Trump’s identity politics and personal drama keep attention off the more damaging headline: his lack of economic solutions.
Trump’s economic populism has collapsed. He displays a lot of theatrical bluster, but on the core issue and hope on which he was elected – improving the situation of the working class through nationalistic economics – Trump is a fraud, a disappointment, and a do-nothing.
Trump campaigned like he was some kind of neither-left-nor-right, or perhaps a-bit-of-both, outsider third-positionist who would make unconventional, bold measures to help working people, with a backdrop of nationalistic rhetoric. By drawing upon all these themes he was implicitly aligning himself with the legacy of the Roosevelts.
But Trump is pursuing the precise opposite path of the Roosevelts, leaving the working class stranded.
First we have to talk about the dismal economic reality facing most people in the USA.
The Recession Damage of 2008 Never Left, It Just Changed Shapes
Sanders’ message of economic inequality was relegated to the backstage when he was swept under the rug at the DNC. Vicious debates over identity have dominated the headlines ever since: vote for me because I’m a woman, build a wall, etc.
In reality both sides of the identity debate are distant from the economics-based most urgent needs of most Americans, creating a painful disjunct between the political media spectacle and lived daily economic reality that makes most people outside of activism increasingly feel like politics is totally out of touch. The right-wingers of these debates sometimes express what is actually a latent, if distorted, working-class sentiment: none of this stuff is going to put dinner on my table, and things are still terrible in that department.
But a lot of people might roll their eyes. I mean come on, the Recession was almost ten years ago, right? Everyone should have gotten their life together by now, right? Enough excuses, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, right?
Wrong. Everyone is still completely fucked.
Employment has dropped to around 5%, officially, if you believe that. For millennials it’s higher. Unemployment figures are artificially low because many people have given up looking for a job at their previous earnings. They stop counting you as unemployed when you stop looking for jobs because there aren’t any; it’s the Maoist method of counting, also known as lying (to be fair, that’s the Maoist method of doing anything).
There are, technically, lots of jobs out there. People are hiring left and right if you’re willing to accept a shit job. 94% of jobs created since the recession are part time. So there are jobs. They’re just not going to give you the sort of job that will actually pay a millennial enough to let them move out of their parents’ house.
Or it will let you afford rent on a shitty apartment, but not actually be able to afford a healthcare plan after you turn 26 and go off your parents’ insurance, or at least not a healthcare plan that actually means anything if you actually have serious medical problems that require any kind of procedures or surgeries. And forget paying back your student loans, which means forget having good credit. Basically for millennials the idea that you’ll live like anything better than an animal in a hole in the wall is being delayed to your forties. So the problem isn’t jobs, it’s good jobs.
If you’re a baby boomer, you’ve either been forced to accept a job at possibly half your previous earnings, robbed of your expected era of retirement, been forced to dip into your retirement savings to live in the present because of the “involuntary retirement” of unemployment, or exist in some crummy between-state of both dipping into your savings earlier than you hoped and accepting low-wage employment more than you thought you’d have to.
Wages have stagnated since 2008, barely keeping place with inflation, not growing. Is that optimistic?
No, wages should be up to much higher 2017 levels. In any proper economy you have wage growth, because functioning economies grow, and that growth is split between labor and capital. All labor expands the value in an economy, and in a just world, labor would get all of that growth, but in capitalism we should at least get some of it. Between 2008 and 2017, labor got none of it and capital got all of it.
That means an entire decade’s worth of work went straight from labor to capital. They literally stole ten years worth of work from us. We have been walking on a treadmill of our lives, standing still, for ten years, because all the money we should have been making has been going straight to the 1%. So if you feel like you’ve been going nowhere for years it’s not an illusion and it’s not just you.
My buddy in the National Guard says that their student loan repayment program has been cancelled, in conjunction with Trump’s cancellation of public service student loan forgiveness and other federal school loan tightening. That’s a bitter pill; he signed a years-long contract of military service with the assumption that was part of the deal. With all the instability he’s creating the last thing Trump needs is dissent in the armed forces.
