The Last Gasp of the American Dream

Just at the moment, many of my readers—and of course a great many others as well—are paying close attention to which of the two most detested people in American public life will put a hand on a Bible in January, and preside thereafter over the next four years of this nation’s accelerating decline and fall. That focus is understandable, and not just because both parties have trotted out the shopworn claim that this election, like every other one in living memory, is the most important in our lifetimes. For a change, there are actual issues involved.
Barring any of the incidents that could throw the election into the House of Representatives, we’ll know by this time next week whether the bipartisan consensus that’s been welded firmly in place in American politics since the election of George W. Bush will stay intact for the next four years. That consensus, for those of my readers who haven’t been paying attention, supports massive giveaways to big corporations and the already affluent, punitive austerity for the poor, malign neglect for the nation’s infrastructure, the destruction of the American working class through federal subsidies for automation and offshoring and tacit acceptance of mass illegal immigration as a means of driving down wages, and a monomaniacally confrontational foreign policy obsessed with the domination of the Middle East by raw military force. Those are the policies that George W. Bush and Barack Obama pursued through four presidential terms, and they’re the policies that Hillary Clinton has supported throughout her political career.

Donald Trump, by contrast, has been arguing against several core elements of that consensus since the beginning of his run for office. Specifically, he’s calling for a reversal of federal policies that support offshoring of jobs, the enforcement of US immigration law, and a less rigidly confrontational stance toward Russia over the war in Syria. It’s been popular all through the current campaign for Clinton’s supporters to insist that nobody actually cares about these issues, and that Trump’s supporters must by definition be motivated by hateful values instead, but that rhetorical gimmick has been a standard thoughstopper on the left for many years now, and it simply won’t wash. The reason why Trump was able to sweep aside the other GOP candidates, and has a shot at winning next week’s election despite the unanimous opposition of this nation’s political class, is that he’s the first presidential candidate in a generation to admit that the issues just mentioned actually matter.

That was a ticket to the nomination, in turn, because outside the bicoastal echo chamber of the affluent, the US economy has been in freefall for years.  I suspect that a great many financially comfortable people in today’s America have no idea just how bad things have gotten here in the flyover states. The recovery of the last eight years has only benefited the upper 20% or so by income of the population; the rest have been left to get by on declining real wages, while simultaneously having to face skyrocketing rents driven by federal policies that prop up the real estate market, and stunning increases in medical costs driven by Obama’s embarrassingly misnamed “Affordable Care Act.” It’s no accident that death rates from suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol poisoning are soaring just now among working class white people. These are my neighbors, the people I talk with in laundromats and lodge meetings, and they’re being driven to the wall.

Most of the time, affluent liberals who are quick to emote about the sufferings of poor children in conveniently distant corners of the Third World like to brush aside the issues I’ve just raised as irrelevancies. I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I’ve heard people insist that the American working class hasn’t been destroyed, that its destruction doesn’t matter, or that it was the fault of the working classes themselves. (I’ve occasionally heard people attempt to claim all three of these things at once.) On those occasions when the mainstream left deigns to recognize the situation I’ve sketched out, it’s usually in the terms Hillary Clinton used in her infamous “basket of deplorables” speech, in which she admitted that there were people who hadn’t benefited from the recovery and “we need to do something for them.” That the people in question might deserve to have a voice in what’s done for them, or to them, is not part of the vocabulary of the affluent American left.

That’s why, if you pay a visit to the town where I live, you’ll find Trump signs all over the place—and you’ll find the highest concentration of them in the poor neighborhood just south of my home, a bleak rundown zone where there’s a church every few blocks and an abandoned house every few doors, and where the people tipping back beers on a porch of a summer evening rarely all have the same skin color. They know exactly what they need, and what tens of thousands of other economically devastated American communities need: enough full-time jobs at decent wages to give them the chance to lift their families out of poverty. They understand that need, and discuss it in detail among themselves, with a clarity you’ll rarely find in the media. (It’s a source of wry amusement to me that the best coverage of the situation on the ground here in the flyover states appeared, not in any of America’s newspapers of record, nor in any of its allegedly serious magazines, but in a raucous NSFW online humor magazine.)

What’s more, the working class people who point to a lack of jobs as the cause of middle America’s economic collapse are dead right.  The reason why those tens of thousands of American communities are economically devastated is that too few people have enough income to support the small businesses and local economies that used to thrive there. The money that used to keep main streets bustling across the United States, the wages that used to be handed out on Friday afternoons to millions of Americans who’d spent the previous week putting in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, have been siphoned off to inflate the profits of a handful of huge corporations to absurd levels and cater to the kleptocratic feeding frenzy that’s made multimillion-dollar bonuses a matter of course at the top of the corporate food chain. It really is as simple as that. The Trump voters in the neighborhood south of my home may not have a handle on all the details, but they know that their survival depends on getting some of that money flowing back into paychecks to be spent in their community.

