The economy, and especially the anaemic recovery, has been a disappointment to all but the top 1 percent, and only the top 0.1 percent have really done well.
When Bill Clinton ran for president he had a note hanging from the wall beside his desk. It said, “It’s About the Economy, Stupid.”
So, too, is this election.
Bernie Sanders made it his issue. In America, “socialism” is a dirty word. The softcore version of the still dreaded “communism”. In spite of being a self-declared socialist, having the Democratic Party establishment lined up against him, and being the most ethical fundraiser in the history of American politics, Bernie seriously challenged Hillary Clinton.
Trump made it his issue. If he had been able to keep focus on it, it would be The Issue.
It remains an important part of his appeal. It is certainly the most valid, reality-based reason for his appeal.
Bad Trade Deals
According to Trump the reason that Americans are not doing well is the loss of manufacturing.
This is due to Bad Trade Deals. Especially NAFTA. And especially our Bad Deals with China, which, he says, is cheating.
It is also due to Illegal Immigrants. They take away jobs and lower the rates of pay for people who work.
It is also because of the Washington Establishment. They have done nothing to help working people. They only help rich people, who have bought them. Trump knows, because he’s one of the rich guys who’s bought them.
Trump points out, as did Bernie Sanders, that Hillary Clinton is part of that Establishment.
Her husband, Bill Clinton, passed the worst trade deal of all, NAFTA, the free trade deal with Mexico and Canada. She was for the Trans-Pacific-Partnership, NAFTA with Asia, which would be even worse. She is against it now. Trump takes the credit for that.
Hillary doesn’t have real policies to fix the problems of the American economy.
What of this is true?
The illegal immigrant issue is flat-out false.
But it probably signals issues of relative deprivation.
Everyone has lost out in relation to the people in the cream on top.
White Men are not only doing less well, flat-out, they have also lost their economic and social superiority over the people who used to be reliably below them -ethnic and racial minorities and women.
However, Women, Blacks, Latinos are doing better than they were 50 years ago. Much better.
Thus White Men are not only doing less well, flat-out, they have also lost their economic and social superiority over the people who used to be reliably below them – ethnic and racial minorities and women.
Manufacturing was where the well-paying jobs with good benefits were. Back in the Golden Age that Trump is referring to when he promises to “Make America Great Again”. Most people seem to agree that the loss of manufacturing jobs is the reason wages have gone down. Especially for men without college educations.
But now, entry-level car workers are now getting $14 an hour. As a point of reference, the movement to raise the minimum wage has been aiming at $15 an hour.
Therefore, there must be other factors that make for high and low pay than being in manufacturing. Even if Trump were to “bring jobs back from China, Mexico, Japan, Vietnam”, why would they pay more than the minimum wage? Which Trump thinks should not be raised.
It is also worth noting that every new car plant in America has, in fact, been bought with subsidies from the states and localities where they are located. So not only are the wages unimpressive, other people are being taxed to support them. Almost all large enterprises, including retailers such as Walmart, have learned to play this game.
Free trade, the ability to pit workers in different nations against each other, the ability to close a facility and move it to a develpoing country rather than pay decent wages and maintain decent health and safety standards, is one of the most powerful weapons that capital has in modern class warfare.
Is there class warfare in America? Take it from Warren Buffett, ranked in 2015 as the third wealthiest person in the world.
“There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
Trump is right about the Establishment. There once was a part of the political establishment that was very concerned about the wellbeing of the middle class, the working class, and even the poor. That no longer seems to be the case.
The Clintons have been part of that change and they have benefited from it. Both politically and financially.
Under Roosevelt, the government had rescued America. It had rescued capitalism. Hell, it had rescued the world.
In 1980, along came Ronald Reagan, who said: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'”
Ideologically, Reagan swept all before him. Government was bad. Taxes were bad. Regulations were bad. The response from the Left was feeble. The response from the Democratic Party was fear. The response from economists was to buy into it.
Bill Clinton ran for president in the wake of Reagan’s triumphs.
He adopted a tactic called “triangulation”. He kept some of his party’s ideals, but he also championed ideas that appealed to people on the Right. Most of all, he found ways to embrace Big Money, and for Big Money to embrace Democrats. The Republicans had older money. The Democrats had hipper, new money. But it was still a marriage based on the dowry.
There once was a part of the political establishment that was very concerned about the wellbeing of the middle class, the working class, and even the poor. That no longer seems to be the case.
Clinton won two terms with triangulation.
There are now two parties in America, one that proudly represents the interests of money and one that sells out to money.
Long ago, Franklin Roosevelt said, “We know now that government by organised money is just as dangerous as government by organised mob … They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.”
Barack Obama had record contributions from Wall Street for his campaign. When he came into office, his financial advisers were part of the Wall Street, Federal Reserve, Clinton administration, and even Bush administration, revolving door. He told the bankers, in stern tones: “Only my administration stands between you and the pitchforks.”
The thing is, it did. No one was prosecuted. The Federal Reserve quietly – one might say secretly – gave the banks trillions of dollars. Most Democrats stood with him. The Republicans moved even further to the right.
Nobody screamed out against income inequality.
Until Donald Trump. And Bernie Sanders.
The sad part is that Trump’s actual policy proposals will make things worse. He is taking the policies that created the problem and doubling them.
The good part is that Bernie Sanders – and Donald Trump – have pushed Hillary Clinton to actually look at the problem, to reconsider her married-to-the-money positions, and to come up with some solutions.
There are important ideological issues here. What makes a sound economy? Can we have the benefits of trade without the harm? What is the role of government? How does income inequality come to be? How dangerous is it? How can it be dealt with? In this new form of class warfare, is there anyone on our side?
Sadly, in this election, the answers are largely a con man’s come on and bombast on one side, and, except by accident, the establishment’s weary conventional wisdom on the other. They deserve deeper thought and greater insight. Not just in America. In different permutations and combinations these conflicts exist in every country. This is how the argument is playing out in the United States, but these are world issues.
Larry Beinhart is a novelist, best known for Wag the Dog. He’s also been a journalist, political consultant, a commercial producer and director.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.