Donald Trump will do anything to be re-elected. His opponents are limited because they believe in democracy. Trump has no limits because he doesn’t.
Here’s Trump’s re-election playbook, in 25 simple steps:
1) Declare yourself above the law.
2) Use racist fearmongering. Demand “law and order” and describe protesters as “thugs”, “lowlife” and “rioters and looters”. Describe Covid-19 as “kung-flu”. Retweet posts from white supremacists. In your campaign ads, use a symbol associated with Nazis.
3) Appoint an attorney general more loyal to you than to America,and politicize the Department of Justice so it’s lenient on your loyalists and comes down hard on your enemies. Have it lighten the sentence of a crony convicted of lying under oath. Order investigations of industries you dislike.
4) Fire US attorneys who are investigating you.
5) Fire independent inspectors general who are looking into what you’ve done. Crush any whistleblowers you find.
6) Demean and ignore the intelligence community. Appoint a director of national intelligence more loyal to you than to America. Demand that the head of the FBI pledge loyalty to you.
7) Pack the federal courts with judges and justices more loyal to you than to the constitution.
8) Politicize the Department of Defense so generals will back whatever you order. Refer to them as “my generals”. Have them help clear out protesters. Order the military to surveil protesters. Tell governors you’ll bring in the military to stop protesters.
9) Purge your party of anyone disloyal to you and turn it into a mindless, brainless, spineless cult.
10) Get rid of accumulated experience and expertise in government. Demean career public servants. Hollow out the state department, the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, and public health.
11) Reward donors and cronies with bailouts, tax breaks, subsidies, government contracts, regulatory rollbacks and plum jobs. Put their lobbyists in charge of your agencies. Distribute $500bn in pandemic assistance to corporations in secret, without any oversight.
14) Denigrate and ridicule all critics. Describe opponents as “human scum”. Attack the mainstream media as purveyors of “fake news” and “enemies of the people”.
15) Conjure up conspiracies supposedly led by your predecessor and your opponent in the last election. Without any evidence, accuse your predecessor of “treason”. Fabricate a “deep state” out to get you.
16) Downplay real threatsto the nation, such as a rapidly spreading pandemic. Lie about your utter failure to contain it. Muzzle public health experts. Urge people to go back to work even as the pandemic worsens in parts of the country.
17) Encourage armed supporters to “liberate” states from elected officials who disagree with you.
18) Bribe other nations to investigate your electoral opponent and flood social media with lies about him.
19) Use rightwing propaganda machines like Fox News and conspiracy-theory-peddling One America News to inundate the country with your lies. Ensure that the morally bankrupt chief executive of Facebook allows you to spread your lies on the biggest media machine in the world.
20) Suppress the votes of people likely to vote against you. Intimidate voters of color. Encourage Republican governors to purge voter rolls, demand voter ID and close polling places.
21) Seek to prevent mail-in ballots during the pandemic. Claim they will cause voter fraud, without evidence. Threaten to close the US postal service.
23) If it still looks like you’ll be voted out, try to postpone the election.
24) If you’re voted out of office notwithstanding all this, refuse to leave. Contest the election, claim massive fraud, say it’s a conspiracy, get your cult of a political party to support your lies, get your propaganda machine to repeat them, get your justice department to back you, get your judges and justices to affirm you, get your generals to suppress any subsequent rebellion
25) Declare victory.
Memo to America: beware Trump’s playbook. Spread the truth. Stay vigilant. Fight for our democracy.
After the capitulation, the Liberal Class finally died. It faded away after decades of being morbidly dysfunctional. It was often out of its mind with delirium, and with periods of being semi-comatose. It had suffered from physical deterioration, mental depression and hallucinations of its former gradeur.
An autopsy was performed to determine the exact cause of death. Political scientists wanted to examine the corpse for underlying pathologies and their progression. The information may prove useful to future social movements. Hopefully, future generations can be saved from the tragic fate of the Old Liberal Class. The peaceful protests against riotous police violence gives one some hope for the next generation.
