System Demise, and What Happens Next?

“Democratic capitalism no longer works well enough to keep together a country of 325 million people and to guarantee domestic peace,” the German journalist Holger Stark declared in the news weekly Der Spiegel, trying to explain Donald Trump’s America to his German readers. I think Mr. Stark is right; our way of governance is under deep systemic stress from both sides of the money/power equation.

The disrobing of the financial Emperors began with the financial collapse of 2008. As the elite who run the financial world stood naked amid their misdeeds, we glimpsed how, among many other things, they had packaged and sold bad real estate loans under false pretenses, for profit, with the complicity of the ratings agencies. (Iceland suffered mightily. See deeper coverage in my book Out in the Cold.)

The moment lasted no longer than it took their Maitre d’s to sweep the crumbs from the Emperors’ Michelin-rated dinner tables. The systems of financial governance they support patched things up, bailed them out and dispatched that nasty little business, and fast.

But the markets were left in turmoil. The elite’s solution was austerity, which resulted in rising unemployment. This led to mass protests and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupy seized on rising inequality as a rallying device, calling themselves “the 99 percent,” pointing out that the top one percent of income earners, who are less affected by austerity measures, are generally the decision makers who caused the problem in the first place.

I think to watch the nascent Obama administration repair the Emperors’ balance sheets was a revelation for middle America. The former party of the working man, made up of all those out-of-work cadres to whom Donald Trump would later appeal, showed flyover country that whichever flag of political leadership flies over the land, the infestation of money has rotted the system clear through.

••••

It’s ALWAYS About the Money

In a Maslow’s hierarchy, the Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf ranks capitalism as more fundamental than democracy. He writes, “Democracy cannot function without a market economy.”

“In today’s world, it is not capitalism that is in imminent danger, but rather democracy. A predatory form of post-democratic capitalism, not the end of capitalism, is the threat.” By this Mr. Wolf means we should fear authoritarianism.

Mr. Wolf works for a newspaper whose focus is money, so it is not surprising that he might overlook flaws in the workings of the money part of the money/power question. But there are glaring flaws, and they give rise to alienation.

An alienated center’s loss of faith in institutions invites the rise of the fringes, the peripheral haters and dividers that always rise at times when the disillusioned are too crestfallen to keep up their guard. Opportunist would-be leaders are always ready to exploit such an electoral mood, and this is what we call the rise of populism, an affliction from which we currently suffer.

••••

The post-post-Cold War world is well and truly in flux. Conflicting signals are everywhere. Vladimir Putin’s unapologetic Russian nationalism has brought along bits of east Europe, notably Victor Orban’s Hungary and a grudge-wielding conspiracy theorist whose destructive policies seem driven by personal vendetta, the power behind the throne in Poland, PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński.

Brexit deflated proponents of the European project. Donald Trump has NATO rightly alarmed. Mr. Putin’s loans to Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale seek and may attain influence over a Europe teetering on terminal division.

We all see the challenges facing the German chancellor, who looks more tired by the day, after her fateful acceptance of 1.1 million refugees (or was that 890,000?) in the summer of 2015. A narrative is emerging that she “represents what many voters consider the failings of the past.” Her painful audience with the U.S. president could scarcely have bucked her up before the September electoral challenge from the SDP head Martin Schulz, who has the clear and canny benefit of having been away in Brussels and untainted by the immigration wars.

Still, for every Orban in Hungary there is an Austria, where 73-year old Alexander Van der Bellen ultimately won the presidency last December with 53.8 percent over Norbert Hofer, heir to Jörg Haider’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigration Freedom Party. In Bulgaria the center-right has held, with the pro-E.U.-integration (and corruption-plagued) Boyko Borissov likely to retain his premiership after elections at the end of March. Then too there is the Dutch rejection of the nasty, isolated Geert Wilders. It appears the power side of the money/power question could go either way.

••••

An epic, scene-setting battle is being fought right now, before our eyes, and it is historic. After the 25 year lull we called the “post-Cold War,” this is the world-defining struggle for what comes next. It is history on fast-forward. For now, it is hard to see the emerging landscape for the early spring fog. The 7 May runoff in France and September elections in Germany will help to illuminate the path forward.

The potentially good news on this side of the Atlantic is that Donald Trump’s act wears thin as fast a Wal-Mart t-shirt. We have fast come to know him as a slight-of-hand president, a purveyor of diversion, and there is every chance that his dissipation of the common trust will in time bring the country to a crisis that will not end well. In the context of the times we live in, if there could be a worse time for my country to have installed an ignorant, self-involved unsteady hand on the presidential tiller, I can not think of when it would be.

His rank dissimulation may – just may – prevent our president from being trusted long enough to cause physical harm. How we get from here to there is plenty fraught. But surviving the Trump threat won’t be the end of our woes, for they are systemic. We will still be left to repair our system’s corrupted relationship between money and government. A subject for future consideration.

