After a long, ugly, and immensely stupid presidential election, a modest plurality of a little more than half of voting-age Americans voted to make a deeply loathed avatar of the despised political establishment the next President of the United States. Unfortunately, they were improperly geographically distributed, and so our next president is going to be a deeply loathed TV con man who flipped a few critical states by promising to reestablish national greatness through a vague program of populist economics and protectionism, who expertly played on rural and exurban resentments about someone else—black people, women, immigrants, whomever—getting a notionally better handout.
In this regard, the election didn’t represent a great groundswell of support for fascism, but rather a great, national exhaustion with politics. The prospect of four years under a thin-skinned loony toon surrounded by the bitterest dregs of Republican has-beens, racist conservative media impresarios, and disgraced military pensioners too embarrassing for their own armed-forces colleagues is truly awful and terrifying to contemplate, but we should not forget that this side lost the popular vote and represents perhaps a quarter of the actual adult population of the United States. It was the lowest turnout in 20 years. If this marks the death of American democracy after all, we can at least comfort ourselves with the knowledge that it was less a homicide than the drivers nodding off at the wheel.
Still, the Democrats lost. They lost the presidency on narrow procedural grounds: the antebellum inequity of the electoral college doesn’t care that the entire population of Wyoming could reside comfortably in a few hip neighborhoods in Brooklyn. They also lost down-ballot, as they’ve been losing for a decade now, from Senate races to state houses across the country, in great part because, in the era of Obama, the party has focused ever more single-mindedly on the singular prize of the presidency. How then, with so narrow a focus and such tremendous resources, with a loathed sexual deviant with a bad rug and a nasty disposition as an opponent, did they manage to lose the White House?
Paul Krugman has the answer. It was Vladimir Putin.
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Krugman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2008, and before that, beginning in 2000, he scored a biweekly column in the New York Times. Friedrich Hayek, upon receiving the Nobel in the 1970s, famously observed that he would’ve counseled the Swedish bankers who established the award not to bother. (It’s really, by the way, the Not-Quite-a-Nobel Prize in Economics; it was established by the Swedish central bank, and Alfred Nobel’s descendants say no one in the family ever intended to create a prize in the field.) This didn’t stop Hayek from taking the prize money, but he did elaborate in his acceptance speech. Unlike natural scientists, he said, who even when famous mostly speak to other experts in their fields, economists talk to laymen and politicians. The outsized authority conveyed upon individuals by the prize is bad for public policy. You could say the same thing about a biweekly column in the New York Times.
Paul Krugman is neither the first nor the rare liberal to claim that Trump is the American amanuensis to Putin, our steel-eyed KGB bogeyman, aided and abetted for hazy reasons by the ostensibly clumsy ass-covering of the FBI’s hack director, James Comey. But unlike Clinton campaign goons, paid party operatives, and your liberal Facebook friends who play them for free on the internet, Krugman is not a party crackpot—a liberal, yes, obviously, and a Democrat, but also, supposedly, a scholar and intellectual being paid to tell us the truth as he understands it, not to spin some bogus line about how the Russians magically—with Facebook memes!—caused Clinton to flush a billion dollars to raise another billion dollars, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and then not even to have the guts to come out and address her supporters on the night she lost, choosing instead to do what the campaign did all along: send an overpaid functionary to play surrogate on her behalf.
The excuse-making is part and parcel of a campaign that rarely paused to articulate a vision that wasn’t some version of “Dangerous Donald”—one of the endless number of lame-o focus-group phrases that they trotted between bouts of insane Russophobia that made Reagan at his Evilest Empire appear measured by comparison. A lot of them are still hanging onto this vacuous stupidity, and many of Clinton’s demoralized supporters, unable to comprehend how else they might lose to a sexist charlatan, are still buying it.
This is why Krugman’s embrace of the conspiracy theory pisses me off so much more than the embrace of some Democratic operative spouting off on MSNBC. He’s supposed to be smart enough to know better and independently honest enough to say so.
For four decades, real wages have remained flat. Though they’ve fortunately not yet figured out how to agree to do it, Democrats and Republicans alike do agree that the country needs “entitlement reform,” which is how overeducated boobs with a good employer retirement contribution match refer to taking away your Social Security and Medicare. The country is embroiled in a series of endless, fruitless foreign interventions that only make the world outside seem more violent and unstable. Segregation by race and class remains endemic. While, at the same time, social advances by LGBTQ people, women, and people of color are real, they are very tenuous, and often undercut by the precariousness of people’s economic situations, vast regional variations in workplace protections, unending legal challenges to abortion and birth control, and the racist foundations of the drug war and modern policing.
