Robert Reich: The Final Battle (Why American Capitalism Is So Rotten, Part X) – OpEd

At the first rally of his 2024 election campaign on March 25 in Waco, Texas — exactly 30 years after a deadly siege between law enforcement and the Branch Davidians resulted in the deaths of more than 80 members of that religious cult and four federal agents — Trump opened with a choir of men imprisoned for their role in the January 6 insurrection singing “Justice for All.” 

Their singing was interspersed with the national anthem and with Trump’s reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, his hand on his heart. Behind, projected on big screens, was footage from the Capitol riot.

Trump then repeated his bogus claim that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged.” He praised the rioters of January 6. He raged against the prosecutors overseeing multiple investigations into his conduct as “absolute human scum.” He told the crowd that “the thugs and criminals who are corrupting our justice system will be defeated, discredited and totally disgraced.”

Then he declared:

“Our enemies are desperate to stop us and our opponents have done everything they can to crush our spirit and to break our will. But they failed. They’ve only made us stronger. And 2024 is the final battle, it’s going to be the big one. You put me back in the White House, their reign will be over and America will be a free nation once again.”

SINCE THEN, as indictments have piled up against him and his poll numbers among Republicans have risen, Trump’s “final battle” comes into ever sharper focus. 

It is a battle against the rule of law. It is a battle for the soul of America. It is a battle between democracy and neofascism. 

On an Iowa radio show, Trump warned it would be “very dangerous” if Special Counsel Jack Smith and Judge Tanya Chutkan put him in jail, since his supporters have “much more passion than they had in 2020.”

The Republican Party is uniting behind Trump’s side of this battle line. 

If not defending the January 6 rioters outright, Republican lawmakers are attacking Smith, the Justice Department, the Manhattan district attorney, and other current and prospective prosecutors seeking to hold Trump accountable.

Trump’s upcoming trial on charges of seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election will make it harder for Republican candidates across the nation to run on their fake nemeses: “woke” teachers and corporations, trans youth, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, and “socialism.” It will force them instead to defend Trump’s side in the final battle.

Those who care about democracy and the rule of law should welcome the battle, and not just because it will help Biden and the Democrats.

It will also help clarify what’s at stake for the nation in 2024 and beyond.

It will show how eager Trump and the Republican Party are to abandon democracy and the rule of law in order to gain power. It will show that the vast majority of Americans reject their position.

FOR THE LAST 10 WEEKS, we’ve been examining American capitalism and asking why the common good has been so difficult to achieve in recent decades. 

We’ve seen that American capitalism is one of the harshest forms of capitalism on the planet. Its safety nets are in shreds. Its promise of equal opportunity has given way to deep cynicism and distrust toward all the major institutions of American society. 

We’ve also examined the reason for this. The moneyed interests — large corporations, Wall Street financiers, and ultra-wealthy individuals — have taken over much of our politics and media. They want Americans to be divided, to fight each other, so we don’t look upward and see where all the wealth and power have gone. 

At the same time, the countervailing powers that once balanced the moneyed interests have all but disappeared. 

Most obviously left behind have been Americans without college degrees who tend to live in rural areas, who are white and more religious and older than the typical American. As the heartland has been hollowed out — denuded of industry and good jobs — they have been the first casualties. As such, they’ve been particularly susceptible to Trump’s lies and Fox News’s propaganda, and the angry and often bigoted politics they’ve spawned. 

But these Trumpers are far from the only casualties. Most Americans now live paycheck to paycheck. They have no job security. No pension. Little or no child care or elder care. They worry about affording to send their kids to college. They’re reluctant to see a doctor because, even with health insurance, they pay through the nose. 

AMERICAN CAPITALISM once considered the employees and host communities of businesses “stakeholders” — equal in importance to shareholders. As the economy grew, so did wages and benefits, as did the prosperity of the communities where corporations were founded and grew. 

But in the 1980s, corporate raiders transformed the purpose of the corporation into being exclusively and obsessively about maximizing shareholder returns. 

At the same time, and partly as a result, corporations lobbied for trade treaties that allowed them to outsource jobs abroad. They busted unions. They monopolized their markets. They moved to where they could find the lowest wages and biggest tax subsidies. 

Accordingly, shareholder capitalism siphoned off the economic gains to a relatively small group at the top. 

The Democratic Party — and Democratic presidents Carter, Clinton, Obama, and Biden — have been far better than their Republican counterparts in seeking to resist these forces, but they have not succeeded. 

They have not established a new countervailing power. They have not called out the moneyed interests, on which too many have relied for campaign financing. They have allowed too many Americans to be left behind. 

Donald Trump has exploited this void with anger, vengeance, bigotry, and lies. 

So now we come to the final battle. 

AS A KID I WAS ALWAYS a head shorter than other boys, which meant I was bullied — mocked, threatened, sometimes assaulted. 