Survivors of the Liberal Class are Identity Politics and Political Correctness. The relatives were left squabbling over Liberal’s legacy. The Biden faction claims that it is the sole legitimate heir. The Sanders faction is begging for some table scraps. The pro-maskers and anti-maskers are in an angry Twitter feud. Identity politics, political correctness, incrementalists, and mainstream Democrats are demanding their share of the estate. The middle class was left with nothing but broken promises. The working class and the poor had become estranged for many years, and were cut out of the will entirely.
The 100 years old body of the Liberal Class had many wounds. In its younger days it had won some milestone battles: organizing labor, the 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, women suffrage, child labor laws, Social Security, Medicare, the Civil Rights Movement, and protests against the Vietnam War were just a few. Battles lost were to McCarthyism, COINTELPRO, the wars on drugs and crime, mass incarceration, Latin American death squads, corporatism, and international imperialism.
In later years the Liberal Class grew fat, dull and lazy. Fast-food, slow metabolism, consumerism, too much screen time and its decrepit age had severely weakened its immune system. A gelatinized brain caused ambivalence, confusion, and senility. The heart was broken from waiting for hope and change, which never came. Psychologically the Liberal Class simply lost all its will to fight.
Chris Hedges, in his book The Death of the Liberal Class, had speculated that the cause of death was gullibility. This was a contributing factor. Liberalism had been foolish enough to believe that it could change the political class from within the system. It had believed that elections and voting for the lesser evil would buy it time. The priority was always to vote for the lesser evil in “this” election, while waiting for the messiah to appear in the “next” election.
The Liberal Class believed in many false messiahs. In 1976 it elected Jimmy Carter. The 1976 election took place when the Vietnam War and Watergate were still fresh in the political mind. The economy was in a shambles, and there was an oil crisis. Hyper-inflation and recession were a new phenomenon called stagflation. Liberalism hoped Carter would be the Promised One.
Carter attacked the energy crisis by calling for conservation and solar energy. He wore a sweater and turned off the lights. He put solar panels on the White House roof. Carter acted as if he was a God-fearing pious man. He talked about peace in the Middle East, and nuclear arms reduction.
In the end, Carter was undone by a feud with his own liberal political party, and he was angry with the American people whom he berated for having a “moral malaise”. A hostile mainstream media ridiculed him and made him a laughing stock. On top of that was the Iran Hostage Crisis—
Despite Carter’s come-to-Jesus lecturing he was defeated in the 1980 election by a Hollywood “B” movie actor, pitchman for General Electric and drugstore cowboy named Ronald Reagan. Undiagnosed at the time, Carter left the Liberal Class with a malignant tumor. It metathesized in the twenty-first century into the War on Terror.
Carter and his National Security Advisor, the great-game aficionado, Zbigniew Brzezinski armed a band of terrorist in Afghanistan. Brzezinski later bragged that he and Carter egged the Soviet Union into a Vietnam-style war. Revenge seemed so sweet at the time. Instead the U.S. was later hoist by its own petard into wars that would never end.
Carter’s Afghan war lead to the destruction of that developing nation. Afghan women were launched back into the future of the 13th century, and the war killed over a million Afghan men, women and children. Carter’s chickens hatched into the attacks on the U.S. of September 11, 2001. For over forty years Afghanistan has been a humanitarian disaster, because of a liberal president’s meddling.
After 12 years in the wilderness of Reaganomics, Thatcherism, and Papa Bush, the Liberal Class thought that it had been sent another messiah by the name of William Jefferson Clinton. Ironically, Clinton was from Hope— Hope, Arkansas. Hope was the Liberal Class’s drug of choice. It kept looking for higher-highs, and instead got lower-lows.
Clinton was a New Democrat. What the New Democratic Coalition called being committed to pro-economic growth, pro-innovation, and fiscally responsible policies. In other words, Clinton was a neoliberal in sheep’s clothing. It was even said that Clinton was the first black president, even though he was as white as sliced bread. 
Clinton slashed welfare for the poor, and flooded the prison population with African Americans. Clinton waxed eloquent about the middle class, and the Liberal Class stopped caring about the downtrodden. There was a Democrat in the White House, and the Liberal Class was loyal to the Democratic Party. Liberalism stopped caring about the problems that society caused. As Senator Joe Biden said of his 1994 crime bill, “I don’t care; LOCK THEM UP”. The words “PREDITORS” and “THEM” were code for young Black American men.