But I want to focus on economics, because those with prominent platforms in politics and the media generally are urban, highly educated, and overpaid, and the terrible sense of economic precariousness in the lives of huge segments of the American population is distant and abstract to them. Successful people also tend to back-project ability, talent, drive, and merit onto their autobiographical stories of success, and the importance of sheer, stupid luck—having the right parents; being in the right place at the right time—gets edited out.
Here is where, oh, say, a prominent liberal economist might weigh in with what the smart kids now call “an explainer,” but for the fact that his own Nobel-winning work was part of the intellectual ferment that bubbled up our current toxic brew. Krugman, years before his opposition to the dumber policies of George W. Bush made his name synonymous with the left side of American liberalism, mostly was known as a staunch free-trader, a defender of globalization during a period in which, whatever the supposed benefits for the so-called broader economy, the manufacturing belt began to rust. He staunchly defended wages as the market price of labor and opposed living wage laws as job-destroying interventions in an efficient market. “[T]he amorality of the market economy is part of its essence, and cannot be legislated away,” he wrote. Credit where due: Krugman did believe in after-market redistributionist intervention. But like a good technocrat, he couldn’t bear to just give people money. He imagined a tax credit instead, another needless pile of paperwork and documentation foisted onto the working poor to force them to waste time begging for a contingent benefit.
The same 40-odd years that saw worker productivity spike while wages flattened, job protections declined, and the systems of social safety were dismantled were—not coincidentally—the period during which the Democratic Party as an organization and institution latched itself to a meritocratic myth that, at its logical conclusion, turns life into an endless nightmare of perpetual competition, the children of today trying to outcompete the Chinese for the entry-level jobs of tomorrow, which require six years of experience and a master’s. At least conservatives pay lip service to the countervailing comforts of church and charity, even if they don’t really mean it.
The meritocrats, of course, have outcompeted you and are smarter than you, and they must relentlessly prove it. They were all immensely pleased by how clever and interesting the Affordable Care Act was. It didn’t feel like a government program; it felt like a cool internet business. And if you are a writer for Vox, you may indeed have time to putz around comparing plans and calculating the relative merits of high-deductible plans that you can’t use because you can’t afford any of the deductibles anyway, but for most working people, this just adds to the dull reality of life today, a dismal labyrinth of incomprehensible paperwork and unnecessary bureaucracy when all you really want is to go to the doctor or to retire without going broke.
The argument is that something like Obamacare is complex and corporate because that was the only way to smuggle in the benefits without tripping over the obstructionist GOP. This argument would hold more merit if the Democratic Party ever bothered to engage in full-throated advocacy for a real, non-means-tested, universal program which then got whittled down in negotiation. Instead, the party endlessly triangulates against itself, and the few things that squeak through often are worse than the alternative nothing. The real Clinton campaign slogan wasn’t “I’m With Her”; it was “How About $12.50?”—Hillary Clinton’s answer when asked about a $15 per hour minimum wage.
Even the increasing problems and prominence of nasty racism and xenophobia around and following the election owe something to these basic material conditions. Now, look, there are a lot of straight-up, unreconstructed racist shitheels in America. America is a racist country. But a significant number of people who voted for Barack Obama turned around and voted for Trump over Clinton—maybe enough, combined with Clinton’s flat or declining turnout among minorities, to flip a few counties and therefore a few states from one column to the other. A retreat into petty affinity groups, a hardening fear and distrust of outsiders, an unwillingness to abnegate personal prejudice in favor of economic self-interest—i.e., to vote for the promise (if not the outcome) of Barack Obama, even if he is a black fella with a funny name—are all hallmarks of a people losing hope in any prospect of shared, universal material betterment and prosperity, a people turning back to the tribal protection of me and mine.
You don’t have to like it or excuse it, but you have to understand it. If, indeed, there can be no hope for Trump voters; if the divide is unbridgeable; if no politics exists that can reach even a few percent of them and turn them toward a project of mutual, shared well-being, justice, and fairness, then there is no hope. They’re lost, and we’re fucked forever. If the people who stayed home are offered nothing but some vague promise of innovative jobs in an endlessly new economy, then there is no hope. They’re lost, and we’re fucked forever. Politics is at its most basic level transactional. A vote is purchased with a promise. Hillary Clinton: “America is already great.” Donald Trump: “I am your voice.”
I’ll steal a line from the Democrats. Democrats, do better.
Vladimir Putin did not install Donald Trump in the White House. The New York Times editorial page did. The Washington Post editorial page did. The means-testers and meritocrats did. Hillary Clinton and her campaign did. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.
Jacob Bacharach is a writer from Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the novels The Bend of the World and The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates. He’s got a website here and a Twitter account here.