Not Getting It

Will Donald Trump really sue Ted Cruz? His lawyers sent Cruz the cease-and-desist letter – stop running those ads showing Trump saying things that Trump no longer believes – that’s lying, or defamation, or some sort of tort – and Cruz says bring it on – sue me, asshole – you said those things. No one has ever seen anything like this, or like these two. Trump may be the closest thing to Mussolini that America has ever produced, and Ted Cruz is Joe McCarthy back from the dead and a hundred times smarter, and a thousand times nastier, and unlike McCarthy, cold sober. Who needs this nonsense? But these two seem the only two who matter on the Republican side this year – Marco Rubio, the bewildered man-child, is all the Republican establishment has left – and on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton inspiring no one with her shrill pragmatism. She is superbly qualified but thoroughly unpleasant. Bernie Sanders is the star this year – the self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist – but people only hear the second of those two words. He must be stopped – see Billionaire SuperPAC Launches Ad against $15 Min. Wage and Bernie Sanders – socialism will be the end of America and greedy workers will ruin things for the rest of us. What are the Democrats thinking? What is America thinking? But the same questions could be asked about the runaway popularity of Trump and Cruz.

Something is up. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. At least that’s what many say – trusted voices out there, like the New York Times’ resident expert on everything, Thomas Friedman. There are those of us who were appalled with this guy’s suck-on-this theory on why we had to go into Iraq in 2003 – five years later he was still saying that yes, Iraq was the wrong country, and yes, we had been wrong about the WMD and most everything else, but after 9/11 we had to do something to let the Arab world know that we’d not just sit back and do nothing in response. We’d lash out, indiscriminately. And if they didn’t like it they could suck on this.

The metaphor was oddly homoerotic and sadistic, but Friedman was only saying we had to run up the score and humiliate any and all in the region. After this no one would even look at us funny – they’d avert their eyes and be good. He isn’t saying that anymore. And we all made fun of the Friedman Unit – in the next six months we’d find out “if a decent outcome is possible” in Iraq. He said that every six months or so for about two years. A Friedman Unit is now six months – but the guy has won lots of journalism awards and was elected a member of the Pulitzer Prize Board. He has his moments. He’s just a little excitable. Some things just set him off, and then he makes pronouncements about the truth of things.

So here we go again. This election season has set him off, so he has now offered his new pronouncement of the real truth about what is going on:

I find this election bizarre for many reasons but none more than this: If I were given a blank sheet of paper and told to write down America’s three greatest sources of strength, they would be “a culture of entrepreneurship,” “an ethic of pluralism” and the “quality of our governing institutions.” And yet I look at the campaign so far and I hear leading candidates trashing all of them.

Donald Trump is running against pluralism. Bernie Sanders shows zero interest in entrepreneurship and says the Wall Street banks that provide capital to risk-takers are involved in “fraud,” and Ted Cruz speaks of our government in the same way as the anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist, who says we should shrink government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” (Am I a bad person if I hope that when Norquist slips in that bathtub and has to call 911, no one answers?)

I don’t remember an election when the pillars of America’s strength were so under attack – and winning applause, often from young people!

And he has his bill of particulars:

Trump’s famous hat says “Make America great again.” You can’t do that if your message to Hispanics and Muslims is: Get out or stay away. We have an immigration problem. It’s an outrage that we can’t control our border, but both parties have been complicit – Democrats because they saw new voters coming across and Republicans because they saw cheap labor coming across. But we can fix the border without turning every Hispanic into a rapist or Muslim into a terrorist.

Trump seized on immigration as an emotional wedge to rally his base against “the other” and to blame “the other” for lost jobs, even though more jobs, particularly low-skilled jobs, are lost to microchips, not Mexicans.

What we have in America is so amazing – a pluralistic society with pluralism. Syria and Iraq are pluralistic societies without pluralism. They can only be governed by an iron fist.

Just to remind again: We have twice elected a black man whose grandfather was a Muslim and who defeated a woman to run against a Mormon! Who does that? That is such a source of strength, such a magnet for the best talent in the world. Yet Trump, starting with his “birther” crusade, has sought to undermine that uniqueness rather than celebrate it.

Then there’s Bernie:

Sanders seems to me like someone with a good soul, and he is right that Wall Street excesses helped tank the economy in 2008. But thanks to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, that can’t easily happen again.

I’d take Sanders more seriously if he would stop bleating about breaking up the big banks and instead breathed life into what really matters for jobs: nurturing more entrepreneurs and starter-uppers. I never hear Sanders talk about where employees come from. They come from employers – risk-takers, people ready to take a second mortgage to start a business. If you want more employees, you need more employers, not just government stimulus.

Then there’s Ted:

Unlike Sanders, Ted Cruz does not have a good soul. He brims with hate, and his trashing of Washington, D.C., is despicable. I can’t defend every government regulation. But I know this: As the world gets faster and more interdependent, the quality of your governing institutions will matter more than ever, and ours are still pretty good. I wonder how much the average Russian would pay to have our FBI or Justice Department for a day, or how much a Chinese city dweller would pay for a day of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission or Environmental Protection Agency? Cruz wraps himself in an American flag and spits on all the institutions that it represents.