Childhood bullying has been going on forever. But over the last four decades, America has developed a culture of bullying that’s fiercer than anything I experienced as a kid. 

Wealthier Americans bully poorer Americans. CEOs bully their workers. People with privilege and pedigree bully those without. White people bully people of color. Authoritarian leaders (Putin, Xi, Modi, Netanyahu) bully ethnic and religious minorities. Men bully women. People born in America bully immigrants. 

Sometimes the bullying involves physical violence, but more often it entails intimidation, displays of dominance, demands for submission, or arbitrary decisions over the lives of those who feel they have no choice but to accept them. 

At its core, bullying is about power — typically the power of those who are rich, white, privileged, or male, or all of the above, to threaten and intimidate those who are not.

At some point, those who are bullied will fight back. 

I remember the exact day I did, when I had had enough. I was 10 years old. One morning when I was waiting for the school bus, a local bully started shaking me down. He wanted my lunch box and the change in my pocket. He began threatening me physically, as he had done several times before. I felt the rage well up inside me. I put down my lunch box and let him have it.

Trump is America’s bully-in-chief. He exemplifies those who use their wealth to gain power and celebrity, harass or abuse women and get away with it, lie and violate the law with impunity, and rage against anyone who calls them on their bullying. 

Trump became president by exploiting the anger of millions of white working-class Americans who for decades have been economically bullied. Even as profits have ballooned and executive pay has gone into the stratosphere, workers have been hammered. Their pay has gone nowhere, their benefits have shrunk, their jobs are less secure, their health has worsened. 

Trump has used this anger to build his political base, channeling their frustrations and anxieties into racism and nativism. He has encouraged Americans who have been bullied to feel more powerful by bullying people with even less power — poor Black people, Latinos, immigrants, Muslims, families seeking asylum.

This bullying game has been played repeatedly in history by self-described strongmen who pretend to be tribunes of the oppressed by scapegoating the truly powerless. 

Trump is no tribune of the people. He and his enablers, mostly but not exclusively in the Republican Party, work for the oligarchs — cutting their taxes, eliminating regulations, allowing some of them to profit off public lands and coastal waters, and slashing public services.

Eventually those who are bullied will gain the courage to fight back and reclaim economic and political power. 

AMERICANS HOLD DIFFERENT VIEWS about many things, but most of us oppose authoritarianism. We reject fascism.

We value the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We are committed to democracy, even with its many flaws. We support the rule of law.

We want to live in a nation where no one is above the law. We want to be able to sleep at night without worrying that a president might unleash armed lackeys to drag us out of our homes because he considers us to be his enemy.

The pustule of Trump has been growing since 2016, but the authoritarian impulses underlying this infection have been allowed to fester for decades.

It is time to lance this boil. 

It is time to decisively rescue democracy and the rule of law. It is time to defeat Trump and his enablers, who are determined to defy the core values of America. 

It is also time to craft a capitalism that works for the many rather than the few — to achieve a common good whose benefits are widely shared. American capitalism does not have to be as rotten as it is. It can be reformed. 

This second goal of reforming American capitalism cannot be separated from the first. The common good can thrive only when the rule of law is powerful and democracy is strong. 

Trumpism can be overcome totally and finally only when American capitalism works for the many, not the few. 

Understanding what is happening and why is a prerequisite for positive change. But the change must come from the people — from you and me and millions of other Americans. In order for real change to occur, the locus of power in the system will have to change as well. 

I’m hopeful. Despite the anger, fear, and bigotry released by Trump, I believe we will come out of this stronger, more united, more sure of our ideals. 

The arc of American history shows that when privilege and power conspire to pull us backward, we rally and move forward. Sometimes it takes an economic shock like the bursting of a giant speculative bubble. Sometimes we reach a tipping point where the frustrations of average Americans turn into action. 

Look at the progressive reforms between 1900 and 1916; the New Deal of the 1930s; the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s; the widening opportunities for women, minorities, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ people; the environmental reforms of the 1970s and more recently under Joe Biden; and the recent resurgence of labor activism.

Look at the startling diversity of younger Americans. Most Americans now under 18 years old are Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander, African American, or of more than one race. In a very few years, most Americans under 30 will be. In fewer than three decades, most of America will be. 

That diversity will be a huge strength. Hopefully, it will mean a more tolerant, less racist, less xenophobic society. 

Our young people are determined to make America better. I’ve taught for more than 40 years, and I’ve never taught a generation of students as dedicated to public service, as committed to improving the nation and the world, as is the current generation. Another sign of our future strength.  

Meanwhile, most college students today are women, which means even more women will be in leadership positions in coming years — in science, politics, education, nonprofits, and corporate suites. That will also be a great boon to America.

As I tell my students, we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for. The future is up to us.

This article was published at Robert Reich’s Substack