Donald Trump Exemplifies Plutocratic Populism Run Amok: the Implications for All of Us

The United States has become a textbook case, and I don’t mean merely a textbook case of pandemic denial, although that is also true.  Last July, two political science professors, Jacob Hacker of Yale University and Paul Pierson from the University of California at Berkeley, published a thorough analysis of the politics of today’s Republican Party. They explain that President Donald Trump is a mere symptom of what the Republican Party has become.

In Let Them Eat Tweets, Hacker and Pierson define “plutocratic populism.” They preview what we subsequently watched through the fall’s presidential election campaign, and what we were still observing this past weekend in Washington, D.C. as Donald Trump’s bullies paraded en masse, ending in a violent melee.  Here are Hacker and Pierson on the rise of Republican plutocratic populism over recent decades:

“As the GOP embraced plutocratic priorities, it pioneered a set of electoral appeals that were increasingly strident, alarmist, and racially charged. Encouraging white backlash and anti-government extremism, the party outsourced voter mobilization to a set of aggressive and narrow groups: the National Rifle Association, the organized Christian right, the burgeoning industry of right-wing media. When and where that proved insufficient, it adopted a ruthless focus on altering electoral rules, maximizing the sway of its base and minimizing the influence of the rest of the electorate through a variety of anti-democratic tactics, from voter disenfranchisement to extreme partisan gerrymandering to laws and practices opening the floodgates to big money. And more and more, it coupled this vote rigging with even more extreme strategies to undermine the checks and balances in our system, weakening democratic accountability and strengthening the ability of powerful minorities to dictate policy. In short, Republicans used white identity to defend wealth inequality. They undermined democracy to uphold plutocracy.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 4)

Hacker and Pierson explain what they call the Conservative Dilemma: “(T)his is the essence of the Conservative Dilemma: Conservative parties want to stand up for the rich when writing laws, even as the rich are increasingly outnumbered when votes are cast.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 113)  “Scholars… have long seen extreme inequality as a threat to democracy. This threat takes three forms. The first is unequal power. As Frederick Douglass famously observed, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”… The second threat extreme inequality poses is diverging interests. Democracy rests on the notion that even in large and diverse societies where fundamental disagreements are inevitable, most citizens will come to have reconcilable economic interests… The third and final threat is elite fear. There are always going to be very considerable tensions between rich and poor. A widening chasm between the interests of the wealthy and those of the less fortunate encourages the privileged to view democracy itself as a danger to their wealth and status.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, pp. 19-20) (Emphasis is mine.)

Finally: “We use ‘Conservative Dilemma’ more specifically to describe the tension facing conservative parties. A century ago, in all countries with expanding franchises, conservative parties struggled to maintain their historical defense of elite privilege in the face of electoral challenges from the masses. When suffrage was restricted, conservative parties could ignore the massive gap between the rich and the rest. But this became a losing game once the working class gained the vote. Relatively quickly, conservative parties found themselves caught between a commitment to economic elites and an expanding electorate. How, they were forced to ask themselves, do we reconcile the needs of our core constituency with the need to win elections? … Inevitably, conservative parties found they had to offer something else to voters. Outflanked on the left on economic issues, their survival depended on introducing or highlighting other social divisions… In modern societies, the list of such ‘cleavages’ is short, and their history unpleasant. There are racial, ethnic and religions divisions. There is the call of nationalism or foreign military adventures. There are sectional loyalties. There is opposition to immigration. In short, there is a set of non-economic issues—many racially tinged, all involving strong identities and strong emotions—that draw a sharp line between ‘us’ and ‘them.'” (Let Them Eat Tweets, pp. 21-22)

After mounting a fear-based election campaign based on the sort of plutocratic populism Hacker and Pierson describe—appealing to racism and white identity, promoting individual freedom from any government restraint demanding mask-wearing in a pandemic, and exploiting conspiracy theories promoted by extreme right-wing media—the President, who lost but still attracted nearly 73 million votes, continues to rage. It also appears that a conservative U.S. Senate majority is not prepared to give up protecting the privilege of economic elites at the expense of the masses whose needs continue to be ignored.  Here are three examples:

