This article was originally published in The Jackal.
“You will not replace us!”
That was the slogan that was half-shouted, half-snarled by Klansmen and neo-nazis on the civilized streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer.
Lacking the stein-sloshing brio of “Deutschland Uber Alles’’ or the thuggy punchiness of “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer,” it was, as hate chants go, pretty pathetic. Menacing delivery masked the sweaty panic in what was the war cry of the already defeated. Cemeteries, as DeGaulle observed. are full of irreplaceable men, and these men have lashed themselves to an already sinking ship. In the long run, we are all going to be replaced.
In the short run, however, it is the anxiety of those who have fallen victim first that has propelled Trump, propelled Brexit, propelled nationalist and populist movements all over. Trump is moving into his third year of dominating the enws here in America, but he is just the tip of the iceberg. The rising anxiety of white people is the underlying story.
For forty years, middle class Americans of every race have been getting the shaft. Between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s, American prosperity was high, and everyone benefitted. Productivity increased by 97 percent, wages went up 91%, and workers bought houses in the suburbs and cars and color TVs. Not coincidentally, it was also an era of great social progress.
But starting in the mid-seventies, a free market ideology took control. Shareholder interests dominated. Market forces ruled. It made sense to move a factory from Michigan to Mexico to cut labor costs; what happened next in Michigan wasn’t the stockholders’ concern. Workers once valued as assets were now treated as commodities whose cost needed to be cut. A store that once employed ten full time workers who received health insurance and pension now hired thirty part time workers who received no benefits. Cruel, but smart.
Now throw in the Great Recession, from which Wall Street and the big banks have recovered but from which middle class pensions and middle class home values have yet to recover. And now throw in the digital revolution, the transformative technology that has treated some industries like ebola. Men like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are now so rich they can underwrite a personal space race, but not everyone is a winner. Streaming took the jobs of about 20 percent of music industry workers. Internet publishing cost a quarter million jobs in journalism. Online shopping will close about a fifth of America’s retail stores. How excited do you think America’s 3.5 million truckers are feeling about the advent of driverless cars?
The upshot of these developments? Since the mid-seventies, productivity has gone up 74%. Wages have gone up 9 percent
It’s true that new jobs are being created. But the transition is uneven. While some places are being transformed, others are withering. And it is the ruling class’s indifference that is pushing the white middle class off the deep end. Trump is the middle class’s extended middle finger to the one percent.
(Make no mistake, the black middle class has suffered as much and more from the changes, particularly the recession, but the political reaction is different. In 2016, reliably black Democratic voters stayed home; less dependably white Democratic voters went berserk.)
Trump won by playing to the anxieties of these voters with slurs against immigrants, Muslims and minorities, and he continues to do so. For example, he said that at least some of the people marching with the neo-Nazis and Klansmen in Charlotteville were “good people,’’ but used the term “son of a bitch’’ for an NFL player who protested the treatment of blacks during the National Anthem.
That’s not surprising. What’s bizarre is that he has done nothing to speak to actual causes underlying the fears.
Instead of fixing Obamacare, which 55 percent of the public now supports, Trump continues to undermine it.
Instead of investing in a program that would repair and reconstruct the nation’s dilapidated infrastructure while boosting wages and employment, Trump has yet to spend Dollar One.
Instead of delivering a tax cut that would help the middle class, Trump’s vague proposal leaves some in the middle class paying a little more, others a little less. But everyone who makes $900,000 or more will get a tax cut, worth on the average $234,000.
Instead of attacking the lethal opioid epidemic that is slamming the white middle class—for the first time, the death rate among white working class adults is surpassed non-white working class adults, due to increases of drug addiction, alcoholism and suicide, the so-called “deaths of despair’’—Trump has virtually ignored it.
White middle class anxiety is real. Trump has stoked it. But can anyone fix it?