The Genesis of a President and the Four Horsemen of the Establishment's Trumpocalypse Poverty, Alienation, Conflict and Decay combined to set off a popular revolt
The US is no stranger to such shifts, as canny politicians have, in the past, taken advantage of turbulence to ride a wave of discontent to power and remake the electoral landscape.
Donald Trump’s stunning electoral upset presages a new political realignment within the United States’ two-party system. Hopefully, the end of such a process will be a more competitive system, in which the preferences of the large and increasingly heterogenous American population are better aggregated and reflected in the resulting public policies. The US is no stranger to such shifts, as canny politicians have, in the past, taken advantage of turbulence to ride a wave of discontent to power and remake the electoral landscape. The most recent one was Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” which saw conservative Southern Democrats turn Republican and liberal Republicans turn democrat, anticipating the red state-blue state divide that we have today and especially the rural-urban divide. Later, the stirrings of another realignment were felt in the support given to President Reagan by blue-collar workers, who were traditionally Democratic voters. With Trump’s election, the shift is becoming permanent, with the Republicans seemingly on their way towards becoming a non-interventionist, labor and protectionist party. Of course, a Trump impeachment or scandal may derail not only his Presidency, but also his nascent Trumpist ideology, partly undoing some of these transformations.
The “Establishment” is uniquely injured by his rise, and therefore at its most dangerous, since it threatens not only the status-quo that enriched its members and gave them influence, but also the underpinnings of their worldview. A political realignment is a major upheaval for the Party nomenclatures, the Think Tanks, the donor alliances and the partisan media outlets which must now navigate a politically unfamiliar world in which their own status hangs in the balance. As the saying goes, it is easy for a man to not understand something when his salary depends on his continued ignorance. However, these formal and informal institutions enumerated above are part of the critical mechanism for the formulation of policy preferences and the intermediation between the governed and the centers of power. Schadenfreude at their panicked flailing should be accompanied by anxiety regarding the effect that such upheavals may have on the body politic and the public discourses of the nation.
The use of key words like “far right”, extremist, fascist is designed to shut out ideas from public debate and to discourage respectable people from engaging in this debate because of the implicit social costs they would bear, which would mark an almost literal disenfranchisement. Only a reasoned debate between respectable representatives can maintain the “civil” in the phrase “civil society”.
The only result of an entrenched perspective which has been shattered is either acquiescence that one has been mistaken and must reevaluate values and priorities or violent rejection of the result, accompanied by vilification of the those who threaten the integrity of their narrative. The use of key words like “far right” (one never hears of “far left” as a slur), extremist, fascist is designed to shut out ideas from public debate and to discourage respectable people from engaging in this debate because of the implicit social costs they would bear, which would mark an almost literal disenfranchisement. Only a reasoned debate between respectable representatives can maintain the “civil” in the phrase “civil society”. A tremendous differential in status between those advocating for one view and those who stand for the vilified one because they are already lacking in social status (football “hooligans”, noted extremists etc.) marks a victory half won for those who control what politics really is about, which is the rise and fall in status of various groups… until the tension blows over into violence. This is the guiding instinct behind the bafflingly fervent demonization of Trump and his supporters, of whom fully half (a quarter of the nation) are a “basket of deplorables” according to former Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Party interests matter not one bit for Republicans shooting themselves in the foot by opposing Trump, journalistic standards go out the window, the mainstream media engages in as much “fake news” as the Internet trolls and reality ceases to have an objective truth that can be discerned in the post-truth, post-modern and post-agency age.
