It’s a well known and discussed phenomenon that inequality in its many forms has reached such lofty and pronounced heights in North America that some scholars and prominent thinkers believe it has entered a level that is completely unprecedented in modern times. Noam Chomsky, widely heralded as the most important intellectual alive today, narrated a documentary, Requiem for the American Dream, which outlines his views that the American dream has collapsed as the process of increased wealth concentration leads to increased consolidation of power creating a vicious cycle of top down control. Subsequently, we can see a clear widening of the financial and equality gaps between the upper one per cent and the working class. These systems ultimately serve the interests of the opulent few at the expense of the average citizen and undercut the integrity of American democracy. None of these statements are new or terribly insightful. Anyone who has taken an introduction to sociology course is well aware of this paradigm. But how does this fit into the current presidential election?
Admittedly, this is a historic election cycle. Both candidates are the most disliked opponents in American history. The rest of the world is observing the political situation and scratching their heads wondering why on earth the American people would support and even vote for candidates like Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Clinton as the Democratic candidate makes some logical sense in that she plays by the rules. She is politically correct, she shares the Clinton legacy, she has years of experience in the White House and she is a woman which makes her party the more progressive of the two. As easily as you can find flaws in her candidacy, her track record speaks for itself and one can justify rationally why she was supported by throngs of people as well as the Democratic party.
The rest of the world has been shocked and awed by the total disregard for convention and basic human decency portrayed by Trump throughout his campaign. And no, this isn’t another leftist ramble about how sexist, racist and elitist Trump is; the media is already bursting at the seems with that type of content. He is all of those things and so much more, but rather this analysis is dedicated to understanding how he got to where he is today.
To fully understand the issue, we need to go all the way back to Adam Smith’s famous 1776 Wealth of Nations where he outlines that the principle architects of policy are those who own the society. In his day these were merchants and manufacturers. They make sure that their interests are looked after, no matter the outstandingly bad impact it may cause on the rest of society. Today it’s not merchants and manufacturers but financial institutions and multinational corporations who are following the vile maxim, a popular political term meaning, “all for ourselves and nothing for anyone else”. Right through American history there has been an ongoing clash coming from below for more freedom and democracy which has historically conflicted with elite control and domination from above. Despite the fact that we ideologically believe in this narrative that democracy is the great equalizer between the upper and lower classes, the dichotomy between these two groups was unequally established during the founding of the nation. In the Constitutional debates, James Madison said that a major concern for a society should be “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority”. His solution to this problem was, therefore, to reduce democracy by vesting power in the senate which was at the time not an elected body but rather selected by the wealthy.
This was the de facto birth of the struggle for a democratizing propensity led by the masses resulting in periods of progression, most notably the Kennedy era of the 1960s, as well as periods of regression as observed from the 1980s Reagan administration. To qualify these statements, think of the Civil Rights Movement, a point in time when traditionally passive and apathetic social groups became organized and disobedient in the name of social progress and an egalitarian concern for mankind. Minority rights, women’s rights, gay rights, concerns for the environment, disapproval of foreign policy and demands for welfare and wealth redistribution were all sought after and justified as inalienable human rights. This led to activism and an involvement in the decision making progress which changed the collective consciousness in profound ways in America.
Since this struggle for democracy, justice and equality, there has been an enormous backlash from the private business sector beginning in the 1970s. Both political camps believed there was an “excess of democracy” developing which threatened not only their authority but also the well established status quo. Banks and financial institutions relinquished the gold standard and began dealing in speculative wealth as lobbying successfully began an ongoing process of deregulation. Companies realized that they could make more profits from playing with money in complicated ways rather than by producing goods domestically for consumption. As the financial sector spiked the once great industrial machine that was 1950s and 60s America began to shrink its manufacturing sector by outsourcing jobs. All of a sudden the integrity of the middle class was jeopardized. The American labour force had to compete with highly exploited foreign workers which resulted in a reduction of shared wealth for the labour force and the shrinkage of the middle class. These actions yielded rapid and unprecedented corporate profits as riskier and often unregulated financial activity became the American norm. Simultaneously during this restructuring of the economic system, corporate taxes dropped dramatically from the 1960s as taxes on the middle class rose significantly to compensate. These reforms were justified and perceived by the masses to encourage corporations to invest and create more jobs but there isn’t actually any evidence to support this claim. These were the major political and social changes which ultimately led to our current situation. Of course, the history is far more complex and incredibly nuanced but for our purposes it is just important to understand that there was a tendency after the Civil Rights Movement of the interests of democracy being jeopardized in favor of multinational corporations and financial institutions.
Let’s fast forward to when the inevitable occurred: the financial system collapsed in 2008 after systematic investments in subprime loans which were mainly precipitated by a combination of corporate greed a lack of regulation. In a regular capitalist system, the companies responsible (the Goldman Sachs’ and the Bear Stearns involved in the crisis) would have folded and been replaced by a better competitor. However, in the current system, if these corporations failed it would have meant the collapse of financial institutions and economic systems leading to unknown consequences for society. Banks and financial institutions were then bailed out by the Obama administration using trillions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. This represents how far we’ve gotten away from a traditional capitalist system and a better definition for the American economy would be a “too big to fail” paradigm.
I feel that this was the final betrayal that the American people would submit to. The people had experienced 40 years of a trending regression corroding their democracy, their freedom and their equality and this bailout was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The American people had been so disillusioned, so marginalized up until this point that there were bound to be effects on the collective psyche of the masses.
Trump supporters are portrayed as a homogenous demographic consisting of uneducated, second amendment loving, far right nationalists but that isn’t necessarily the majority of his supporters. We in Canada and abroad ask ourselves why the average American would support Trump but they do and I believe that the disillusionment of the American psyche is to blame for this phenomenon. After the 2008 bailout, the American people could no longer trust any candidate who came from the realm of politics because no matter what rhetoric they used in their campaign (“Yes We Can”) the rights and freedoms of citizens were always second to the interests of the wealthy. Trump represents the perfect candidate for the marginalized masses because he is so apolitical. He is seen in America as the antithesis to the political system; he speaks his mind, his wealth originated outside the political system and he regularly defies convention. He constantly attacks other candidates for taking money from financial institutions and his brand is so powerful that the American public believes he is a self-made man with limitless potential to turn a profit.
But it remains to be seen how such an outlandish and vulgar public persona could appeal to the American people. We can turn to the theories of Sigmund Freud to rationalize how Trump could appear to be so palatable for so many American voters. Freud hypothesized that when an unconscious is faced with unpleasant feelings, that unconscious utilizes defense mechanisms to deal with those feelings. One such mechanism is regression, a movement back in psychological time when one is faced with a stressful situation. Perhaps the collective unconscious of the American psyche has been exposed to so much stress that they have regressed back to a time when Trump’s behavior was socially acceptable. Perhaps they have psychologically regressed back to the days when sexism, racism and unbridled nationalism were the norm. This psychological regression is an attempt to “Make America great again”. But they forget that what made America great was the egalitarianism and movement for democracy not the fear and paranoia of the outside world and domestic social progress. Trump’s use of pathos and his ability to conjure images of a distant past that benefitted the common citizen is his main selling point to the American public. Whatever your political views and thoughts are on this election cycle, it is hard to deny that Trump’s popularity and candidacy speaks to larger issues brewing in American society today.