In 2006, a popular punk band known as The Street Dogs, led by former Dropkick Murphys singer Mike McColgan, released the album Fading American Dream. Its title track painted a portrait of a distressed working class America struggling with the loss of full-time work, higher rents, and stagnant wages. “Getting closer to our limit / We chase the penthouse from the basement,” the anthemic chorus bellowed. “Our current rat race / We run to stand still / This is our fading American Dream.”
I was in my senior year of high school back then, and what amazes me listening to it today is how little has changed.
On Nov. 8, Americans elected Donald J. Trump President of the United States. Much of what propelled him to victory were the grievances laid out so well in Fading American Dream, which eight years of the Obama administration failed to alleviate.
For decades now, Americans have been on the receiving end of the global economy. Many manufacturing jobs left the country, while automation, in addition to making their return dubious, put a time limit on those remaining; part-time work without benefits became the standard; rents went up; wages increased but spending power stagnated; new income skewed heavily to the top with about 99 percent going to the top one percent; working families often pay more in federal income taxes than the wealthy or major corporations who exploit loopholes and use offshore accounts; government became less and less responsive to the demands of ordinary people. According to a 2014 study by professors Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University, policy outcomes in the United States are driven by the demands of economic elites. In other words, we now live in an oligarchy.
None of this happened by accident. Now, I know as I write this that such a statement conjures up conspiratorial images of political insiders and business interests making cold calculations and sordid agreements in dark private rooms—and that seems ridiculous. In actuality, however, it’s not that far off. Over the years, various groups representing the interests of wealthy individuals and multinational corporations have worked tirelessly to chip away at the safeguards meant to prevent our system from giving way to oligarchy, and slowly but surely, money and power have become concentrated at the top of the American ladder. The wealth gap is the worst it has been in generations.
It began in 1974. In response to Watergate, Congress attempted to check political corruption by passing a series of amendments to the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act. These amendments limited the amount of money individuals could contribute to candidates and campaigns and required reporting and public disclosure of contributions above a certain amount. They established the Federal Election Commission to oversee the new rules and a system of public funding for presidential elections. In response, former Senator James L. Buckley, along with several other plaintiffs including the ACLU, filed suit in 1975 challenging the amendments. Buckley v. Valeo as the case is known, ended in one of the most fateful decisions of all time: That spending money is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment.
Then in 2010, the Supreme Court came down with an even more damaging ruling: Citizens United v. FEC held that as far as the First Amendment’s free speech protections were concerned, corporations and unions were effectively the same as people. The DC Circuit Court relied on this precedent in SpeechNow v. FEC and introduced America to super PACs.
As a result of these rulings, the amount of money flowing into our political system has steadily grown—especially in presidential elections. Today, it is such a central part of holding public office that congressmen literally spend half their time fundraising. And that means a whole lot of power and influence in the hands of the so-called ‘donor class,’ which translates to virtually every single level of government.
This is why we have Medicare Part D limiting the government’s ability to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. It’s why no action was taken by Congress in the wake of multiple mass shootings. It’s why Gramm-Leach-Bliley, the legislation allowing the creation of too-big-to-fail banks (a major factor in the 2008 Subprime Mortgage Crisis) was passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton during the merger of Citicorp and Travelers. It is why, following the worse financial collapse since the Great Depression, only one top level banker went to jail. It is why, rather than requiring big corporations like Walmart to pay their workers living wages and provide benefits, the taxpayer-funded social safety net is left to pick up the slack. According to The Wall Street Journal, the vast majority of people receiving governmental assistance come from a working family.
But at least we get a show out of it! If anyone has ever seen “Undercover Boss,” they’ll immediately understand what I mean. Yes, reader, we might not be able to live the American Dream, but at least we’re able to watch a show where the heads of these large corporations—mostly well-groomed white men—go “undercover” for a week to live amongst the plebs to learn about “the struggle.” In true television fashion, these newly woke CEOs or “bosses,” then reward the hardest workers and sometimes punish the bad employees—you know, the ones who deserve their lot in life—to the tune of heartwarming guitar strums or inspiring piano melodies. Justice at last!
Look, sarcasm aside, for years the American Dream was restricted to white people, particularly white men, but now it has faded for everyone across the board. How bad do things have to be when the children of wealthy parents can receive just 10 years’ probation for killing four in a drunken driving incident, after their lawyer argued they suffered from “Affluenza,” but a father from Missouri can end up in jail for over two decades for drug possession charges?
Bad enough to make Donald Trump President of the United States.
Trump pledged to fix our broken system. From the outset, however, his campaign was plagued by contradictions and inconsistencies, promises to satisfy both management and labor. As desperate people gravitated to his “America First” promise, many began to wonder what the balance between those two inherently opposing forces would come to look like.
Well, now we know. As has been the case for decades, Trump’s administration takes the former more seriously than the latter. The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same!
The first indicator was his cabinet: the richest in US history. It is to be composed of individuals often diametrically opposed to the missions of the agencies they’ve been tapped to lead—like charter school advocate and billionaire Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary, or billionaire CEO of CKE Restaurants Andy Puzder for Labor Secretary. This latter choice is disturbing because how many people really want an out-of-touch executive who opposes minimum wage increases and heads businesses with poor worker safety records, to handle labor disputes? Come on!