If recent weeks have shown us anything, it’s that the world is not just flat. It’s fragile.
And we’re the ones who made it that way with our own hands. Just look around. Over the past 20 years, we’ve been steadily removing man-made and natural buffers, redundancies, regulations and norms that provide resilience and protection when big systems — be they ecological, geopolitical or financial — get stressed. We’ve been recklessly removing these buffers out of an obsession with short-term efficiency and growth, or without thinking at all.
At the same time, we’ve been behaving in extreme ways — pushing against, and breaching, common-sense political, financial and planetary boundaries.
And, all the while, we’ve taken the world technologically from connected to interconnected to interdependent — by removing more friction and installing more grease in global markets, telecommunications systems, the internet and travel. In doing so, we’ve made globalization faster, deeper, cheaper and tighter than ever before. Who knew that there were regular direct flights from Wuhan, China, to America?
Put all three of these trends together and what you have is a world more easily prone to shocks and extreme behaviors — but with fewer buffers to cushion those shocks — and many more networked companies and people to convey them globally.
This, of course, was revealed clearly in the latest world-spanning crisis — the coronavirus pandemic. But this trend of more frequent destabilizing crises has been building over the past 20 years: 9/11, the Great Recession of 2008, Covid-19 and climate change. Pandemics are no longer just biological — they are now geopolitical, financial and atmospheric, too. And we will suffer increasing consequences unlesswe start behaving differently and treating Mother Earth differently.
Note the pattern: Before each crisis I mentioned, we first experienced what could be called a “mild” heart attack, alerting us that we had gone to extremes and stripped away buffers that had protected us from catastrophic failure. In each case, though, we did not take that warning seriously enough — and in each case the result was a full global coronary.
“We created globalized networks because they could make us more efficient and productive and our lives more convenient,” explained Gautam Mukunda, the author of “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.” “But when you steadily remove their buffers, backup capacities and surge protectors in pursuit of short-term efficiency or just greed, you ensure that these systems are not only less resistant to shocks, but that we spread those shocks everywhere.”
The collapse of the south tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.Credit…Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos
Sept. 11, 2001
Let’s start with 9/11. You could view Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, as political pathogens that emerged out of the Middle East after 1979. “Islam lost its brakes in 1979” — its resistance to extremism was badly compromised — said Mamoun Fandy, an expert on Arab politics.
That was the year that Saudi Arabia lurched backward, after Islamist extremists took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca and an Islamic revolution in Iran brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. Those events set up a competition between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia over who was the real leader of the Muslim world. That battle coincided with a surge in oil prices that gave both fundamentalist regimes the resources to propagate their brands of puritanical Islam, through mosques and schools, across the globe.
In doing so, they together weakened any emerging trends toward religious and political pluralism — and strengthened austere fundamentalism and its violent fringes.
Remember: The Muslim world was probably at its most influential, culturally, scientifically and economically, in the Middle Ages, when it was a rich and diverse polyculture in Moorish Spain.
Diverse ecosystems, in nature and in politics, are always more resilient than monocultures. Monocultures in agriculture are enormously susceptible to disease — one virus or germ can wipe out an entire crop. Monocultures in politics are enormously susceptible to diseased ideas.
Thanks to Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Arab-Muslim world became much more of a monoculture after 1979. And the idea that violent Islamist jihadism would be the engine of Islam’s revival — and that purging the region of foreign influences, particularly American, was its necessary first step — gained much wider currency.
This ideological pathogen spread — through mosques, cassette tapes and then the internet — to Pakistan, North Africa, Europe, India and Indonesia.
The warning bell that this idea could destabilize even America rangon Feb. 26, 1993, at 12:18 p.m., when a rental van packed with explosives blew up in the parking garage below the 1 World Trade Center building in Manhattan. The bomb failed to bring down the building as intended, but it badly damaged the main structure, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000.
The mastermind of the attack, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, a Pakistani, later told F.B.I. agents that his only regret was that the 110-story tower did not collapse into its twin and kill thousands.
