that created him. We can shift our spending habits slowly and deliberately. We can stop numbing out. We can get our news from sources that delve deeper. We can be intentional and mindful. And perhaps most importantly, we can demand of our leaders a thorough and complete education of the American child, which now proves not only an investment in our economy but the only buttress against a constitutional collapse.