 

Note: Less than an hour after publication of this post the U.S. Senate did its part in the institutional disassembly process by changing its rules so that sixty votes are no longer needed to confirm a Supreme Court Justice.

This article also appears on Medium.

On Trump, and Where We Are Now

window

It’s hard to see what’s out there.

We live in a most pregnant moment. Outside cosseted liberal circles (where I live), one may not become unpregnant. Change will come.

There is a Great Blue Rush to understand the white working class.

A hero of the moment is J D Vance, whose Hillbilly Elegy is all the rage just now. Having lived in Appalachia for fifteen years (the very buckle of the bible belt, we like to say), I caution against taking Mr. Vance too seriously. As soon as I picked up his book, it struck me as lacking in empathy for the people he describes.

Vance is mean. He castigates his kin and their fellows, and he ascribes their predicament to flaws in their own character.

In fact, the largest single cause of underperformance around here is that all of the jobs in this part of the world have left this part of the world. Until not long ago there was a garment factory near our home. Now there are none, save for chicken processing plants largely employing immigrant labor. High school kids can’t wait to graduate and get the hell out of here. Methamphetamine is the local plague.

Rather than Vance, to get yourself thinking I recommend on the left, Roy Greenslade’s Is liberalism really to blame for Britain’s (and America’s) ills? and on the right, Joan C Williams’s What so many people don’t get about the US working class. It is not impossible to understand that white working class men (this is Williams) “aren’t interested in working at McDonald’s for $15 per hour instead of $9.50.”

It’s honor. And dignity.

After the election I watched PBS pundits answer “guilty as charged” to dissing that dignity in using the shorthand “non-college educated voters.” I would add “fly over country” and, as Sherrod Brown pointed out, “rust belt” to the slurs that surely stuck in the collective craw of the Trump electorate.

So we are off on our period of Blue Guilt. In the rush of excitement to embrace globalization, Blue World has been called out. While those of us not left behind celebrate the hundreds of millions of people lifted from poverty – China, Bangladesh, Pakistan – we stand naked and guilty as charged of overlooking our own countrymen, our neighbors.

Does anyone listen to globalization’s poster boy, Tom Friedman, anymore? If so, why?

And yet: While we may be suffering from a patch of Blue Guilt, it is not emollient to embrace the entire suite of Red Resentments, particularly the unwelcome antagonism toward the very Latin American migrants who do the essential, grinding work of our country, and do it willingly, even gratefully.

Hand in unfortunate hand with the fear and resentment of that particular “other” elides the fear of Islam, because of its perceived threat of terror. Whatever your politics, it is hard to avoid that at least since the overthrow of Saddam, the United States has had a large(r than Trump’s) hand in the disruption of the Islamic neighborhood. We dodge responsibility, but we should not.

So many innocent shattered lives, in the name of humanity, deserve safe harbor. Up until now our decent and welcoming land, a land of immigrants, would have been expected to understand, and lend a hand.

Apparently no more, because now is the time of Trump.

It may be, as Mr. Greenslade suggests, that painstaking education (ever the tiresome, long term corrective, ever with the lefty whiff of condescension) is the long term answer. This election has shown that the body politic is no longer willing to wait.

In a revolution, you have to know who you can trust. Half the country trusts, half the country doesn’t, both ways.

In the tumult of lefty thought there is no guidance. Some want to close ranks, for the good of the country. Others demand that Trump fail, and fast. For the good of the country.

We know our country must heal. And we wait, on knife’s edge.

Chekov’s Gun

Guns

Imagine last Sunday as screenplay:

Fade up as a massive C-130 cargo plane thunders overhead. Aboard is the lead negotiator in fraught talks with a longtime American adversary. There are exactly thirty days until the deadline for a nuclear deal that the President of the United States seeks as his legacy. The negotiator, who is also the Secretary of State, is being airlifted home for surgery after an accident. Blue emergency lights and that two-tone European ambulance wail, and fade to black.

Fade up on muted yellow lights and low, mournful music. It is the very same day in Washington, and the president’s second in command is laid low, gut-punched with bereavement over the death of his son. In the movie it is clear the Vice President of the United States, in his grief, will be incommunicado for days.

A cacophony erupts as the gauzy yellow at the Vice Presidential residence becomes the yellow of midnight oil burning at the United States Capitol building where the Senate, in rancorous, extraordinary Sunday session, debates whether it has unilaterally compromised American national security and laid the United States open to enemy attack. It is still the very same day. Which could only happen in the movies.

•••••

Sure it’s all a coincidence but it makes me uneasy. If the events of Sunday, 31 May were a movie, by the end of Act One Chekov’s gun would lie squarely in the center of the table. Something “no one could have foreseen” would be about to occur.