Roman circus

The Romans had it partially right about Trump

At the conclusion of his “Here’s my take” on his Sunday, February 19, 2017 GPS program, Fareed Zakaria referenced how Roman leaders maintained control over the masses. Their strategy was to give them bread to eat and a circus to watch and then the people would be happy enough to not rebel.

Zakaria suggested that Donald Trump is utilizing the same strategy with the American people, or at least with his political base. The problem, according to Zakaria, is that while Trump is providing plenty of circus, he’s very short on the bread. To Zakaria, this could provide the death knell of the Trump administration.

As wise and scholarly as Zakaria is, I suggest that he read (or likely re-read) Thomas Frank’s 2007 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas. The subtitle to Frank’s book is “How conservatives won the heart of America” and that tells us a lot. Frank does not say that conservatives addressed the economic needs of the bottom 50%. In other words, conservatives did not give modern Americans the equivalent of the Roman bread that the emperors gave to their subjects.

Wikipedia summarizes “What’s the Matter with Kansas”:

According to the book, the political discourse of recent decades has dramatically shifted from social and economic equality to the use of “explosive” cultural issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, which are used to redirect anger toward “liberal elites.”

Against this backdrop, Frank describes the rise of political conservatism in the social and political landscape of Kansas, which he says espouses economic policies that do not benefit the majority of people in the state.

Another foreshadowing of what Trump is doing was offered a year later by candidate Barack Obama at a San Francisco fundraiser:

And it’s not surprising then they [blue collar workers in small-town America, and elsewhere] get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Today marks one month since Donald Trump was inaugurated. He is following the insight of Thomas Frank (Kansas book) and challenging Zakaria’s interpretation of Roman rule. Trump is long on giving his base the “guns and God” for which they yearn. He has really done little to provide economic benefit to blue collar workers, who almost by definition, do not profit by whatever gains the stock market is making to further please Trump’s wealthy friends.

Reaching as far back as Ronald Reagan, Republicans have done little to generate economic benefits for the “forgotten Americans.” On the other hand, during Republican rule, the economic condition of the 50% has not gotten significantly worse – except for one instance. At the end of George W. Bush’s term, forgotten Americans were taking a bite when as much as 700,000 jobs were being lost a month. Bush was paying the price of fighting two wars without paying for them, all the while letting Wall Street operate without necessary regulations. The great recession of 2007-2009 was one time when what went wrong on Wall Street definitely impacted those living or working on Main Street.

During the first month of the Trump administration, Wall Street has continued to soar as it did through the Obama presidency. The January unemployment figures were good. But one month does not make a presidency.

Trump’s clown show / circus continues to entertain his base. While liberals abhor Trump’s bullying of the press, most Trump supporters are either amused or indifferent. Regardless of what he says, he puts on a good show for those who like low-brow entertainment.

Based on recent history, no matter how much Trump pisses off the media and progressive to moderate Democrats, he will stand in good stead, so long as the economy does not tank. But he is challenging international trade order and seems to be oblivious to what technology and artificial intelligence are doing to the fabric of our economy. The economic stimulus that he promised as he spoke of the numerous infrastructure problems in America is not seeing the light of day, and if it did, Congressional Republicans would be unlikely to accept.

Because most progressives actually care about the well-being of the American people, they face a problem that Republicans rarely do. Faced with a Faustian bargain, would progressive like to see the standard of living for the bottom 50% improve, even if it would keep Trump’s popularity high within his base? With Mitch McConnell as the prime cheerleader, we know that Republicans easily foreswear the well-being of the people for their political gain.

What we do know is that life is complicated and does not lend itself to easy answers. As the Trump circus featuring God and guns continues, there is economic uncertainty. Maybe the Romans were right, maybe Fareed Zakaria was right, maybe Thomas Frank was right. One thing is clear. Progressive should worry, whether the economy sustains or tanks.

  • Stacy Mergenthal

    I have had more than one political science professor say that the country is ripe for an uprising/internal war because we have the right mix of ingredients, economic uncertainty being one of the big ones. I don’t know if they are right, but this political climate is wild. Have you ever seen the like? Every day, a slew of outright lies and renewed attacks on ethics. The media are more interested in covering the jaw-dropping behavior of this administration than what Congress/Republicans are doing while we are distracted. (Circus fodder, no nutritional value.) I’m also worried that while we are out protesting #45, we’re not building third parties, finding solid candidates to run against Republicans in the midterms, or developing offensive strategies. The current political climate doesn’t seem to be sustainable.