Bloom Briefing 37: State of the White Supremacist Union; Undemocratic America and the Anti-Establishment Impulse

Welcome to the Super Bowl edition of The Bloom Briefing. Congratulations to the Philadelphia Eagles on defeating Donald Trump’s friend Tom Brady and the Evil Empire of Foxborough, Massachusetts.

In a week which saw gone-rogue-on-Russia’s-Rubles Chair of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes publish a memo he shouldn’t have which mostly confirmed that the FBI had very good reason to surveil Carter Page, I focus instead on the State of the Union, and I ruminate on the undemocratic present of American society and what it might tell us about possibilities for productively harnessing the anti-establishment impulse.

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State of the Union

In surprisingly (for him) on-script remarks Tuesday night, Donald Trump delivered his State of the Union address to Congress. Many pundits seemed to be of the opinion that he at least cleared the bar of normalcy. It was, in many respects, a straightforward State of the Union. That is to say, it felt mostly like partisan hackery—what most States of the Union are—until one stopped to think about it.

At the New York Times, Kashana Cauley has written a good response, arguging that Trump’s State of the Union was only interested in uniting white folks. Her analysis of Trump’s tokenizing of guests of color is spot-on and important, but the overall message – that this was a white nationalist State of the Union – is even more so.

When one considers the policies Trump advocated for in the speech, from a crackdown on immigration, to bringing back clean coal, to fighting crime in inner cities, to admonishing people who don’t stand for the national anthem, it was clear that this was a speech designed to touch, as delicately as possible, the primary reason his base supports him in the first place: white identity politics.

In this sense, then, it was a very different State of the Union than in years past. While there have been not-even-subtly racist policies that have gotten significant air-time in previous States of the Union (war on drugs; cutting back the social safety net; deporting undocumented workers; etc.), they have never summed up to the entirety of the speech. There were always other policies, or at the very least a true and sincere acknowledgement of how the different-colored fibers of the rich tapestry of American society work together to bring about our beauty.

Trump had neither other politics nor the magnanimity to talk about the goodness of those with whom he disagrees. In that sense, it was quintessential Trump without the vulgarity: vile, self-serving, self-aggrandizing, untrue, and hateful.

American Democracy in Decline and the Renaissance of the Anti-Establishment Impulse

In a compelling and thought-provoking piece for the Atlantic, Yascha Mounk has argued that America is no longer a democracy. He includes a thoughtful exposition of how – at times – big business and the elite political class work together to enact and protect policies that run counter to the wishes of the citizenry. This is a smart point, and the part about government itself being part of the problem often doesn’t get enough traction on the left, so let me try to put this line of thinking in a bit of context. (Also, do read the article.)

For the first century of American history, government did very little. Communities were local. People stayed in their communities or moved west. Interstate commerce was limited. There was no income tax. Even the military was small (relative to today’s standards). Most people farmed.

As the industrial revolution spurred high-density residence and concentrated work in cities, the percentage of the population farming shrunk, and more people became employed as factory workers or as service workers of one variety or another in these rapidly growing cities. Left unchecked, the powers of profit pushed the owners of the means of production (capitalists) to demand more and more of their workers.

There were no checks on monopolies; there were no protections for laborers; there were no limits on how employers let workplace conditions cause ill-health; there were no protections for the environment. All of these emerged in response to the bad material consequences (health; poverty; exploitation) that were the natural offshoots of unchecked capitalism in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

The 20th century Democratic narrative about the ills of society was that the very nature of capitalism required the government to intervene and offer certain protections for ordinary Americans. The people needed to be protected from the exploitation of big business. This was (and is) true, and the left succeeded in passing a number of reforms to protect workers (Department of Labor – 1913), consumers (Food and Drug Administration – 1906), the environment (Antiquities Act – 1906), and the poor (multiple New Deal programs) from the rapaciousness of capitalism.

This led to a significant expansion of the role of government, such that by the late 20th-century, the Republican narrative was that government run amok was a greater threat to American liberty than big business. The oppressive weight of a massive bureaucracy would kill innovation and progress and leave American workers worse-off in the long-run.