Trump vs. the Roosevelts
Both Roosevelts were bizarrely Caesar-like figures who invoked complex combinations of nationalism and working-class populism, borrowing left-wing and right-wing political themes. However, it has to be stated that despite the ambiguity of their aesthetics or overall legacy, their domestic economic approaches were ambitiously progressive.
In different ways, they both cracked down on the wealthy economically and improved the standard of living of the working class through direct government intervention. They weren’t socialists waging revolution, but this still accurately describes what they did.
The first Roosevelt resolved labor disputes by nationalizing coal mines, protected public health with the creation of the Food and Drug Administration, regulated industries such as railroads, broke up monopolies, and established conservation through the creation of public parks. A lot of this was done through borderline-illegal methods of circumventing Congress and the Supreme Court, relying heavily on executive power.
Ultimately the Roosevelt measure which made the most difference was the second Roosevelt’s federal public works projects. In a Depression which saw 33% unemployment, they managed to cut unemployment literally in half.
A hardcore socialist might object that these Keynesian type measures are just a stop-gap against economic crisis, and only delay the contradiction rather than solving it. True. I’m going to take the synthesizing position that these reforms can act as the initial infrastructure for socialism, exemplary inspiration, and whet the appetite for greater vision, rather than the cynical concept that any reforms reduce the working class need or energy for total revolution.
But what would really stimulate the economy is not just any old public works projects – infrastructure, roads, bridges, though it would be part of the puzzle. Again, there are jobs out there, just crappy ones, and we don’t need the government to generate a flood of sub-par employment, but good jobs. What would really stimulate the economy, and help the working class, would be Kennedy-style economic stimulation, of high-tech projects, like sending a man to the moon, or in our current context, a mission to Mars.
A more terrestrial approach would be a green energy grid, or an advanced transit system, instead of repairing the old one. We are so lost in damage control against Trump that we fail to fight him by talking about what an actual alternative solution or affirmative, forward-looking vision would actually be. But let’s not scoff at things like space programs for their earthly benefits. They generate high-tech jobs and countless consumer-sector products from their advanced space-oriented engineering that trickle through and benefit the rest of the economy. This is the reality of state-led, or collectively-planned, economics. It works.
The slogan “make American great again” is nothing to scoff at for its subconscious power over millions of people, it just sounds horrific coming out of the mouth of a person so empty of substance, but it was things like the moon landing that gave it an occasional ring of truth. “We do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” like JFK said – that actually meant something with space exploration, and that was actual greatness. Today that would be something like going to Mars in person.
Again, why do it? What’s the point? We could always just send a robot. But what’s the point of doing anything? It’s to do it, to be there, to do it in person, yourself. Teddy Roosevelt understood that.
What president does Trump really resemble, when you strip away all the bluster and theatrics, all the stormy attacks on the oppressed that keep our focus elsewhere? He looks like a right-wing capitalist, inactive in the face of our economic suffering:
He looks like Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression. And Herbert Hoover was a one-term president who lost to FDR.
All the state-led economic growth carried out by FDR is the opposite of Trump’s approach. He’s cutting public sector jobs. He’s depending on the private sector, delusionally hoping cutting taxes to the rich will stimulate jobs through failed trickle-down economics. This is a counter-cyclic vortex of incoherence that causes more economic destruction and destroys more jobs, the exact opposite of the direction we need to be going.
Trump backed down on destroying NAFTA, for whatever good or ill that might have done.
He wants to save jobs by cutting immigrants out of the economy, but that’s not any kind of real answer, because at worst they compete for the low-wage jobs that aren’t the real answer to the high-tech state-led growth we need. If we would actually just plan the economy and create projects rather than relying on the private, we could create enough jobs to employ 100% of the population no matter how many people showed up. Collectively-planned economics could literally employ the entire planet – a hint to developing the third world.
So who will be our FDR?
Probably Elizabeth Warren with Sanders as VP in 2020.
That’s not a hope; in fact I think she’s conservative and I’m kind of disappointed by this inevitable anticlimactic conclusion. In all honesty I was hoping for a more revolutionary outcome. It’s our job to push past her to that.