By Robert Reich
As we barrel toward the fateful year of 2024, many of you have asked why Trump is rising in the polls despite his increasingly explicit neofascism, and why Biden is falling despite a good economy. Fearing the worst, you ask what can be done to preserve American democracy.
These are hugely important questions, and they fit so directly into our Friday series on reconciling the common good with American capitalism that I thought today would be an occasion to tackle them.
1. Trump’s increasing neofascism
Trump’s angry words have escalated beyond his previous two campaigns.
On Christmas Eve, Trump let go with a mixture of anger and self-pity while making multiple false or questionable claims. He posted: “THEY SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN, LIED TO CONGRESS, CHEATED ON FISA, RIGGED A PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION, ALLOWED MILLIONS OF PEOPLE, MANY FROM PRISONS & MENTAL INSTITUTIONS, TO INVADE OUR COUNTRY, SCREWED UP IN AFGHANISTAN, & JOE BIDEN’S MISFITS & THUGS, LIKE DERANGED JACK SMITH, ARE COMING AFTER ME, AT LEVELS OF PERSECUTION NEVER SEEN BEFORE IN OUR COUNTRY???”
On Christmas Day, when Joe Biden and most other world leaders were wishing peace, Trump sent wishes to “world Leaders, both good and bad, but none of which are as evil and ‘sick’ as the THUGS we have inside our Country.” Referring to Biden and Special Counsel Jack Smith, he said: “MAY THEY ROT IN HELL. AGAIN, MERRY CHRISTMAS!”
He has referred to the upcoming election as “the final battle.” “Either they win or we win. And if they win, we no longer have a country.” “Our country is going to hell.”
He claims that “the blood-soaked streets of our once great cities are cesspools of violent crimes.”
His rhetoric of cataclysm and apocalypse bears increasing similarity to that of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. He says undocumented immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country” and describes their movement across our borders as “an invasion. This is like a military invasion. Drugs, criminals, gang members and terrorists are pouring into our country at record levels. We’ve never seen anything like it. They’re taking over our cities.”
He promises to “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections.”
He claims that this is “the most dangerous time in the history of our country.”
Meanwhile, Trump is threatening to destroy the core institutions of American democracy and to rule as authoritarians in other countries do — authoritarians whom he praises.
He is signaling that, unlike in his first term in the White House, he will appoint aides and Cabinet officials who will not restrain him. He says he will turn the Justice Department into a vehicle of retribution against his political enemies, replace civil servants with loyalists, and become a “dictator on day one.”
“He’s told us what he will do,” Liz Cheney (a Republican member of Congress until her criticism of Trump led to her defeat in a Republican primary) warns:
“People who say, ‘Well, if he’s elected, it’s not that dangerous because we have all of these checks and balances’ don’t fully understand the extent to which the Republicans in Congress today have been co-opted.”
2. Why then do so many Americans support Trump?
Given this, why does poll after poll show Trump leading Biden?
Granted that polls this long before an election are not predictive of the outcome and that most Americans have not yet focused on the election, it’s still remarkable that seven separate polls show Trump in the lead; not one shows Biden leading.
True, many Americans are unhappy with the economy under Biden, starting with the high prices of housing, food, and other necessities. High mortgage costs mixed with low housing inventory and elevated prices have put housing out of reach for a sizable number of families.
It’s possible that much of this will correct itself over 2024 as the Fed lowers short-term interest rates.
But I believe something deeper is going on — something that has been worsening for decades. It doesn’t justify anyone supporting Trump, but it may help explain his support.
In short, the “American dream” has been vanishing.
In 1931, historian James Truslow Adams wrote in his book The Epic of America that the American dream is “of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement,” and “regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
Adams was writing at the height of the Great Depression. His American dream became reality after World War II as America’s middle class grew, almost everyone’s income rose, and their children did even better than they did.
Americans born in the early 1940s had a 92% chance of obtaining a higher household income than their parents, once they became adults. They would live out the American dream.
But Americans born in the 1980s have only a 50-50 shot at doing better than their parents.
Over the past 40 years, the earnings of the typical American have barely budged (adjusted for inflation), while the compensation for CEOs of large corporations has skyrocketed to more than 300 times the pay of their typical worker — from 20 times in the 1950s and ’60s.
There has not been such a long period of wealth stagnation since the Great Depression. Where did the wealth go? The wealthiest 1% of Americans now bring home more than 40% of the country’s total income, up from 10% in the 1950s and ’60s. And they control 31% of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 50% has only 2.5%.
Perhaps the clearest sign of our problems is the stagnation and decline of life expectancy. In 1980, the U.S. had a typical life expectancy for an affluent country. Now it ranks lower than its peers and lower even than many poorer countries. The life spans of working-class men without college degrees have actually shrunk.
3. Anger and frustration
The formula for a better life used to be simple: Play by the rules and work hard.
No longer. To me, this fact more than any other explains the public’s sour mood. It also explains why Trump’s angry rants against the “deep state” establishment, immigrants, “coastal elites,” and “socialists” hit a responsive chord in 2016, and may do so again in 2024.
Most Americans don’t pay a great deal of attention to national economic indicators showing how fast the economy is growing, how many new jobs are being created, and the declining rate of inflation.
Instead, they look at their own efforts to create a better life for themselves and their children. And those efforts no longer seem to pay off.
This was down from 53% and 48% in similar polls in 2012 and 2016, respectively.
An NBC News poll conducted November 10-14 found that a record-low 19% of voters said they feel confident life for their children’s generation will be better than for their own generation, while 75% were not confident their children will be better off.
As the American dream fades — and as inequalities of income and wealth soar — many Americans feel increasingly angry and frustrated. Take a look at these charts:
THE CONVENTIONAL explanation for the decline of the American dream posits that globalization and technological change have made most Americans less competitive.
But another — perhaps larger — cause is the increasing concentration of political power in a corporate and financial elite.
Meanwhile, centers of countervailing power that between the 1930s and 1980s enabled America’s middle and lower-middle classes to offset the power of large corporations and Wall Street have withered. These included labor unions, small businesses, family farms, the civil rights movement, grassroots political movements, and political parties anchored at the local and state levels.
As I’ve discussed in the previous weeks of our Friday series, this imbalance of power has allowed America’s corporate and financial elite to reorganize the market for their own benefit.
Americans correctly perceive that our economic and political system is now rigged.
When most people stop believing they and their children have a fair chance at the American dream, public trust in the major institutions of society declines — as has happened over the past decade and a half in America.
For the same reason, many become vulnerable to the rants of a demagogue who promises radical change by taking a wrecking ball to democracy.
Let me emphasize again that an explanation is not a justification. There is no moral justification for supporting Donald Trump. But I think it important to understand why many Americans do.
4. The real choice ahead
I want to end this letter on an optimistic note. American history provides some direction as well as some reason for comfort.
In three periods, America successfully readapted the rules of the political economy to constrain the political power of wealthy minorities at the top: the Jacksonian 1830s, the turn-of-the-20th-century reform era, and the New Deal 1930s.
We can do so again.
I believe there’s political will to do so — but only if Americans understand the stakes and the true choice we face: between making the system truly fair and democratic by reducing the power over it of large corporations, Wall Street, and the ultra-wealthy or losing our democracy to a neofascist dictatorship.
The question is whether Joe Biden is capable of clarifying this choice for America and committing himself to an agenda to revive democracy — including getting big money out of politics, reforming the Electoral College, and reviving voting rights.
Can he be sufficiently bold and convincing? Or do Democrats need someone else as their candidate who can be?
What do you think?
This article was published at Robert Reich’s Substack