In the meantime, with an ascendant Trump seemingly impervious to any sort of scandal, rumor mongering and personal failing that would have destroyed a career politician, it is useful to look back on the accumulated conditions that gave his message such power over the electorate. Numerous books have already been written analyzing one aspect or another of the current populist revolt across much of the world (West-centrism is part of the horse blinders of the ruling elites), and many more will be written before things play out to the end – Charles Murray’s “Coming apart – the state of White America 1960-2010”, Robert Putnam’s “Bowling alone”, Stephen Caldwell’s “Reflections on the Revolutions in Europe”, Sam Francis’ “Leviathan and its enemies”, Ann Coulter’s “Adios, America!”, Gregory Hood’s “Waking up from the American dream”, Kevin MacDonald’s “Culture of Critique”, Patrick Buchanan’s “Suicide of a Superpower”, Tatu Vanhanen’s “The Limits of Democratization”, Raymond Wolfers’ “The Long Crusade – Profiles in Education Reform” or Alain de Benoist’s “Carl Schmitt today” and many others. This article employs the metaphor of the “four horsemen of the Apocalypse” to underline the build-up to the shocking (for some) electoral cycles of 2016-2017, which saw strong political gains for “deplorables” across the world, from the Philippines to the Netherlands.
The first horseman – poverty
For Americans, the military upsets of the past quarter century (rapid conventional victories turning into expensive and discouraging quagmires) have been compounded by the decline in living standards of the wider population, in parallel with the decline in the US’ global economic status. An article by economists Thomas Piketty, Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez[i] shows that the share of gross national income received by the bottom half of the population in the United States has fallen from 20% in 1980 to 12% today, while the share of the “one percent” has risen from 12% to 20%. The real incomes of that same half have been stagnating since the 1970s, while the incomes of the top one percent have risen by 205%, and for the top 1% of the 1% by a staggering 636%. The increased cost of housing, education[ii] and the unequal burden of the maintenance of society have diminished “affordable family formation”, leading to a collapse in birthrates which places even more pressure on Ponzi-like pension schemes[iii] and the intra-generational transfer of wealth. According to a chart by Stanford Professor Raj Chetty’s Equality of Opportunity Project, the share of 30-year-old Americans earning more than their parents did at the same age has dropped from 92% in 1970 to under 50% in 2015[iv]. Homeownership is at the lowest level of the past 50 years, despite the average increase in age of the population[v]. This is the literal definition of the American Dream – social mobility and higher incomes across generations – which has since been rhetorically repurposed to require the arbitraging of differences in prosperity between the US and the rest of the world in order for immigrants to gain an immediate boost in living standards upon successful implantation.
Ordinarily, one could accept rising inequality as the result of dispassionate and fair processes, especially if everyone is better off compared to before. However, the rise in crony capitalism has eroded the perception of fairness in society, intensifying a conflict between the classes that is amplified by enduring racial differences across class lines. Meanwhile, we have witnessed the rise of the “precariat”, people who work in the “gig economy” and “sharing economy” which has been romanticized for marketing to bohemian youth. Lacking social protection and often being in a system which works only by leveraging their lack of access to privileges of workers (compare taxi drivers in the US to Uber drivers), the “precariat” (rising from 10.7% in 2005 to 15.8% in 2015) delay family formation and saving for old age, while supplementing their income with welfare targeted to low earners and expending the equity of their assets such as cars or homes, as well as personal and family savings. Traditional employment has also suffered, with the loss of middle class jobs being compensated by an economic recovery consisting of part time, poorly remunerated service jobs, in industries like the fast food sector. 94% of the jobs created during the Obama recovery of the past 8 years have been part-time, with the number of people working two jobs to make ends meet rising by 50% in that period[vi]. Many people have dropped out of the labor force entirely, compounding pressures on public welfare systems, with labor force occupation rates at their lowest levels since the 1970s, masked by the methodology used to report unemployment. The chart below was compiled by ZeroHedge.com from publicly available data and then tweeted by Donald Trump on the 3rd of June 2016, right before he won the Republican nomination[vii].
While America’s total debt was passing the psychological threshold of 20 trillion dollars, Americans have been using debt and welfare to supplement their consumption in the absence of income growth[viii].