What happened next we all know: The direct hits on both twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, which set off a global economic and geopolitical crisis that ended with the United States spending several trillion dollars trying to immunize America against violent Islamic extremism — via a massive government-directed surveillance system, renditions and airport metal detectors — and by invading the Middle East.
The United States and its allies toppled the dictators in Iraq and Afghanistan, hoping to stimulate more political pluralism, gender pluralism and religious and educational pluralism — antibodies to fanaticism and authoritarianism. Unfortunately, we didn’t really know how to do this in such distant lands, and we botched it; the natural pluralistic antibodies in the region also proved to be weak.
Either way — as in biology, so, too, in geopolitics — the virus of Al Qaeda mutated, picking up new elements from its hosts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, violent Islamic extremism became even more virulent, thanks to subtle changes in its genome that transformed it into ISIS, or the Islamic State.
This emergence of ISIS, and parallel mutations in the Taliban, forced the United States to remain in the area to just manage the outbreaks, but nothing more.
Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 2008.Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images
The Great Recession
The 2008 global banking crisis played out in similar ways. The warning was delivered by a virus known by the initials LTCM — Long-Term Capital Management.
LTCM was a hedge fund set up in 1994 by the investment banker John Meriweather, who assembled a team of mathematicians, industry veterans and two Nobel Prize winners. The fund used mathematical models to predict prices and tons of leverage to amplify its founding capital of $1.25 billion to make massive, and massively profitable, arbitrage bets.
It all worked — until it didn’t.
“In August 1998,” recalled Business Insider, “Russia defaulted on its debt. Three days later, markets all over the world started sinking. Investors began pulling out left and right. Swap spreads were at unbelievable levels. Everything was plummeting. In one day, Long-Term lost $553 million, 15 percent of its capital. In one month it lost almost $2 billion.”
Hedge funds lose money all the time, default and go extinct. But LTCM was different.
The firm had leveraged its bets with so much capital from so many different big global banks — with no trading transparency, so none of its counterparties had a picture of LTCM’s total exposure — that if it were allowed to go bankrupt and default, it would have exacted huge losses on dozens of investments houses and banks on Wall Street and abroad.
More than $1 trillion was at risk. It took a $3.65 billion bailout package from the Federal Reserve to create herd immunity from LTCM for the Wall Street bulls.
The crisis was contained and the lesson was clear: Don’t let anyone make such big, and in some ways extreme, bets with such tremendous leverage in a global banking system where there is no transparency as to how much a single player has borrowed from many different sources.
A decade later, the lesson was forgotten, and we got the full financial disaster of 2008.
This time we were all in the casino. There were four main financial vehicles (that became financial pathogens) that interacted to create the global crisis of 2008. They were called subprime mortgages, adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs), commercial mortgage-backed securities (C.M.B.S.) and collateralized debt obligations (C.D.O.s).
Banks and less-regulated financial institutions engaged in extremely reckless subprime and adjustable rate mortgage lending, and then they and others bundled these mortgages into mortgage-backed securities. Meanwhile, rating agencies classified these bonds as much less risky than they really were.
The whole system depended on housing prices endlessly rising. When the housing bubble burst — and many homeowners could not pay their mortgages — the financial contagion infected huge numbers of global banks and insurance companies, not to mention millions of mom-and-pops.
We had breached the boundaries of financial common sense. With the world’s financial system more hyper-connected and leveraged than ever, only huge bailouts by central banks prevented a full-on economic pandemic and depression caused by failing commercial banks and stock markets.
In 2010, we tried to immunize the banking system against a repeat with the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in America and with the Basel III new capital and liquidity standards adopted by banking systems around the world. But ever since then, and particularly under the Trump administration, financial services companies have been lobbying, often successfully, to weaken these buffers, threatening a new financial contagion down the road.
This one could be even more dangerous because computerized trading now makes up more than half of stock trading volume globally. These traders use algorithms and computer networks that process data at a thousandth or millionth of a second to buy and sell stocks, bonds or commodities.
Joe Biden needs to pick a progressive woman for his VP nomination. Here’s why: 1) It would spark enthusiasm for Democrats (especially for progressives let down by Biden as the candidate, and 2) The woman he picks will have a great shot of becoming our next president, especially if Joe only wants one term (he will be 83 if he wins a second term and takes office in 2025).
