Heed Harvard's Lepore and Barney Frank: Inequality Gave Us Trump

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Trump wins and I can’t get out of my head the comments of a good friend who’s a relative by marriage, a true-believing Republican who’ll tell you that Barney Frank caused the subprime mortgage industry meltdown that caused the Great Recession because Barney wouldn’t let up on policies to foster home ownership by families that had no business owning homes because they didn’t have the money, never mind the mindset, to be owning homes, absent federally facilitated inducements.

This friend is a retired bank lawyer who had a distinguished career in New York City and Chicago and he’s telling me last summer, to my surprise and astonishment, that everyone had “a duty to vote for Hillary” in November.  Why? Because this friend was part of a team of lawyers who worked on Trump’s first mega-bankruptcy in New York, circa 1990, and he had a long-running opportunity to observe Trump up close.  “I was in the room with him a lot,” said my friend.  “I wasn’t the only one in the room with him.  But I was there, with other people, with him, for a lot of hours over a period of days and weeks and I can tell you there is something wrong with that man.  He has something fundamentally wrong with his personality, his psyche, and I can tell you that he has the ability to cause lasting harm, grievous harm, to our country.  He will do something really bad and we may never recover from it.”
Trump wins and I’m sick ever since thinking about my friend’s prediction, although Trump didn’t really win, did he? Hillary is ahead by two million-plus in the popular vote as of this afternoon.  Has America’s fate been sealed?  What, if anything, can a citizen, who does not wish to “normalize” (the term du jour) Trump and his fear-mongering/resentment-stoking ways, do to push back against the Trump tide that has overrun the presidency and the congress and the state houses, and also soon the Supreme Court? 

I’m wondering, Yes, what can be done, when I read Harvard University historian Jill Lepore’s piece in the Nov. 21 edition of The New Yorker, my mood starts to lift, and I think there may be a course, or at least a general direction, for all the Trump doubters in America to take, a positive theme and a progressive cause to embrace.  Lepore’s piece, titled “Wars Within,” is among a group of brief articles by 17 or 18 authors grouped under the headline, “AFTERMATH, Responses to the election of Donald J. Trump.”
Trump’s election, Lepore writes, “…ends an era of American idealism, a high-mindedness of rhetoric, if not always of action, which has characterized most twentieth- and twenty-first-century American Presidencies, from F.D.R. to Eisenhower, from Reagan to Obama, from the New Deal order to the long era of civil rights.” 

The (posited) end of “an era of American idealism” prompts Lepore to reflect on “the beginning of another, very different end,” one that “lies quite far back in American history,” the Civil War.  She quotes Frederick Douglass, statesman, abolitionist, former slave, from an 1862 speech in Philadelphia titled, “The Reason for Our Troubles.”   Douglas said, “We have sought to bind the chains of slavery on the limbs of the black man, without thinking that at last we should find the other end of that hateful chain about our own necks.”   
Lepore notes that Douglass was “astonished” at “how blind Americans were” to the origins of the Civil War.  She then offers this analysis of Trump’s win:

“The rupture in the American republic, the division of the American people whose outcome is the election of Donald Trump, cannot be attributed to Donald Trump.  Nor can it be attributed to James Comey and the F.B.I. or to the white men who voted in very high numbers for Trump or to the majority of white women who did, too, unexpectedly, or to the African-American and Latino voters who did not give Hillary Clinton the edge they gave Barack Obama.  It can’t be attributed to the Republican Party’s unwillingness to disavow Trump or to the Democratic Party’s willingness to promote Clinton or to a media that has careened into a state of chaos.  There are many reasons for our troubles.  But the deepest reason is inequality: the forms of political, cultural, and economic polarization that have been widening, not narrowing, for decades.  Inequality, like slavery, is a chain that binds at both ends.”
The “deepest reason” for our troubles is inequality.  “Inequality, like slavery, is a chain that binds at both ends.”

I’ve been obsessing over those two thoughts since reading Lepore’s “Wars Within.”  Today, I happened to read, online, another article in The New Yorker concerning Barney Frank, retired member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the Fourth Massachusetts District: “Barney Frank Looks for the Bright Side of Trump’s Win,” by Jeffrey Toobin, http://www/newyorker/com/news/daily-comment/barney-frank-looks-for-the-bright-side-of-trump’s-win
“The fundamental reason that Trump won is the anger in America and other developed countries at the unfairness of the distribution of wealth.  It’s been building and building, and all of a sudden it broke,” Frank tells Toobin.

America is sending a billionaire from a gold-encrusted penthouse in Manhattan to the White House to re-set the economy for the benefit of the little guy? 

That is one big, absurd a roll of the dice.  If Trump does do that in the two-and-a-half years he has before starting his re-election campaign, I’ll say, “Fantastic!  Thank you, Mr. President.”  But I will not hold my breath waiting for that to happen.  I will not give Dear Leader the benefit of the doubt on the matter of measurably improving the lot of the little guy. 
Also, there’s an excellent chance that Trump will be confronted with some serious and highly complex challenge internationally, say Vladimir Putin starting trouble in Estonia on the ground of protecting ethnic Russians residing there, and that Trump will come up with some deeply wrong and misguided responses, a la my fearful retired bank lawyer friend, after which the economy could be the least of our worries.

To recap: Trump has arrived at the presidency by convincing enough hurting and angry people that he’ll make the economy work better for them.  I’m in despair that Trump will soon be occupying the office of Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.  Inspired by Harvard’s Jill Lepore, I think I might counter that gloom by supporting, in the tiny ways within my power and ability to do so, any idea or project that lessens income inequality in our state and nation.  If Trump actually does what those hurting and angry people want him to do -- and I hope he does -- he will be responsible for lifting the gloom he has evoked during this campaign-from-hell.  
The last (and best) words go Lepore, from “Wars Within”…

“When does an ending begin?  Douglass saw that the end of a republic begins on the day when the heroism of the struggle for equality yields to the cowardice of resentment.  That day has not come.  It is thought by many, lately, and said by some, that the republic has seen its best days, and that it remains for the historian to chronicle the history of its decline and fall.  I disagree.  Sparrows may yet cross the sky.”

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