Many Americans live paycheck to paycheck. A GoBankingRates survey quoted by Time Magazine showed that a third of all Americans have no savings, with three fourths having less than 100 thousand dollars saved up as shown in the graphic below. With the social safety net already bursting at the seams, this proves that the consumption function underlying 70% of the American economy is hopelessly overestimated[ix].
Household debt has continued to increase[x], reaching new all-time highs. (Partly unfair) competition for a diminishing supply of well-paying jobs has led to a significant rise in the demand for educational credentials, leading to a rise in the cost of education, as well as that of student debt. Other areas of significant growth are auto loans and mortgages. Even more worrying is the increased rate of delinquency of payments, which hint at the unsustainable debt burden that will surely affect the capacity for consumption, as well as lead to the bursting of future subprime bubbles.
The second horseman – alienation
The Market for Ideas published an extensive analysis of the symptoms and causes of America’s social malaise and, by extension, that of the West, in Issue no.1, in an article titled “The Dissolution of the Communities”[xi]. To quote Charles Murray[xii]:
“For White working-class men in their 30s and 40s—what should be the prime decades for working and raising a family—participation in the labor force dropped from 96% in 1968 to 79% in 2015. Over that same period, the portion of these men who were married dropped from 86% to 52%. These are stunning changes, and they are visible across the country. In today’s average White working-class neighborhood, about one out of five men in the prime of life isn’t even looking for work; they are living off girlfriends, siblings or parents, on disability, or else subsisting on off-the-books or criminal income. Almost half aren’t married, with all the collateral social problems that go with large numbers of unattached males. In these communities, about half the children are born to unmarried women, with all the problems that go with growing up without fathers, especially for boys. Drugs also have become a major problem, in small towns as well as in urban areas”.
Meanwhile, there are other indications of alienation. The time-honored tradition of volunteering in the “nation of joiners” has diminished rapidly in the past years[xiii]. Americans do not trust their politicians (down 20 pp since 2014[xiv]), their parties or government (down almost 50 pp since the 1970s[xv]) or the mainstream media as well as they did in the past[xvi], by a substantial margin. Congress has a 9% approval rating, Big Business is vilified and even the Presidency, as an institution, is losing some of the luster, even though a disaffected populace finds it easier to rally around a highly visible symbol like the Presidency with their pleas.
Americans are also alienated in the sense that they are increasingly unfamiliar with their country due to rapid changes in communities and at National level. Americans are unfamiliar with the demographics of their own country. Due to media bias expressed in content choices, Americans believe, according to a Gallup study, that sexual minorities account for 23% of the population, rather than the 3.8% scientific estimate[xvii]. They also believe that African Americans are a third of the population (rather than 12%) and that Hispanics are another 30% of the population (12.5% at the time of the Gallup study, 18% today)[xviii]. The fact that the historic American nation (still a majority) has started voting tribally, like a minority, is probably related to these perceptions, which are also a source of distortion when it comes to support for policymaking, since policy is no longer grounded in reality, but in innumerate appraisals. Meanwhile, high levels of immigration have nearly overtaken the 14.8% historical record of percentage of foreign born within the population in 1890, the so-called Gilded Age (as opposed to a Golden Age) whose inequality marked widespread populism, labor discontent, social conflict and subversive politics which was eventually addressed through the shutting down of immigration in 1924 and subsequent painful assimilation.
The feelings of nostalgia expressed in the proliferation of movies and television shows rooted in the past, as well as the electoral success of appeals to an idealized past, also hint at the alienation of Americans. The rapid shift in the demographics of their communities have left them “strangers in their own country” which, according to Harvard researcher Robert Putnam, leads to the following:
“In the presence of diversity, we hunker down. We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us […] They don’t trust the local mayor, they don’t trust the local paper, they don’t trust other people and they don’t trust institutions. The only thing there’s more of is protest marches and TV watching”.