It’s an open question whether they’re going to get that if Donald Trump wins the election, and a great many of his supporters know this perfectly well.  It’s as certain as anything can be, though, that they’re not going to get it from Hillary Clinton. The economic policy she’s touted in her speeches, to the extent that this isn’t just the sort of campaign rhetoric that will pass its pull date the moment the last vote is counted, focuses on improving opportunities for the middle class—the people, in other words, who have already reaped the lion’s share of those economic benefits that didn’t go straight into the pockets of the rich. To the working classes, she offers nothing but a repetition of the same empty slogans and disposable promises. What’s more, they know this, and another round of empty slogans and disposable promises isn’t going to change that.

Nor, it probably needs to be said, is it going to be changed by another round of media handwaving designed to make Donald Trump look bad in the eyes of affluent liberals. I’ve noted with some amusement the various news stories on the highbrow end of the media noting, in tones variously baffled and horrified, that when you show Trump supporters videos designed to make them less enthusiastic about their candidate, they double down. Any number of canned theories have been floated to explain why that happens, but none that I’ve heard have dealt with the obvious explanations.

To begin with, it’s not as though that habit is only found on Trump’s side of the fence. In recent weeks, as one Wikileaks email dump after another has forced an assortment of stories about Clinton’s arrogant and corrupt behavior into the news, her followers have doubled down just as enthusiastically as Trump’s; those of my readers who are familiar with the psychology of previous investment will likely notice that emotional investment is just as subject to this law as the financial kind. For that matter, supporters of both candidates are quite sensibly aware that this election is meant to choose a public official rather than a plaster saint, and recognize that a genuine scoundrel who will take the right stands on the issues that matter to them is a better choice than a squeaky-clean innocent who won’t, even if such an animal could actually be found in the grubby ecosystem of contemporary American politics.

That said, there’s another factor that probably plays an even larger role, which is that when working class Americans get told by slickly groomed talking heads in suits that something they believe is wrong, their default assumption is that the talking heads are lying.

Working class Americans, after all, have very good reason for making this their default assumption. Over and over again, that’s the way things have turned out. The talking heads insisted that handing over tax dollars to various corporate welfare queens would bring jobs back to American communities; the corporations in question pocketed the tax dollars and walked away. The talking heads insisted that if working class people went to college at their own expense and got retrained in new skills, that would bring jobs back to American communities; the academic industry profited mightily but the jobs never showed up, leaving tens of millions of people buried so deeply under student loan debt that most of them will never recover financially. The talking heads insisted that this or that or the other political candidate would bring jobs back to American communities by pursuing exactly the same policies that got rid of the jobs in the first place—essentially the same claim that the Clinton campaign is making now—and we know how that turned out.

For that matter, trust in talking heads generally is at an all-time low out here in flyover country. Consider the way that herbal medicine—“God’s medicine” is the usual phrase these days—has become the go-to option for a huge and growing number of devout rural Christians. There are plenty of reasons why that should be happening, but surely one of the most crucial is the cascading loss of faith in the slickly groomed talking heads that sell modern medicine to consumers. Herbs may not be as effective as modern pharmaceuticals in treating major illnesses, to be sure, but they generally don’t have the ghastly side effects that so many pharmaceuticals will give you.  Furthermore, and just as crucially, nobody ever bankrupted their family and ended up on the street because of the high price of herbs.

It used to be, not all that long ago, that the sort of people we’re discussing trusted implicitly in American society and its institutions. They were just as prone as any urban sophisticate to distrust this or that politician or businessperson or cultural figure, to be sure; back in the days when local caucuses and county conventions of the two main political parties still counted for something, you could be sure of hearing raucous debates about a galaxy of personalities and issues. Next to nobody, though, doubted that the basic structures of American society were not merely sound, but superior to all others.

You won’t find that certainty in flyover country these days. Where you hear such claims made at all, they’re phrased in the kind of angry and defensive terms that lets everyone know that the speaker is trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t entirely believe any more, or in the kind of elegaic tones that hearken back to an earlier time when things still seemed to work—when the phrase “the American Dream” still stood for a reality that many people had experienced and many more could expect to achieve for themselves and their children. Very few people out here think of the federal government as anything more than a vast mechanism operated by rich crooks for their own benefit, at the expense of everyone else. What’s more, the same cynical attitude is spreading to embrace the other institutions of American society, and—lethally—the ideals from which those institutions get whatever legitimacy they still hold in the eyes of the people.