He has some formidable women to choose as his running mate. Elizabeth Warren would be one of the strongest candidates. Kamala Harris, Gretchen Whitmer (governor of Michigan), Stacy Abrams, Val Demings (representative from Florida), Tammy Baldwin (senator from Wisconsin), and Michelle Lujan Grisham (governor of New Mexico) are progressives who would enhance the Democratic ticket. And that probably doesn’t exhaust the field of potential running mates.
Biden will do himself, and the Democratic Party, a big favor if he nominates one of these fine progressive women candidates as his vice-presidential choice. It just might help him win the election.
Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, presidents of the United States and Brazil, are essentially refusing to do anything consequential about an epidemic that is killing massive numbers of their own countries’ citizens.
For this, they should be brought before the International Criminal Court at The Hague and charged with crimes against humanity.
To compound the situation here, Trump is now ridiculing people who wear masks, including Joe Biden.
Wearing masks is one of the most simple, low cost and effective ways to slow down the spread of this pandemic and reduce the numbers of deaths.
But Donald Trump doesn’t want to smear his makeup, and so is suggesting to his insecure white male followers that wearing a mask makes a man seem less manly. He’s also refusing to do anything about testing at the national level other than ordering some swabs.
This isn’t just an abrogation of his duties as president. It is a crime. It is intentional disinformation being put forward purely for political purposes, and it will kill people.
Even worse was his ignoring and lying about the coming pandemic when he was first informed of it back in November and December. Trump and Bolsonaro knew what was coming, both from their own intelligence agencies and from news reports of the situations in China, Italy, and Spain.
While countries from Taiwan to New Zealand to Norway have gotten the virus under control, Trump and Bolsonaro did worse than nothing by spreading lies and disinformation while the virus exploded through their populations
Many of the families of people who have died of COVID-19 here in the United States have considered suing Trump, but it is nearly impossible to sue a sitting president, and Bill Barr has made it clear that the Justice Department will not hold Trump accountable for anything, up to and including shooting somebody on Fifth Avenue.
Therefore, we here in the United States, who are the victims of his criminal malfeasance, and the rest of the world who are victims of the United States and Brazil becoming the uncontrolled epicenters of a worldwide explosion of disease, must act.
It’s time to bring Donald Trump, and his mini Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, before the international criminal court at The Hague and convict them of crimes against humanity.
“Why do some British people not like Donald Trump?” Nate White, an articulate and witty writer from England wrote the following response:
A few things spring to mind. Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem. For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed. So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.
Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever. I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman. But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.
Trump is a troll. And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers. And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults – he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.
There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface. Some Americans might see this as refreshingly upfront. Well, we don’t. We see it as having no inner world, no soul. And in Britain we traditionally side with David, not Goliath. All our heroes are plucky underdogs: Robin Hood, Dick Whittington, Oliver Twist. Trump is neither plucky, nor an underdog. He is the exact opposite of that. He’s not even a spoiled rich-boy, or a greedy fat-cat. He’s more a fat white slug. A Jabba the Hutt of privilege.
And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully. That is, except when he is among bullies; then he suddenly transforms into a snivelling sidekick instead. There are unspoken rules to this stuff – the Queensberry rules of basic decency – and he breaks them all. He punches downwards – which a gentleman should, would, could never do – and every blow he aims is below the belt. He particularly likes to kick the vulnerable or voiceless – and he kicks them when they are down.
So the fact that a significant minority – perhaps a third – of Americans look at what he does, listen to what he says, and then think ‘Yeah, he seems like my kind of guy’ is a matter of some confusion and no little distress to British people, given that: • Americans are supposed to be nicer than us, and mostly are. • You don’t need a particularly keen eye for detail to spot a few flaws in the man.
This last point is what especially confuses and dismays British people, and many other people too; his faults seem pretty bloody hard to miss. After all, it’s impossible to read a single tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form; he is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of shit. His faults are fractal: even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum. God knows there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid. He makes Nixon look trustworthy and George W look smart. In fact, if Frankenstein decided to make a monster assembled entirely from human flaws – he would make a Trump.