By now, some of you are probably thinking, “Well, hang on just a minute, Walker! Trump is working for us, bringing jobs back, and protecting those that are here!” And yes, Trump has made jobs a priority. Even then, the devil is in the details.
Take for example the Carrier deal he negotiated before taking office. Sure, that factory will remain open and those workers will keep their jobs (at least until the machines inevitably send them to the unemployment lines). However, what has not been as widely recognized is the fact he was able to accomplish this end, not through government strong arming to ensure companies outsourcing their labor are penalized and workers are protected, but rather by promising tax breaks which will further burden working families. After all, someone’s gotta pay the state! With this deal, Trump sent a message to companies that if they simply threaten to leave the country, they too can secure sweetheart arrangements from the government.
It gets worse.
On his first formal day in office, Trump met with America’s wealthiest business leaders and promised them that he would wipe away 75 percent of regulations, and fast-track domestic factories. He also withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and took initial steps towards renegotiating NAFTA—actions lauded by progressives including Senator Bernie Sanders as they indicated an earnest desire to bring work back to the US. This all sounds great, but once again, closer examination reveals problems.
What regulations does he plan on wiping away? He has not specified. However, it does sound like his administration plans on giving corporate America whatever it wants. In exchange, all that is required is some jobs returning—regardless of whether or not those come with benefits, livable wages, or safety. With an anti-worker, billionaire CEO tapped to handle labor disputes, it is unlikely labor will have much recourse.
It is also likely the jobs Trump is focused on are temporary—in other words, more of the same kind of employment opportunities that have been on the rise, but are not a long-term solution to the woes of the working class. Real unemployment is unlikely to fall far during the Trump years from where it sits today (roughly 9.2 percent).
From his infamous border wall with Mexico (cost: roughly $10 billion) to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines (the President has a serious personal stake in the latter) Trump’s plans thus far will do little to ease the struggling of ordinary people. A 2014 State Department report on KXL put the total number of permanent jobs created would be between 35 and 50.
Trump has shown himself to represent industry first and foremost. He is the culmination of our system’s takeover by oligarchs: a billionaire living in a golden New York City home, aligning his administration with big money interests. He promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a dream come true for the health insurance industry. He issued gag orders on several environmental agencies and appointed ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be his Secretary of State—a shout out to big oil at a time when scientists say man-made climate change is the biggest threat facing our planet.
Of course, the cherry on top of the kleptocracy sundae is the fact that Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, is in favor of relaxing campaign finance rules. In other words, a Trump court will mean more money in politics, more influence for entrenched elites, and even less voice for the American public.
Meanwhile, as The Intercept reports, Republicans across the country are introducing legislation criminalizing protest. So that’s where we stand.
At this point, it’s important to acknowledge that the other option this presidential cycle also represented the elite. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s entire political career was built on insider dealings, special interest money, and moral ambiguity in the name of compromise and “getting things done.” When she remarked at a rally in Florida that she loved having the support of “real billionaires,” and it became a talking point of her campaign, it was unsurprising. Her ideological outlook was, in a way, similar to Trump’s in that it assumed the interests of the ‘donor class’ could be reconciled with those of working people. During the campaign, she tweeted out an image boasting her support from billionaires, as if the interests of the ‘donor class’ were the same as those of everyone else. As access journalist Mike Allen recently revealed, she would have also tapped a billionaire CEO for Labor Secretary.
The options were a wild card occasionally speaking the language of working people and someone they knew to be politically expedient and unrepresentative of their interests. The more things change, the more they stay the same—have I said that already?
In an article in Politico from August 2014, self-proclaimed “unapologetic capitalist” Nick Hanauer wrote he saw “pitchforks” on the horizon, due to the extreme wealth inequality in the US. Evidently, that message got taken to heart. Evan Osnos of The New Yorker recently reported that some of the wealthiest individuals in America are investing in doomsday bunkers for themselves and their families in an effort to hoard what they’ve got.
So what can the rest of us do as we’re getting pillaged by the wealthiest among us?
Resist through unity.
For years, those at the top have divided us based on subtle differences in how much we are struggling as individuals; race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. have all created the illusion we’re somehow different from and therefore adversarial to one another. We saw examples of this divisive rhetoric this election with remarks like Trump’s “rapists” and Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables.” It does not matter whether they’re “conservatives” or “liberals,” the economic elites are united behind preventing the rest of us from uniting.
The simple truth in America is that if you’re not a millionaire or a billionaire, you are struggling. You may be struggling more or less than someone else, but you are still struggling, and therefore have commonality with the rest of the 99 percent. And though there are varying degrees of struggle due to differences discussed earlier, the root cause is the same: the oligarchy. The oligarchy is racist. The oligarchy is sexist. It is xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, and Islamophobic. Most of all, it is defined by avarice . . . and it is conquerable. The first step towards breaking the oligarchy is electing members of Congress and Senators who will vote to unequivocally get money out of politics. That is the only way we will restore the power of popular will.
This is a class war. What side are you on?