A Rich Man to Save Us

by Berry Friesen (January 19, 2016)

(The fourth in a series attempting to understand the Trump phenomenon)

Donald Trump is a billionaire who can self-finance his run for the White House.  In an era like ours, when money has corrupted the political process and Wall Street owns Congress, a President who can afford to follow his own best judgment might be a step in the right direction.

Supporters see in Trump a second attraction: an emotional commitment rare among those with extreme wealth—to make America work.  Whether Trump actually embodies such a commitment remains to be seen, but he has convinced his many supporters.

Their bet makes a certain kind of sense.  The empire is structured to deliver benefits primarily to its elite members, not common folks such as you and me.  If the typical American is to benefit from the fact that a US-led empire rules the world, it is essential for the President to be an ally.

In his first campaign for President, Barack Obama presented himself as such an ally. Yet he has never seemed comfortable in the role of Caesar, hasn’t tried very hard to reign in Wall Street and has failed to push the benefits of empire down to where most Americans live and work.  This time, Trump supporters say, America must choose a different kind of outsider, someone wealthy enough to extract concessions from the oligarchs ruling America, someone ruthless enough to use the powers of empire to benefit all Americans.

Undergirding this rationale is a deep anxiety triggered by the growing detachment of America’s one percent.  This detachment can be glimpsed between the lines in volumes of reports about off-shore corporations and off-shore bank accounts, the shift of manufacturing and research overseas, the trillions in liquid assets sloshing around the globe looking for better returns, the avoidance of taxes by the wealthy, the construction of a self-sufficient way of life not dependent in any way on shared institutions paid for by public dollars.

Mike Lofgren, retired from a long career as a senior staff member for Republican committees in the US House and Senate, recalls how during the early ‘90s debate around NAFTA, a Republican member of Congress made this observation:  “The rich elites of this country have far more in common with their counterparts in London, Paris, and Tokyo than with their fellow American citizens.”

The detachment that began a quarter century ago has become entrenched.  “Our plutocracy now lives like the British in colonial India,” says Lofgren, “in the place and ruling it, but not of it. If one can afford private security, public safety is of no concern; if one owns a Gulfstream jet, crumbling bridges cause less apprehension—and viable public transportation doesn’t even show up on the radar screen. With private doctors on call and a chartered plane to get to the Mayo Clinic, why worry about Medicare?”

Social unrest and anxiety about global warming have only accelerated the trends Lofgren describes, prompting the one percent to step up their survivalist schemes.  “I know hedge fund managers all over the world who are buying airstrips and farms in places like New Zealand because they think they need a getaway,” said former hedge fund director Robert Johnson.

Many have noted how nation-states are declining in importance and national borders are becoming less relevant.  Far less attention has been paid to what happens when (as Lofgren puts it) “the rich disconnect themselves from the civic life of the nation and from any concern about its well-being except as a place to extract loot.” Trump’s supporters seem to get it and are hoping Trump can stem the tide.

This isn’t a theoretical issue for Trump supporters; many haven’t had a raise for several decades.

Analysis by the Economic Policy Institute explains why.  From 1948 to 1973, the hourly compensation (including benefits) of a typical worker essentially grew in tandem with productivity gains, thus giving workers the full benefit of their improved productivity.  For example, if productivity went up by two percent over the course of a year, compensation also would go up by two percent (in addition to being adjusted for inflation).

Since 1973, however, inflation-adjusted hourly pay has almost stopped rising, even though worker productivity has continued to improve.  In fact, 85 percent of the benefit from improved productivity since 1973 has gone to owners and managers rather than to workers.  Since 2000, the results have been even worse, with 92 percent of the gains in worker productivity going to owners and managers.

Many expect this shift in wealth from the middle class to the financial elite to continue, even accelerate.  Certainly a Congress owned by Wall Street won’t do anything to stop it.

Can a rich man save us?  Trump supporters are counting on it.  Perhaps they can cite the biblical figure of Nehemiah as a prototype; like Trump, he was a Johnny-come-lately who stepped forward dramatically to bail out his beleaguered countrymen.  You can read about Nehemiah’s track record in chapter 15 of If Not Empire, What?

But we dare not forget the skepticism of Mary, mother of Jesus, in her song of praise to YHWH:  “The Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is his name . . . He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:49-53).