Middle-class rage has dominated this election, but ultimately 2016 seems destined to produce not a populist victory but the triumph of oligarchy. Blame goes to a large section of the middle and working class itself, which, in rejecting political convention, ended up with a candidate who never would have served their interests. You can blame “elites” all you want, but in a republic, citizens need to act responsibly. And choosing Donald Trump doesn’t fit that description.
Middle-class revulsion with the political mainstream has been driven by slow economic growth, stagnant wages, a dysfunctional education system, and, for smaller businesses, a tightening regulatory regime. Homeownership is now at a nearly half-century low. New business start-ups, for the first time in three decades, are not keeping up with the number of deaths. Both stats reveal a real decline in aspiration. Most Americans, in a stunning reversal of past trends, see a worse future for their offspring than themselves. Who can blame them? Middle-class breadwinners and working-class wage-earners now suffer from deteriorating health and shorter lifespans.
In other words, middle-class Americans could certainly use a champion. But those who chose Trump went off the rails.
Trump’s landmark professional achievement has been in catering to the luxury market while building casinos that empty the pockets of people who often cannot afford the losses. The average price of a condo in Trump Tower in New York, the Donald’s signature property, rests around a median of $5 million.
A Trump administration would be unlikely to reflect blue-collar interests, but rather those of his inner circle, which includes some of the most ravenous Wall Street operators. The same is true of his general election opponent.
Hillary Clinton: Matriarch of Oligarchy
By elevating this disingenuous demagogue, Trump voters have assisted in the further ascendency of the oligarch class. The forces coalescing around Hillary Clinton — mainstream Wall Street, particularly hedge funds, beltway lobbyists, the big media, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and green capitalists — do not share the priorities of Middle America. Bernie Sanders made an issue of Clinton’s Wall Street support, but the Vermont socialist was always too marginal, cranky and, ultimately, too doctrinaire to win even in today’s Democratic Party.
With Sanders conveniently dispatched, the crony-capitalist class is assured its worldview prevails. They can check all the boxes that Rob Atkinson has labeled as “the Davos application” of open immigration, greater globalization, free trade, and higher carbon prices.
With Trumpian nationalism dispatched, these globalists will be able to continue preening as noble post-national “citizens of the world.” Walter Russel Mead describes them as a “soul-sick leadership elite” that serves their class interests, but hardly those of their fellow citizens.
These constituencies all have benefited from the Obama economy, with its slow growth and rapid asset inflation driven by cheap money. They can expect a continued positive relationship with Washington. The Clintonite core includes some of the world’s most adept tax-dodgers — Amazon, Apple and Google — who certainly do not want their special breaks reduced even if middle-income earners get hammered.
Clinton seems certain to continue Obama’s policy of not subjecting the tech oligarchs to the anti-trust investigations that bedevil other industries. No surprise that many suspect that the new media moguls of Silicon Valley, along with the residue of the old mainstream media, are waging a multi-front campaign to tear down Trump to the benefit of their more reliable ally.
The populists seem certain to have created their own worst nightmare. Under Hillary, industries such as fossil fuel energy, manufacturing, warehousing and agriculture, all of which employ many middle- and working-class people in large swaths of the American heartland, will see more regulation, and layoffs — not only among coal miners but in a broad array of primarily blue-collar industries. In contrast “green” corporatists like Elon Musk and Tom Steyer know that by helping to fund the Clinton machine, they can look forward to continued government subsidies.
Also primed for a reaming will be middle-class suburban voters, the geographic core of the GOP. Many suburbanites are understandably turned off by Trump’s nativist and sexist braggadocio and may be now tilting towards Clinton.
Yet they too will get their comeuppance when the Clintons return to the White House. Like President Obama, her urban policy will be city-centric, and negative towards the needs of the suburbs, where the vast majority of the population resides. Following the Obama lead, HUD will likely impose new regulations forcing middle-income communities to accept large numbers of poor people, effectively undermining local public schools and property values.
It’s not inconceivable that the EPA, following the environmental agenda perfected in California, will impose policies designed to reengineer suburbs into dense cities that correlate to a lower standard of living. These rules, of course, will not impact their progressive betters — from movie stars to corporate executives — who will continue to live large while hectoring the hoi polloi to reduce their “footprint.”
The Real Battle: 2018
The upshot is that in the 2016 election cycle, populism first rose and then proceeded to consume itself. Even if Trump wins, he’ll will prove to be the insider New York businessman he always has been, and will likely do more good for the ultra-rich than the middle class. But most likely we will see the triumph of Hillary’s oligarchs, whose agenda will begin to impinge more seriously on the middle class and its way of life.
Moreover, Trump’s negative coattails could put Democrats back in control of the Senate, which translates to shaping the Supreme Court for a generation. Obama’s penchant for rule by decree will now grow without limit. Every community, every school, every business will fall ever more under the watchful eyes of the federal regime. Pain already evident in Appalachia will spread to the industrial sector, agribusiness, and, most of all, energy as Washington seeks to “save” the planet in ways that don’t threaten the profits of its oligarchic allies.
Fortunately, we will still have elections, and 2018 could be decisive. Given the still weak state of the economy, and the lack of tools to meet a downturn given consistent low interest rates, the country should be ready for a change. Unlike 2016, most of the vulnerable Senate seats will be held by Democrats, and 12 years of meager or no growth, and slumping productivity, do not augur well for them.
The question is whether opposition to Clinton will be fundamentally populist in nature. If Trump loses by a large margin there will be calls to resurrect the GOP policies on trade, immigration and “enrich the rich” taxation schemes that have proven consistently unable to spark either sustained growth or upward mobility.
This approach will further alienate Trump voters, not to mention those who supported Sanders. These disillusioned voters — mostly, but not entirely, white — have already rejected the GOP’s country club agenda. An opposition that can incorporate some Trumpian themes, notably economic nationalism and control of immigration, without embracing his clear incompetence, narcissism and mean-spiritedness, could harness the populist wave.
To succeed, the new populism has to extend itself beyond angry, aging middle-class whites. In 2018, the real struggle will be to attract increasingly diverse suburban voters who naturally seek to protect what they have from the central bureaucracy. Latino and African-American families now ensconced in a comfortable, safe suburbs with good public schools may not appreciate a political party that wants to turn their neighborhood into the very one they escaped.
The great middle-class rebellion will not end with Donald Trump, or the putting away of Bernie Sanders. There is far too much disillusionment, and far too little prospect for upward mobility, to prevent grassroots anger from spilling over again. The question will be which party — or some new party — will ride that prairie fire to its logical extension.
This piece first appeared at Real Clear Politics.