The alienation is compounded by the divisive politics championed by America’s leaders in order to motivate the presence on voting day of groups who are less likely to be civically engaged, such as African Americans and Hispanics. For this reason, police shootings were blown out of proportion and intra-community violence was downplayed, while elite figures and the media also doubled down on promoting the self-fulfilling vision of an America riven with racism and casual and political violence on the part of a nebulous majority group against minority groups, when every official statistic invalidates this claim[xix]. One has to imagine the psychology of a person who is continuously bombarded with negative references to his ancestors, his country’s past and his inherited guilt, as well as unrealistic depictions of the relative propensity for crime and discrimination of groups in society. This bombardment also serves the goal of justifying entrenched preferences and privileges not just for groups that have been historically wronged, like Native Americans and the descendants of slaves, but also to any minority group, including recent arrivals who may have been the privileged oppressors in their own land through elite selection effects, further undermining the important social glue of the perception of “fair play” and “meritocracy”. Donald Trump’s election was part of the backlash to this.
The third horseman – conflict
American society is mired in conflicts of all kind, both internal and external.
America’s self-imposed vocation to spread liberal democracy across the world has hit a snag when it comes to people who are neither capable of it, nor want it particularly as much as they want the accoutrements of Western liberal democracies (high living standards, peace, prosperity and power) in a classic case of “correlation, not causation”.
The external conflicts relate both to its wars in the Middle East over the past 16 years, as well as the numerous flashpoints and burdens that come with the role of “global policeman”. Like the Vietnam War of a previous era, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have turned into quicksand for the world’s preeminent power for conventional warfare. Asymmetric warfare and its rapidly evolving side concepts, hybrid warfare and William S. Lind’s “fourth generation warfare” have cost the American state dearly in “blood and treasure” with little to show for it, except a worsening regional security environment and failed nation building schemes that seem to create more enemies for the US by the day, rather than fewer. America’s self-imposed vocation to spread liberal democracy across the world has hit a snag when it comes to people who are neither capable of it, nor want it particularly as much as they want the accoutrements of Western liberal democracies (high living standards, peace, prosperity and power) in a classic case of “correlation, not causation”. This is contrasted with America’s Cold War era tolerance for authoritarian regimes, so long as they towed the line set by the US, which also resulted in a rare period of a stability and advancement for the MENA region at the very low price of the West holding its nose while dealing with autocrats. Overall, the US has spent over 6 trillion dollars on its Middle Eastern adventures, with little success to show for it in terms of achievement of national goals and interests. Since the 9/11 attacks, the US has also tripled its yearly intake of Muslim immigrants, in a particularly willful disregard for prudence in the general interest, as later attacks in San Bernardino, Orlando and the abortive bomb spree in New Jersey, as well as the less publicized Fort Hood shooting, showed that the traditional US instruments for assimilation and acculturation no longer work in the modern era and with such culturally distant peoples.
The US has also gained an extra burden to go with its self-maintained Cold War era one of garrisoning the countries of the West, such as those in Western Europe. American journalist Chalmers Johnson spoke of “America’s Empire of Bases” in 2004[xx], a network of, as the Pentagon counted them, over 700 bases outside US territory that host significant American forces, provide rapid response times for American special forces, capacity for cooperation with security partners or support in the form of drone surveillance and assassination. Chalmers reported that they were severely undercounted and that 1,000 was likely closer to the real figure. The number of bases ultimately built in Afghanistan and Iraq reached 800 and 500, respectively. His findings are still widely quoted in the mainstream media today[xxi],[xxii]. As old bases are abandoned, new ones get built wherever they are needed[xxiii], in addition to the permanent city-sized bases in places such as Japan, Qatar, Germany or the UK. The National Post’s Richard Johnson created the infographic below[xxiv], which does not even begin to express the intricacies of America’s policy of garrisoning the world.
