There are a large number of Americans whose confidence has been undermined by the erosion of the manufacturing sector as a result of globalization and the trend for companies to outsource and to relocate where wages are lower and government regulations are minimal. What remains are limited high end jobs for those with advanced education, and countless low level, low paying jobs in the service industries. Many Americans are fearful and angry because their prospects for gaining, or retaining, middle class status looks more and more unlikely.
This divergence in job opportunities is mirrored in the dramatic divergence in the distribution of income and wealth in American society. The vastly disproportionate concentration of wealth at the top has given rise to campaigns against the 1% - those at the top of the economic pyramid who account for the majority of the population’s total wealth. Moreover, the disparities in income have been increasing over the decades, in large part because of government policies that favour the rich and large business interests. While governments struggle to find sufficient funds to maintain social programs that benefit the population at large, they continue to cut corporate taxes and to ignore the vast reserves of wealth that are sheltered or have been moved off-shore to escape taxation entirely.
This distorted behaviour by politicians occurs because most of them are beholden to the very moneyed interests that are enriched by their decisions. Big money now essentially controls the American system of government. Decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court allow corporations to spend as much as they want through political action groups that they establish, even while there are limits on what individuals can donate. As a result, a relative handful of very wealthy Americans – typified by the Koch brothers – provide millions of dollars to benign sounding groups such as All Votes Matter and Donors Trust, funds that are used to promote and advance a very narrow corporate agenda. Observing the American scene today, Abraham Lincoln might be moved to say: government of the people, by the very wealthy, for the very wealthy.
Reaping the Whirlwind
While the above-noted conditions have existed for some time, how does one explain the ascent of Donald Trump in 2016? In a supreme irony, it can be argued that the Republican Party, by its past actions, enabled and unleashed Trump. For decades those elected as Republicans have been increasingly right wing and dogmatic. Moderates have all but disappeared. Republicans in Washington have shown almost no interest in making decisions on behalf of the American people. They have been preoccupied with preserving the purity of their ideological views and blocking any approaches to the contrary. When a Democratic President returned to power – and a black man at that – the Republican obstruction and intransigence intensified. Any Democratic initiative had to be opposed – on principle. More than once the federal government almost ground to a halt because no budget had been approved to pay the salaries of the public servants. Even while the Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress in recent years, they accomplished little. One recent analysis contends that the Republican Party created the monster that is Trump and he is now so big and beyond control that he could destroy the Republican Party.
To the extent that Americans pay attention to politics, what they see is a toxic and totally dysfunctional system of government. There is a very negative attitude toward politicians and, sadly, much of it is justified. The fact that Trump is a complete outsider is undoubtedly a major factor in his popularity. Indeed, the continuing popularity of Democrat Bernie Sanders is partly because he is seen as an anti-establishment figure (even though he has had a lengthy career as a Congressman and then Senator.) To the extent that Americans are aware of the undue influence of money on the behavior of their politicians, Trump’s vast wealth appears to bring with it an independence from such outsider influence. He is his own man, free to speak his mind – and does he ever.
Trump is Neither the Problem nor the Solution
In my view, Trump is an embarrassment as a major candidate and would be a disaster as President. But he is also a reflection of fundamental failings in the U.S. system of government. Trump is the canary in the coal mine of American democracy – a loud, dramatic wake-up call for U.S. citizens to take back their government from the moneyed interests that have captured it. Whether or not he wins the presidency, the fundamental problems with the American system remain and must be addressed if democracy is to survive in the USA.