And so on and so forth, and Salon’s Simon Maloy responded to his column:

Thomas Friedman is terribly perplexed. The New York Times columnist asks “Who Are We?” this morning, a question prompted by his chilling realization that some of this year’s presidential candidates are doing quite well despite not believing in the same things as Thomas Friedman. This disturbing rebuke of Friedmanism has left the man unnerved and unsure, grasping for any sort of anchor as the world he observes from inside taxi cabs and airports stops making sense…

The rap on Sanders, per Friedman is that he’s too hard Wall Street “fraud” and insufficiently celebratory of entrepreneurship. Bernie is “right that Wall Street excesses helped tank the economy in 2008,” Friedman allows, but “thanks to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, that can’t easily happen again.” Oh, well, if it’s more difficult now for the engine of wealth inequality to nearly destroy the global economy with its “excesses,” then what is Bernie’s problem? As for entrepreneurship, Friedman thinks Bernie needs to talk it up more because “we’re not socialists.” (If you’d like to read Sanders extolling the virtues of entrepreneurs and small businesses and explaining the threat Wall Street poses to both, I’d direct you to this interview and this debate.)

Ah well, there has been a lot of this shock from Friedman-centrists since Sanders’ victory in the New Hampshire primary, but Robert Reich, the Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, saw things this way:

You will hear pundits analyze the New Hampshire primaries and conclude that the political “extremes” are now gaining in American politics – that the Democrats have moved to the left and the Republicans have moved to the right, and the “center” will not hold.

Baloney. The truth is that the putative “center” – where the Democratic Leadership Council and Bill Clinton’s “triangulation” of the 1990s found refuge, where George W. Bush and his corporate buddies and neoconservative advisers held sway, and where Barack Obama’s Treasury Department granted Wall Street banks huge bailouts but didn’t rescue desperate homeowners – did a job on the rest of America, and is now facing a reckoning.

Trump and Cruz and Sanders were inevitable. Noam Chomsky says Bernie Sanders is not a socialist – he’s a decent, honest New-Dealer – so the most radical of radicals is not impressed – still guys like Friedman don’t get it. It was the “center” – Friedman’s folks – who did a job on the rest of America. Friedman can be as upset as he wants to be. As with Iraq, he just doesn’t get it.

Leonard Steinhorn, the author of The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy – yes, someone defends us – gets it. He argues that Friedman and his kind couldn’t get it:

Perhaps the biggest story coming out of campaign 2016 is not the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, but the fact that the media and political establishment never saw it coming. And the fact that they never saw it coming perfectly explains the rise of Sanders and Trump.

And here’s why: the economic and social wreckage wrought by the Great Recession of 2007-2009, which flatlined the lives and aspirations of so many, barely registered on the lifestyle Richter scale of media and political heavies.

Some of these elites may have seen their bull market portfolios or 401(k) plans dip, and for those trying to sell vacation homes they saw demand soften a bit. But as economic growth recovered so did their assets, and for the most part the recession to them was a talking point, a dinner party topic.

Not so for the vast majority of Americans. The recession’s economic pandemic may have caused the establishment only seasonal sniffles, but it has had an ongoing, debilitating and personal impact on working and middle-class Americans. And to young people raised to believe in a buoyant America and bigger future, a pinched economy is all they have known.

The political establishment only hears about that, and may not even believe that, really, even if they say it’s a shame. They don’t live it, but facts are facts:

Eight years after the real estate bubble burst, 13 out of every 100 homeowners remain seriously underwater on their mortgages, meaning that they owe a lot more than their homes are worth. Those who lost jobs stoically hoped for comparable ones, but after far too lengthy unemployment many had to accept new ones at lower pay. According to the National Employment Law Project, mid-wage and higher-wage industries accounted for 78 percent of the job losses during the recession but, as of February 2014, only 56 percent of the job gains during the recovery.

Daily insecurity is palpable and real to a large number of Americans. A year ago the Pew Research Center reported that about a third of Americans making $30,000 to $100,000 per year said that the recession had a “major effect” on their personal finances and they still have not recovered. For many, family expenses exceed monthly income, savings have essentially zeroed out, and debt – consumer, student and mortgage – leaves them at best running in place.

Feeling poorer is not supposed to be an American narrative, but largely because of the housing crisis and the recession, middle-class families saw their median wealth fall by 28 percent between 2001 and 2013. And it may be worse than these numbers indicate. Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis concluded in a study published last April that middle-class Americans “may be under more downward economic and financial pressure than common but simplistic rank-based measures of income or wealth would suggest.”

And on the other side of the equation:

Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez calculates that the top one percent captured 58 percent of all income growth between 2009 and 2014, and the top 10 percent now earns a greater share of the national paycheck than at any time in the past 100 years. Wealth is even more lopsided, according to New York University economist Edward Wolff: as of 2010, the top one percent holds 42 percent of the nation’s non-home wealth, and for the top decile it’s 85 percent.