The first involves the pandemic itself as Trump and his staff have sponsored superspreader events at the White House and a mass of maskless campaign rallies that produced a surge of COVID-19 even inside the Secret Service. And a summer and autumn have passed without a second COVID-19 relief bill. The Washington Post‘s Erica Werner summarized the dilemma last week: “Congressional Democratic leaders accused Republicans on Thursday of refusing to confront the dramatically worsening coronavirus pandemic and instead acquiescing to President Trump’s false insistence that he won last week’s presidential election… As Washington has become paralyzed over the past 10 days, 1 million new people have tested positive for the virus as death numbers are climbing rapidly.  President-elect Joe Biden joined congressional Democratic leaders on Thursday and demanded a new economic relief package to address the dramatically worsening coronavirus pandemic before the end of the year… Democrats have called for a wide-ranging bill that would extend new unemployment benefits, send another round of $1,200 checks to American households, provide more small business aid, money for states and cities, and expand access to testing…. McConnell has said that third-quarter economic news showing the unemployment rate has dropped makes a case for a smaller relief package.”

The second example is a pending student loan debt crisis reported yesterday by POLITICO’s Michael Stratford: “At midnight on New Year’s Eve, President Donald Trump’s pause on student loan payments for 33 million Americans is set to expire, just three weeks before President-elect Joe Biden is slated to take over… Even though Trump said this summer that he planned to later ‘extend’ the freeze beyond Dec. 31, a White House spokesperson declined to comment on whether the president is still considering another executive action to move the expiration date… In an unusual alliance, loan industry officials are advocating alongside congressional Democrats, higher education groups, and consumer organizations, all warning that suddenly turning back on the federal government’s massive student loan apparatus—mostly frozen since March—in the midst of a presidential transition could lead to anguish for everybody involved…  Nearly 41 million federal student loan borrowers have had interest suspended on their loans since March 13…. Roughly 33 million of those borrowers have had their payments paused, and the Education Department has stopped seeking to collect from the 8 million other borrowers who were in default… House Democrats’ stimulus legislation would extend the freeze on student loan payments until next October and keep the interest rate at zero until at least that time—or longer if the unemployment rate remains high. Senate Republicans’ latest stimulus proposal did not include an extension of the benefits….”

A third example is the deep and widespread fiscal catastrophe in our nation’s public schools, a problem that grew slowly, quietly, and invisibly more serious until the Red4Ed strikes and walkouts during 2018 and 2019 taught America about the devastation of state public school budgets during the decade that followed the 2008 Great Recession, an especially serious situation in places where Tea Party legislatures had continued to cut taxes even after the recession, and as school privatization at public expense decimated state and local school budgets. From West Virginia to Kentucky to Colorado to Oklahoma to Arizona to Los Angeles to Oakland and Chicago, teachers cried out for essentials their public schools could no longer afford—class size smaller than 37 or 40 students; enough counselors, social workers, school psychologists, school nurses and certified librarians; fairer teachers’ salaries to enable teachers in some places even to afford the rent on a one bedroom apartment in the communities where they are teaching; salaries to keep teachers in some states from quitting and moving to other states where salaries are higher; and salaries that would make young people interested in becoming teachers at a time when colleges and universities report fewer and fewer students willing to pursue teaching as a career. Schoolteachers across striking states demanded that Americans open their eyes to the problems our collective lack of support has caused for our children.

During the campaign, President Elect Biden proposed public school policy designed to address our collective failure to support more generous services for children in the nation’s public schools.  He has especially lifted up our obligation to expand the opportunity to learn in the schools that serve children who live in poverty: “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”

For the first time in many years, a president elect is putting the spotlight on urgently needed investment in basic programming in the public schools that serve over 50 million children. I hope President Biden will provide leadership to to overcome the divisions that plutocratic populism has wrought: by working with Congress to address the COVID-19 health and economic crises, exerting leadership even before he takes office to encourage Congress to relieve the student debt crisis this month, and expanding learning opportunities across of our nation’s public schools.

2 thoughts on “Donald Trump Exemplifies Plutocratic Populism Run Amok: the Implications for All of Us

  1. I must put “Let Them Eat Tweets” on my Christmas Wish List! An outstanding summary of the book, Jan, as well as the reality we see today in our ill nation. A stroke of (mad) genius the Republican Party has convinced that demographic whose neck the Republican boot is pushing down on to be their strongest ally in despising government in general and Democrats in particular. It’s not new. John Steinbeck is quoted to have said that “socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” The GOP has convinced so many Americans that as Reagan said, “The government isn’t the solution to our problems, it is the problem.” Oh, woe is us. But you keep my hope alive that we can still steer this huge ship of state around and head in the direction of a more perfect Union. Onward ardently!

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