The “baseworld” reminds one of the means by which the Portuguese Empire extended and maintained its rule, through a highly-developed network of ports and forts which leveraged Portuguese naval power. It evolves alongside the specifics of American interests. For instance, there is officially only one American base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, though military leaders have let slip in recent years that there may be more[xxv]. Unofficially, America’s fight against Daesh, Al-Qaeda and various affiliates in Africa is waged through a network of “lily pads”, “forward operating locations”, “cooperative security locations” and so on, that are said to number around 60[xxvi] in Africa already. Richard Reeve, the director of the Sustainable Security Programme at the Oxford Research Group, a British Think Tank, wrote that “AFRICOM, as a new command, is basically a laboratory for a different kind of warfare and a different way of posturing forces”. Various maps purport to show the extent of the empire of bases. For instance, the one below was compiled by journalist David Vine in an interactive format[xxvii] to represent just Africa.
American special forces reportedly operate in 138 countries – 70% of the world – representing a 130% increase compared to the George W. Bush era[xxviii], whose political opposition painted him as a warmonger. President Obama, who received a Nobel Prize in advance of any move towards peace, ended his term with bombardment in seven acknowledged countries, having dropped a confirmed 26,127 bombs in 2016 according to the Council on Foreign Relations, three thousand more than in the preceding year[xxix]. The yearly increase in the bombing of Afghanistan was 40%. America’s yearly arms sales have also doubled compared to the Bush era[xxx], many of them to countries which had faced restrictions over human rights issues and whose higher orders were logged during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tenure, a factor in the “pay to play” scandal surrounding foreign government donations to the Clinton Foundation[xxxi].
America’s conflicts abroad have had human, material and psychological costs for the American people. They have resulted in a growing and visible class of veterans needing reintegration and lifelong care, some with physical or mental impairments. They have also affected America’s image of itself, since, in the globalized world of mass communications, the resentment of affected peoples can be fed directly into the public’s homes, while America’s enemies and its critics can easily propagandize the means through which the US pursues its various goals. War in the media age leaves the leadership fretting less about the details of combat and achieving strategic objectives and more about the optics of any given situation, radically altering the issue of tactics – how many soldiers die, what methods they employ, how many (sometimes innocent) civilians are injured, how they gain information etc. Hybrid warfare involves the “propaganda of the deed” and Westerners have become increasingly squeamish about what is done in their name and the suffering that is inherent in any conflict.
Meanwhile, the US has a conflict at home. With the backdrop of alienation described above, after two and a half decades of relatively low crime rates, murder rates have risen during the past two years. It is better to use murder rates because these crime statistics are the most likely to be accurate, since a dead body cannot be ignored, but America has also seen a rise in hate crimes, hoaxes of hate crimes (which should be hate crimes in themselves), rioting, arsons, looting, sometimes under the guise of political protests. One area of interest from a political standpoint was the rise in killings by immigrants (especially illegal immigrants and especially repeat offenders), which were particularly highlighted by Donald Trump for his law and order platform – mentioned were the presence of the San Bernardino and Orlando shooters’ families in the United States, as well as the killing of American citizens by illegal immigrants in sanctuary cities, like Katherine Steinle in San Francisco when he announced his candidacy.
The controversial and divisive White House policy during Obama’s second term[xxxii] of becoming involved in local matters related to police shootings fueled a violent response against perceived police violence and bias in the justice system. President Obama’s ambiguity towards the violence and “undocumented shopping” that followed, including the killing of 5 police officers and injuring of another 11 in Dallas in July 2016, was transmitted down the line to local administration engaged in appeasement and giving the rioters “space to destroy” and bribes from the public purse[xxxiii]. Overt White House support given to the families of the victims of the shootings, even when the police were found to be acting in self-defense by juries, also legitimized the unrealistic claims[xxxiv] of the mobs that later devastated Ferguson, Baltimore, Charlotte and other areas, compounding existing problems of poverty and lack of opportunities. The police, as they had done in the past when confronted by an unsympathetic Administration and an enraged community, while also fearful for life and career, retreated “to the donut shop” and ceased the rigorous policing that the communities actually needed, as the communities themselves had argued during the drug fueled violence of the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, a study by well-known American statistical analysis website fivethirtyeight.com on 73 of 83 American cities with populations over a quarter of a million inhabitants revealed a significant yearly increase in murders[xxxv]. This included an overall 27.7% increase from 2014 to 2016 (and a possible 20% increase in total national murders in 2017), correlating almost perfectly with the map of protests against police and the local government bowing down to pressures from the protesters and the Loretta Lynch Justice Department. The problem is nowhere near the level of the dreaded early 1990s, when New York had six times the murders it has had in recent years (360 vs. 2205 in 1990), but Chicago has had its bloodiest year since 1996[xxxvi], with almost 800 dead, compared to a high in 1992 of 943.