And a remorseful Doctor Frankenstein would clutch out big clumpfuls of hair and scream in anguish: ‘My God… what… have… I… created?’ If being a twat was a TV show, Trump would be the boxed set.
If you wish to understand better the damage we are inflicting on our home planet and how far we are from fixing it, I highly recommend watching this new documentary. For me, everything I thought I knew about alternative energy and the sustainability movement was turned on its head. If this movie is correct, I can no longer believe in the environmental movement and its leaders the same way I once did, The answers lie elsewhere. We seem far from being able to protect and fix the damage we have done to Mother Earth. A very sobering documentary and important to see–TBPR Editor.
CORRECTION: Never mind, I retract my hasty opinion. Upon further review, encouraged by my environmentally-minded son, I see there were many issues that call into question the accuracy of the film. Well, it sounded good at the time….TBPR Editor
Over the past few days there have been noisy, threatening demonstrations at various statehouses demanding an end to Covid-19 lockdowns.
The demonstrations haven’t been very big, with at most a few thousand people, and involve a strong element of astroturfing — that is, while they supposedly represent a surge of grass-roots anger, some of them have been organized by institutions with links to Republican politicians, including the family of Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education.
And polls show that an overwhelming majority of Americans — including half of Republicans — are more worried that restrictions will be lifted too soon than that they will be kept in place too long.
But the demonstrators have received huge favorable coverage from right-wing media; Donald Trump called them “very responsible people”; and they were praised by White House economic adviser Stephen Moore, who compared them to Rosa Parks.
That last bit caught my eye, and not just because some of the demonstrators were waving Confederate flags. The grotesqueness of the comparison aside, why are we still hearing from Stephen Moore?
After all, Moore — whom Trump tried but failed to install as a member of the Federal Reserve Board — isn’t just a bad economist with a history of misogynistic outbursts. More to the point, he’s a quack, with a long history of misrepresenting or inventing facts to support his ideological agenda.
Among his greatest hits was a number-filled screed about the relationship between tax cuts and jobs — framed, as it happens, as an attack on yours truly — in which not a single number was remotely close to the truth.
On second thought, however, Moore fits right in. One thing the coronavirus has thrown into sharp relief is the centrality of quackery — confident pronouncements on technical subjects by people who have no idea what they’re talking about — to the whole enterprise of modern conservatism.
From some of its darkest hours, the United States has emerged stronger and more resilient.
Between May and July 1862, even as Confederate victories in Virginia raised doubts about the future of the Union, Congress and President Abraham Lincoln kept their eyes on the horizon, enacting three landmark laws that shaped the nation’s next chapter: The Homestead Act allowed Western settlers to claim 160 acres of public land apiece; the Morrill Act provided land grants for states to fund universities; and the Pacific Railway Act underwrote the transcontinental railroad.
Nearly 75 years later, in the depths of the Great Depression, with jobs in short supply and many Americans reduced to waiting in bread lines, President Franklin Roosevelt proved similarly farsighted. He concluded the best way to revive and sustain prosperity was not merely to pump money into the economy but to rewrite the rules of the marketplace. “Liberty,” Roosevelt said at the Democratic Party’s convention in 1936, “requires opportunity to make a living — a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.” His administration, working with Congress, enshrined the right of workers to bargain collectively, imposed strict rules and regulators on the financial industry, and created Social Security to provide pensions for the elderly and disabled.
The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare once again the incomplete nature of the American project — the great distance between the realities of life and death in the United States and the values enunciated in its founding documents.
Over the past half century, the fabric of American democracy has been stretched thin. The nation has countenanced debilitating decay in its public institutions and a concentration of economic power not seen since the 1920s. While many Americans live without financial security or opportunity, a relative handful of families holds much of the nation’s wealth. Over the past decade, the wealth of the top 1 percent of households has surpassed the combined wealth of the bottom 80 percent.
The present crisis has revealed the United States as a nation in which professional basketball players could be rapidly tested for the coronavirus but health care workers were turned away; in which the affluent could retreat to the safety of second homes, relying on workers who can’t take paid sick leave to deliver food; in which children in lower-income households struggle to connect to the digital classrooms where their school lessons are now supposed to be delivered.