Or consider this lead sentence in a 2014 New York Times article: “Corporate profits are at their highest level in at least 85 years. Employee compensation is at the lowest level in 65 years.” So if corporations aren’t investing profits in their workers, where are they putting the money? Many are buying back shares of stock and paying hefty dividends to shareholders, all of which benefits those who own capital, not those who work for capital.

Americans have long looked to government to right this imbalance, but this time they see Washington bailing out those on top at the expense of everyone else. In a 2015 Pew survey, about seven in ten Americans said that government economic policies since the recession have helped large banks, financial institutions, corporations, and the wealthy – and have done little or nothing at all to help the middle class, small businesses or those in poverty.

And politicians to their ironic credit confirm exactly what the American people are seeing: tone deaf Republicans who want to water down regulations on the financial industry and prioritize tax cuts for the wealthy – and tone deaf Democrats who claim to speak for working families but take millions in donations and speaking fees from the same Wall Street investment bankers whose recklessness helped create the crash.

Who wouldn’t want to blow things up? Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump say they speak for them, but there’s nothing new here:

Andrew Jackson proclaimed himself a “man of the people” unafraid to take on the “rich and well born,” and he focused the economic anxieties of his era on the Second Bank of the United States, which he labeled a tool of wealthy elites and foreign interests and succeeded in dismantling it.

In the 1890s, with the agrarian economy convulsing from the industrial revolution, monopoly power and a population shift from farms to cities, William Jennings Bryan led a populist wave that targeted banking manipulation, financial power, concentrated wealth and corporate malfeasance – but also exhibited a strain of nativism, anti-intellectualism and what the historian Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style.”

Now unspool this populism and there are strands of both Sanders and Trump woven into it.

Sanders, the classic economic populist, provides ample evidence that big banks and institutions are playing with our nation’s wealth and influencing democracy in a way that benefits themselves at our expense. Think of President Roosevelt decrying the “economic royalists” and “privileged princes” who, “thirsting for power, reached out for control over government itself.” Think of the widespread popularity of the 2015 film, The Big Short, which chronicles how hubris and self-interest on Wall Street caused the economic hardship and pain on Main Street.

Trump too says he is not beholden to the moneyed class or the media establishment – notwithstanding his own vast wealth and celebrity status – but his populism veers more into a nativist mutation that expresses a generalized fear of decline and sense of betrayal, that other nations are getting the better of us, that hard-working Americans are getting the short end, that we are being overwhelmed by a mob at the gates and our leaders are too weak and ill-prepared keep us strong.

Didn’t Friedman see this? One thing does lead to another:

We gravitate to those who can help us make sense of the situation, identify who’s responsible for our plight, and promise clear, straightforward and decisive action. Which tribune we choose to support is simply a function of our ideological and cultural predispositions.

That’s why things are so ugly this year; still, Friedman ends his column with this:

America didn’t become the richest country in the world by practicing socialism, or the strongest country by denigrating its governing institutions, or the most talent-filled country by stoking fear of immigrants. It got here via the motto “E Pluribus Unum” – Out of Many, One.

Simon Maloy is having none of that:

This happy bit of pabulum about American greatness is surely very reassuring for Tom Friedman, but he’s no closer to understanding the popularity of the three people he says are obviously incorrect about the character of the country. Instead of trying to grapple with the reasons why the attacks on his “pillars of American strength” are resonating with voters, he instead lectures the candidates on how they misunderstand Tom Friedman’s America. It’s what you’d expect from a columnist who serves as a spokesman for the elite and the privileged – things are still pretty sweet at the top, so he can’t quite grasp what all the fuss about.

It’s the pundit’s fallacy in action: Tom Friedman believes it, therefore it must be true. The way Friedman sees it, the problem isn’t that there’s been an erosion of faith in the ideas and institutions he believes in, it’s that the presidential candidates don’t spend enough time talking about how great they still are, regardless of what voters actually believe.

That’s a bit harsh, but things are getting ugly out there:

Robert Bowers, a 50-year-old debt collector, conceded that Donald Trump may have gone “overboard just a little bit” when he attacked President George W. Bush, saying he lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and failed to stop the Sept. 11 attacks. But that did not stop Bowers, of Fountain Inn, S.C., from putting on a cap with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan and walking through an icy cold parking lot so he could crowd into a raucous Trump rally Monday night.

“He’s not a polished politician,” Bowers said, neatly summing up both Trump’s appeal and liability. …

“I hope he drops an F-bomb,” one fan said to another on the way into the rally. …

During past controversies, Trump’s supporters have stuck with him, believing his unvarnished criticism of immigrants, Muslims, women and Sen. John McCain’s war record shows he is willing to take on establishment interests and unwilling to bend to what he calls political correctness. Sometimes they agree with his comments, particularly on building a wall along the Southwestern border and barring Muslims from entering the country, according to polls. Sometimes they disagree but are more concerned with upending the political system.

“We’re voting with our middle finger,” said John Baldwin, a used-car dealer from Greenville.

There’s a lot of that going around. They’re also giving the middle finger to Thomas Friedman. Some folks just don’t get it.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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