From time to time this blog invites contributions from readers who often bring a fresh approach to the issues we discuss. Peter E. Gumpel is an American management consultant and lawyer who has been based in Vienna for several years. Here he encourages us to focus more on the underlying problems that created Donald Trump rather than on the behavior of the man himself.
I always expected that Donald Trump would have the character arc (to use screenplay terminology) of a Greek tragedy, reaching for the utmost heights and then flaming out to utter ignominy, both by reason of his own hubris and helped by the opponents who wanted him to fail from the start. But I hadn’t expected that the tragedy would turn into farce – with the U.S. Congress being invaded by a mob of hooligans looking straight out of the Star Wars stage set or a gay Halloween gala.
Upfront I should make the obligatory disclaimer that I didn't vote for Mr. Trump, given his tubthumping against Mexicans and Muslims and lack of qualifications for the job, remembering him from the 1980s New York media scene and having flown on the Trump Shuttle.
On the other hand, it is important to understand why many Americans - not necessarily "deplorable" - voted for him. They were not sharing in the expanding national wealth, their children or brothers or sisters were being sent to fight in never-ending wars, and the powers that be" were demonstrably not serving the people's interest but rather those of their donors.
Indeed, many people who put their faith in Trump were acting on similar motivations to those who had voted for Obama - looking for "hope and change" and a different direction for the country - including voters disappointed by Obama for having followed much of the same policies as the G.W. Bush administration, not only in foreign policy but also domestically. Trump didn't actually help these people much, but as a skillful populist he had a visceral understanding of their desires and gave them hope.
In many ways Trump can be regarded as a symptom of those underlying problems rather than the problem itself. If the Biden Administration simply restores the ancien régime without trying to solve those underlying issues issues facing the broad American population a new and more virulent Trump could emerge in several years.
This includes addressing the wealth disparities that have been reaching almost Ancient Egyptian proportions, mainly by reason of the massive quantitative easing and loose monetary policy under Jerome Powell (and earlier Janet Yellen), which are boosting asset prices (stocks, real estate) to stratospheric heights, combined with the Covid relief programs which are funneling huge sums to the largest corporations while handing out chump change to the broad population, at the same time as small businesses are being forced to shut down.
Two of the main problems are, of course, the inordinately expensive medical and higher education systems, which have spiraled out of control in the last decades. For young people starting out today, entering the workforce saddled with student debt, not being able to buy a house and start a family, the situation is especially tough – no longer is the young generation expecting to be more successful than the prior one.
The two solutions are either on the right - going back to the purer market economy of the Herbert Hoover era - or on the left - adopting social support systems as in Europe. The latter appears more feasible as no one wants to lose entitlements. Indeed, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck – certainly no left-winger - realized already 150 years ago that such programs can be essential to preserve social cohesion. But, unfortunately, it doesn't look like today’s mainstream Democrats or Republicans have the will to tackle – let alone solve -- these problems. They would much rather take political pot-shots at each other rather than do some real work.
One of these urgent national issues is the increasing power of Big Tech, which has just proved it can even shut down an American president, albeit an unpopular one in his last days, with attendant risks to free speech and democracy. Not content to hoover up virtually all private data of citizens, who insouciantly permit this to happen, Big Tech is setting itself up as the final inquisitor and arbiter of “truth” and permitted speech. Controlling Big Tech will be a Herculean task and needs someone with the forceful personality and trust-busting inclinations of a Theodore Roosevelt.
After the fall of the populist disrupter Napoleon Bonaparte and restoration of the French ancien régime in 1815, the Bourbons were accused of “learning nothing and forgetting nothing,” putting the old bureaucrats back in charge while not addressing the root causes of the revolution that had overthrown them. It is imperative that the restored Biden team not fall into this trap but rather deal directly with the issues that created Trump in the first place.