It is a nation in which local officials issuing stay-at-home orders must reckon with the cruel irony that hundreds of thousands of Americans do not have homes. Lacking private places, they must sleep in public spaces. Las Vegas painted rectangles on an asphalt parking lot to remind homeless residents to sleep six feet apart — an act that might as well have been a grim piece of performance art titled “The Least We Can Do
The federal government is providing temporary aid to less fortunate Americans, and few have objected to those emergency measures. But already some politicians are asserting that the extraordinary nature of the crisis does not warrant permanent changes in the social contract.
This misapprehends both the nature of crises in general and the particulars of the present emergency. The magnitude of a crisis is determined not just by the impact of the precipitating events but also by the fragility of the system it attacks. Our society was especially vulnerable to this pandemic because so many Americans lack the essential liberty to protect their own lives and the lives of their families.
This nation was ailing long before the coronavirus reached its shores.
A great divide separates affluent Americans, who fully enjoy the benefits of life in the wealthiest nation on earth, from the growing portion of the population whose lives lack stability or any real prospect of betterment.
The hedge-fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin paid $238 million last year for a New York apartment overlooking Central Park. He plans to stay there when he happens to be in town. Meanwhile, 10.9 million American families barely can afford an apartment. They spend more than half of their incomes on rent, and so they scrimp on food and health care. And on any given night, half a million Americans are homeless.
For those at the bottom, moreover, the chances of rising are in decline. By the time they reached 30, more than 90 percent of Americans born in 1940 were earning more than their parents had earned at the same age. But among those born in 1980, only half were earning more than their parents by the age of 30.
The erosion of the American dream is not a result of laziness or a talent drought. Rather, opportunity has slipped away. The economic ladder is harder to climb; real incomes have stagnated for decades even as the costs of housing, education and health care have increased. Many lower-income Americans are born into polluted, impoverished neighborhoods, with no decent jobs to be found.
“By 40, my parents owned a house, had a kid — me — and were both doing well in their careers,” said Melanie Martin-Leff, who works in marketing in Philadelphia. “I’m freelancing, renting, partnerless and childless.”
The inequalities of wealth have become inequalities of health. A middle-aged American in the top fifth of the income distribution can expect to live about 13 years longer than a person of the same age in the bottom fifth — an advantage that has more than doubled since 1980.
These changes have become harder to reverse because the distribution of political power also is increasingly unequal. Our system of democracy is under strain as those with wealth increasingly shape the course of policymaking, acting from self-interest and perhaps also failing to imagine life on the other side of the divide or to design policy in the common interest.
The wealthy are particularly successful in blocking changes they don’t like. The political scientists Martin Gilens of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Benjamin Page of Northwestern have calculated that between 1981 and 2002, policies supported by at least 80 percent of affluent voters passed into law about 45 percent of the time, while policies opposed by at least 80 percent of those voters passed into law just 18 percent of the time. Importantly, the views of poor and middle-class voters had little influence.
The fragility of our society and government is the product of deliberate decisions. The modern welfare state was constructed in three great waves:
These policies embodied a broad and muscular conception of liberty: that government should provide all Americans with the freedom that comes from a stable and prosperous life.
“We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence,” Roosevelt told the nation in 1944.
The goal, of course, was never realized in full, but since the late 1960s, the federal government has largely abandoned the attempt. The defining trend in American public policy has been to diminish government’s role as a guarantor of personal liberty.
Advocates of a minimalist conception of government claim they too are defenders of liberty. But theirs is a narrow and negative definition of freedom: the freedom from civic duty, from mutual obligation, from taxation. This impoverished view of freedom has in practice protected wealth and privilege. It has perpetuated the nation’s defining racial inequalities and kept the poor trapped in poverty, and their children, and their children’s children.
One of the most important aspects of this retreat was the government’s role in constructing a new residential landscape of economically and racially segregated communities. The government built highways that carried white families to new suburban neighborhoods where minorities often were not allowed to live; it provided mortgage loans that minorities were not allowed to obtain; and even after explicit discrimination was declared illegal, single-family zoning laws continued to exclude low-income families, particularly minorities.