By Robert Reich
Donald Trump has perfected the art of telling a fake story about America. The only way to counter that is to tell the real story of America.
Trump’s story is by now familiar: he alone will rescue average Americans from powerful alien forces – immigrants, foreign traders, foreign politicians and their international agreements – that have undermined the wellbeing of Americans.
These forces have been successful largely because Democrats, liberals, “socialists,” cultural elites, the Washington establishment, the media and “deep state” bureaucrats have helped them, in order to enrich themselves and boost their power. Not surprisingly, according to Trump, these forces seek to remove him from office.
What makes Trump’s story powerful to some Americans despite its utter phoniness is that it echoes the four tales Americans have been telling ourselves since before the founding of the Republic.
To combat Trump’s fake story, we need a true story based on facts, logic and history. But in order for that true story to resonate with Americans, it must also echo the same four tales.
The first tale: The Triumphant Individual.
It’s the little guy or gal who works hard, takes risks, believes in him or herself, and eventually gains wealth, fame and honor. The tale is epitomized in the life of Abe Lincoln, born in a log cabin, who believed that “the value of life is to improve one’s condition.” The moral: with enough effort and courage, anyone can make it in America.
Trump wants us to believe he’s the Triumphant Individual. But in fact he’s a conman who inherited his wealth and then spent his career shafting his employees, contractors and creditors.
In truth, America has many potential Triumphant Individuals. But in order for them to do well in the new economy they depend on three things that Trump doesn’t want them to have: a good education, good medical care, and the right to join together to demand better pay and better working conditions.
The second tale: The Benevolent Community
This is the story of neighbors and friends who pitch in for the common good. It goes back to John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity, delivered onboard a ship in Salem Harbor in 1630. Similar ideals of community were found among the abolitionists, suffragettes and civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s. The moral: we all do better by caring for one another.
Trump’s fake benevolent community is a nationalism that requires no sacrifice from anyone. But today’s real benevolent community necessitates all of us doing our parts for the common good. The most fortunate among us, for example, must pay their fair share of taxes so that everyone can have what’s needed to triumph. A rising tide of productivity and wealth will lift all Americans.
The third tale: The Mob at the Gates
This is the story of threatening forces beyond our borders. Daniel Boone fought Indians, described then in racist terms as “savages.” Davy Crockett battled Mexicans. Much the same tale gave force to cold war tales during the 1950s of international communist plots to undermine American democracy. The moral: we must be vigilant against external threats.
As with the other tales, this one has an important element of truth. America battled Hitler and other fascists in the second world war. The Soviet danger was real.
But Trump wants Americans to believe that today’s Mob at the Gates consists of immigrants, foreign traders and democratically elected governments that have been our allies for decades or more.
Wrong. These days the real Mob at our gates are thugs like Vladimir Putin and other tyrants around the world who are antagonistic toward democratic institutions, intolerant of ethnic minorities, hostile toward the free press and eager to use government to benefit themselves and those who support them.
The fourth and final tale: The Rot at the Top.
This one is about the malevolence of powerful elites – their corruption and irresponsibility, and tendency to conspire against the rest of us.
This tale has given force to the populist movements of American history, from William Jennings Bryan’s prairie populism of the 1890s through Bernie Sanders’ progressive populist campaign in 2016, as well as Trump’s authoritarian version.
Trump wants us to believe that today’s Rot at the Top are cultural elites, the media and “deep state” bureaucrats.
But the real Rot at the Top consists of concentrated wealth and power to a degree this nation hasn’t witnessed since the late 19th century. Billionaires, powerful corporations, and Wall Street have gained control over much of our economy and political system, padding their nests with special tax breaks and corporate welfare while holding down the wages of average workers.
In this, the rich have been helped by Republicans in Congress and the White House whose guiding ideology seems less capitalism than cronyism, as shown time and again through legislative and regulatory gifts to Big Pharma, Wall Street, Big Oil and Coal, Big Agriculture, and giant military contractors.
America’s true story shouldn’t end with Trump’s authoritarianism and nativism.
An end that’s far truer to America’s ideals is a reinvigorated democracy. This will require a benevolent community free from the crony capitalists who have corrupted America.
That chapter is up to us.