Those of my readers who were around in the late 1980s and early 1990s have seen this movie before, though it came with Cyrillic subtitles that time around. By 1985 or so, it had become painfully obvious to most citizens of the Soviet Union that the grand promises of Marxism would not be kept and the glorious future for which their grandparents and great-grandparents had fought and labored was never going to arrive. Glowing articles in Pravda and Izvestia insisted that everything was just fine in the Worker’s Paradise; annual five-year plans presupposed that economic conditions would get steadily better while, for most people, economic conditions got steadily worse; vast May Day parades showed off the Soviet Union’s military might, Soyuz spacecraft circled the globe to show off its technological prowess, and tame intellectuals comfortably situated in the more affluent districts of Moscow and Leningrad, looking forward to their next vacation at their favorite Black Sea resort, chattered in print about the good life under socialism, while millions of ordinary Soviet citizens trudged through a bleak round of long lines, product shortages, and system-wide dysfunction. Then crisis hit, and the great-great-grandchildren of the people who surged to the barricades during the Russian Revolution shrugged, and let the Soviet Union unravel in a matter of days.

I suspect we’re much closer to a similar cascade of events here in the United States than most people realize. My fellow peak oil blogger Dmitry Orlov pointed out a decade or so back, in a series of much-reprinted blog posts and his book Reinventing Collapse, that the differences between the Soviet Union and the United States were far less important than their similarities, and that a Soviet-style collapse was a real possibility here—a possibility for which most Americans are far less well prepared than their Russian equivalents in the early 1990s. His arguments have become even more compelling as the years have passed, and the United States has become mired ever more deeply in a mire of institutional dysfunction and politico-economic kleptocracy all but indistinguishable from the one that eventually swallowed its erstwhile rival.

Point by point, the parallels stand out. We’ve got the news articles insisting, in tones by turns glowing and shrill, that things have never been better in the United States and anyone who says otherwise is just plain wrong; we’ve got the economic pronouncements predicated on continuing growth at a time when the only things growing in the US economy are its total debt load and the number of people who are permanently unemployed; we’ve got the overblown displays of military might and technological prowess, reminiscent of nothing so much as the macho posturing of balding middle-aged former athletes who are trying to pretend that they haven’t lost it; we’ve got the tame intellectuals comfortably situated in the more affluent suburban districts around Boston, New York, Washington, and San Francisco, looking forward to their next vacation in whatever the currently fashionable spot might happen to be, babbling on the internet about the good life under predatory cybercapitalism.

Meanwhile millions of Americans trudge through a bleak round of layoffs, wage cuts, part-time jobs at minimal pay, and system-wide dysfunction. The crisis hasn’t hit yet, but those members of the political class who think that the people who used to be rock-solid American patriots will turn out en masse to keep today’s apparatchiks secure in their comfortable lifestyles have, as the saying goes, another think coming.  Nor is it irrelevant that most of the enlisted personnel in the armed forces, who are the US government’s ultimate bulwark against popular unrest, come from the very classes that have lost faith most drastically in the American system. The one significant difference between the Soviet case and the American one at this stage of the game is that Soviet citizens had no choice but to accept the leaders the Communist Party of the USSR foisted off on them, from Brezhnev to Andropov to Chernenko to Gorbachev, until the system collapsed of its own weight.

American citizens, on the other hand, do at least potentially have a choice. Elections in the United States have been riddled with fraud for most of two centuries, but since both parties are generally up to their eyeballs in voter fraud to a roughly equal degree, fraud mostly swings close elections.  It’s still possible for a sufficiently popular candidate to overwhelm the graveyard vote, the crooked voting machines, and the other crass realities of American elections by sheer force of numbers. That way, an outsider unburdened with the echo-chamber thinking of a dysfunctional elite might just be able to elbow his way into the White House. Will that happen this time? No one knows.

If George W. Bush was our Leonid Brezhnev, as I’d suggest, and Barack Obama is our Yuri Andropov, Hillary Clinton is running for the position of Konstantin Chernenko; her running mate Tim Kaine, in turn, is waiting in the wings as a suitably idealistic and clueless Mikhail Gorbachev, under whom the whole shebang can promptly go to bits. While I don’t seriously expect the trajectory of the United States to parallel that of the Soviet Union anything like as precisely as this satiric metaphor would suggest, the basic pattern of cascading dysfunction ending in political collapse is quite a common thing in history, and a galaxy of parallels suggests that the same thing could very easily happen here within the next decade or so. The serene conviction among the political class and their affluent hangers-on that nothing of the sort could possibly take place is just another factor making it more likely.

It’s by no means certain that a Trump presidency will stop that from happening, and jolt the United States far enough out of its current death spiral to make it possible to salvage something from the American experiment. Even among Trump’s most diehard supporters, it’s common to find people who cheerfully admit that Trump might not change things enough to matter; it’s just that when times are desperate enough—and out here in the flyover states, they are—a leap in the dark is preferable to the guaranteed continuation of the unendurable.

Thus the grassroots movement that propelled Trump to the Republican nomination in the teeth of the GOP establishment, and has brought him to within a couple of aces of the White House in the teeth of the entire US political class, might best be understood as the last gasp of the American dream. Whether he wins or loses next week, this country is moving into the darkness of an uncharted night—and it’s not out of place to wonder, much as Hamlet did, what dreams may come in that darkness.