Anti-Elitism, the Trump Version

(Photo: AP/Patrick Semansky)

Donald Trump’s inaugural address, for which the heavens wept, culminated a strand of American conservatism that has been with us since Republicans began attacking Franklin Roosevelt. It is to refocus any anti-elitist sentiment away from finance and big business, and toward the political establishment.

In one form or another, it has long been a defining motif of the American right, stretching from Joe McCarthy’s allegations of treason by striped-pants diplomats, to George Wallace’s attacks on pointy-headed bureaucrats, to Ronald Reagan’s war on government, up to Trump’s assault today on Washington for selling out the (largely white) factory workers to the benefit of—as Trump put it—themselves.

“Their victories were not yours,” he noted. Their days of power, of betraying American workers, were at an end.

Missing from his indictment, of course, was the real American elite: Wall Street, which urged CEOs to boost profits by offshoring labor, and those CEOs themselves, who have linked their income over the past quarter-century to their ability to boost those profits by suppressing wages (no better way to do that than to substitute developing-world workers for those here at home). As Trump told the tale, it was Washington alone that shuttered the factories and reaped the gains—not the masters of our economic universe who made the really big money from all these shifts, and used that money to fund the politicians’ campaigns. Trump wasn’t wrong to assail the Congresses and presidents who promoted trade accords at the expense of the factory and mill towns, but his indictment was strategically sanitized.

Trump’s words clearly resonated, however, with so many of the people who’d voted for him—and, I suspect, some who did not. The new president’s road to power was paved with lies, big and small, but his assertion that American elites shipped jobs abroad and had no plan for the American workers left behind was undeniably true. It was only Trump’s omission of who those elites actually were that differentiated his indictment from those that leftist populists and union activists have been making for decades. But that omission makes all the difference, and explains how he could endeavor to fill his cabinet with a Goldman Sachs Marching and Chowder Society, with an Exxon CEO thrown in for good measure.

That Trump’s speech conveyed the most anti-Washington message since Andrew Jackson’s has been widely noted. But those two men still did not deliver the most anti-elitist inaugural address. That distinction belongs, rightly and gloriously, to Franklin Roosevelt, who, more than any president before or since, was willing to draw battle lines not between the people and Washington, as such, but between the people and the banks. Speaking to the nation on a day when, at the nadir of the Depression’s collapse, every bank in the nation had closed its doors for fear of panicked depositors withdrawing their savings, Roosevelt declared:

Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

One can easily imagine a President Bernie Sanders delivering an updated version of FDR’s bill of particulars; he did it repeatedly while campaigning. Trump campaigned with his own version of that indictment, and while that, plus all his racist, misogynistic, nationalist appeals, wasn’t enough to win the popular vote, it struck home among a set of voters more deeply than more anodyne appeals (such as those that Hillary Clinton made) ever could.

Trump delivered for those voters today as he did on the campaign trail—depicting a nation more rent by violence and disarray than it actually is (and, of course, the climate of violence has been stoked by Trump’s own rhetoric and conduct); promising an end to the international entanglements that, for both better and worse, the United States has sought since 1945; making no reference to the struggles for equality that millions of Americans are waging every day; and above all, railing at the elites that have—and on this, he is clearly correct—sold out ordinary Americans in pursuit of profits. That he doesn’t correctly identify those elites actually is just the latest form of right-wing populism.

And, in his case, it’s also self-protection. Prominent among those who’ve benefited from all the ways income has been redistributed upward over the past three decades, to the detriment of most Americans, is the man who today became the 45th president of the United States. 

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