High murder rates destroy trust and social capital and lead to business disinvestment from problem areas and white flight from communities which renders them impoverished through the destruction of the tax base (Detroit suffered this fate after its race riots in 1967).
The fourth horseman – decay
Under all of these pressures, American society has registered considerable decay. Urban decay took place in areas of high crime, as the bourgeois elements left as quickly as possible to ensure their families’ security and recover as much of their property value as possible. Ferguson and other areas of recent tumult will find themselves even more impoverished in the next few years, if nothing changes. Comparisons between Detroit and Nagasaki in 1945 and today abound on the Internet, emphasizing the decay of Motor City. The growth of the American Rust Belt because of the downward trend in industrial employment and its geographic spread has also led to physical and social decay and, coupled with the alienation factors, has led to mounting use of drugs, prescription medication abuse and alcohol. The Washington Post compiled the following graphs on the advancement of alcohol related deaths in general and among women[xxxvii].
Meanwhile, the death rates have risen considerably for American Whites[xxxviii], who have borne the brunt of the political, economic, cultural and demographic transformation of America, according to a number of studies which also emphasized the worrying reversal of the post-WW2 trend of rising life expectancies[xxxix].
The decay can also be found in American social life, as rates of churchgoing, marriage, stable marriage, two-parent households have all gone down, concomitant with a rise in depression rates, anxiety and juvenile delinquency. The Catholic and various Protestant Churches have registered significant drops in membership[xl]. Incidentally, stable marriage rates are a powerful predictor of support for Republicans and for Donald Trump, especially among women[xli], who are, otherwise, Democratic voters. This decay feeds into the decay of politics and of policies, which are increasingly distorted to mirror the dysfunction in society, in the absence of a regenerative factor.
At the same time, Donald Trump has discussed the issue of infrastructure decay across the US, which is important not only for the most visible infrastructures with which the public may interact, but also for what economist Tyler Cowen called “unsexy infrastructure”, such as the US channel system and its locks and dams[xlii],[xliii]. The chart below was compiled by the Center for an Urban Future in a report on New York City, titled “Caution Ahead – Overdue Investments for New York’s Aging Infrastructure”[xliv].
The United States is still the richest and most powerful society in history, but its success has bred complacency, which has allowed special interests to thrive at the expense of the majority (socializing costs and privatizing profits) and the commonwealth. Cracks kept accumulating within the system, buttressed by technological advancement, a hard-working and motivated population and some financial sleight-of-hand, but the periods of crisis, such as the one starting in 2008, inevitably highlight the reality. The vision of what lies beneath American self-marketing and the discrepancies between reality and official narrative breed recrimination and discontent. Left unchecked, this translates into rising frustration seeking an outlet. This outlet was found in the voting booth, for a segment of the population, and in the streets, for another. Time will tell which one was correct in its appreciation for the use of legitimate mechanisms to prompt policy changes. The American establishment’s Trumpocalypse, whose keening is heard throughout every arm of the managerial state[xlv], is not a guarantee of success for his policies, especially with regards to healing the rifts within American society, as well as the divide between society and its rulers. In the absence of this healing process, no matter whether he replaces or subdues the existing elites, the US is destined for future upheavals, each one more violent than the last, which the Americans themselves speak of as the “balkanization” of their country