Both of these arguments possess kernels of truth, but the most alarming truth is the reality of what happens when the business and political class are allied. Businesses work to find efficiencies wherever they can. If paying off politicians is the most efficient means of achieving profit, then that’s where businesses will invest. If a rewrite of the tax code will save a company $10 billion/year in pure profit, and launching a new product will generate $10 billion/year in revenue but come with substantial recurrent costs, and both come with “start-up” costs of $100 million, buying a politician is a more efficient investment.

This phenomenon is further compounded by the revolving door of elite businesspeople and political appointees. In this regard, the Trump Administration is a particularly grotesque instantiation of business interests being asked to regulate themselves. An Exxon-Mobile CEO is Secretary of State. A board member of an oil pipeline company is Secretary of the Interior. A longtime banker (15 years at Goldman Sachs) is Secretary of the Treasury. A longtime businessman is Secretary of Commerce. A Texas politician with longstanding ties to the oil industry is Secretary of Energy. The former Secretary of Health and Human Services had a massive stake in a pharmaceutical company. The fossil fuel industry donated six figures to reelection campaigns for the current Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency even though he was running unopposed. And these are just the examples I knew about or could find within five minutes of Googling.

The kernel of Republican truth is less that government itself is a threat to American liberty, but that an enormous state apparatus wields enormous power and has the potential to be hijacked. This, of course, isn’t the way most Republicans would put it, and they’re actively helping with the present hijacking. But those on the left may find it harder to reconcile the issue of, say, racially unequal police brutality to a worldview that identifies the state as the defender of the people. The left’s response is often to such a scenario is often to focus on the racism. The racism here is a problem, and not a small one. But combating racism isn’t the only solution to cops killing black people. Another solution to the problem is to change the rules governing police activity.

The Progressive Era curtailed the ugliest sides of unchecked capitalism, but business has had nearly 100 years to respond. The globalized world makes the power of business all the greater. How reliant are we upon Google, Amazon, and our favorite social media platforms? What would happen if they went away overnight? And we often think of these as the “good” companies – the progressive ones that have pushed for greater social inclusion and equity. The only way to curtail the powers of business in this era is with more powerful government. And the only way to curtail potential graft and corruption in politics is with stricter laws regarding service: full transparency of finances; blind trusts; limits on campaign financing; term limits; etc.

During the 2016 election, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump tapped into the anti-establishment strain of American politics. While Bernie’s inveighing against the establishment focused on the trenchant power of big business (“the billionaire class”), Donald’s focused on the cronyism of politics (“drain the swamp”). Of course, the latter of these was, and remains, entirely insincere, but there’s a reason why so many people bought in to the campaigns of relative outsiders: the people know the system doesn’t serve them.

This leads me to the thought that 2020 might represent a once-in-a-generation chance for a good government ticket. Good government isn’t sexy; it’s not fun to talk about. But putting forward actual proposals to limit the power of people in government without undermining the government’s ability to curtail the excesses of capitalism may just be the kind of message that resonates with Americans frustrated by the decline of the country’s democratic ideal.

Additional Reading:

In a quest to better grasp the nation’s speedy descent into racially stratified authoritarianism, I recommend Martin de Bourmont’s article in Foreign Policy about the arrest of a “Black Identity Extremist.” Coming at a time when Trump has lauded murderous white nationalists as “very good people,” the significance of arresting those organizing for racial justice should not be lost on anyone. (Martin and I know each other from Dickinson.)

At the Atlantic, Franklin Foer has written the cover story for the March issue (online already) about how Paul Manafort “laid the groundwork for the corruption of Washington.”

And, in the rare bit of good news, at New York Magazine, Sean McElwee and Alexander Agadjanian have written about how far to the left young Democrats have moved on racial justice issues.

Finally, in case you missed it, Paul Ryan Tweeted about how his tax plan is having a great impact on American workers because a school secretary in Pennsylvania is getting an extra $1.50/week. The Washington Post has catalogued some of the best reactions to this idiocy.