Inside the American Oligarchy
Eddie James Girdner
Fire and Fury: Inside the White House, by Michael Wolff. New York: Henry Holt and Company. 2018. 321 pages.
“I have seen the world and I am not impressed.” (Edward Abbey)
Surely, the Trump Administration comes under the rubric of what Marx used to call “beneath all criticism.” Nevertheless, one must try to get a grip on what has happened in the United States of America with the installation of the Trump oligarchy. The government of the United States is a plutocracy, almost completely ruled by the rich. Therefore, it seems quite appropriate that the President of the United States should, indeed, be an oligarch. It seems that with Trump, America has truly reached this stage.
America is a global empire. The public sphere seems to have rotted at home. Talk of America as a “democracy” rings hollow. The Empire depends more and more upon military force abroad as its global rule weakens. The US can no longer police the whole world. Its image abroad is in tatters, even though many of the poor around the world still cling to the illusion that it would be a lucky place to go if only they could.
Fire and Fury is entertaining and interesting to read. But in some large respects, it does not go far beyond being a sort of soap opera about the main characters in the White House drama: Trump, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, Michael Flynn, Mike Pence, and a few other characters.
I learned something about this circus, and it is interesting to read, for what it is worth. I learned a few things that I did not know. But the ongoing deconstruction of the administrative apparatus of the US Government, going on behind the scenes is not addressed. In that respect, all this gossip just takes the focus off what is really important and more than that, actually tragic.
It’s the same old game. Keep the people entertained. Make them think that the whole thing can be easily fixed. All you need is a new president. So, we must get rid of the current idiot. Then things will be fine. How long has this been going on? When will they ever learn?
When Nixon came in 1968, and brought Watergate, a lot of us thought that it could not get any worse. Then Ronald Reagan came in 1980, and again, we thought it could not get any worse. In 2000, the US got George W. Bush, and again we thought it could not get any worse. But indeed, it only got worse.
In 2016, the US got Trump. This time it seems that possibly it really could not get any worse. But who knows? I would not bet on it. Ivanka Trump is now waiting for her turn and believes that she is going to be the first woman President of the USA. American “exceptionalism” is truly exceptional. But possibly that is not what the American political science professors mean when they use the term.
I left the US more than twenty-five years ago and have lived abroad since. A reverse immigrant. I got out before the deluge. I opened-up the way for an immigrant to have my slot. Good luck in “America the Beautiful!” You lucky duck!
From what I can see, a lot has changed in that quarter century. The amount of homelessness seems to have vastly increased. There are now tent cities, even in some very cold places in the snow. Inequality has certainly increased under globalism and neoliberalism. Most Americans outside the one-percent have certainly become poorer. There are fewer jobs for young Americans. The student debt of university graduates has mushroomed. The so-called national debt is somewhere around twenty trillion dollars. It is much harder for many Americans to get a place to live. Even rent is harder after the 2008 financial crises. Youtube shows people how to live in shipping containers. And tiny houses. Avoid a mortgage. What is going on? Health care public policy is a scandal by global standards. The worst in the developed world, by far.
It is surely a different America today.
The collapse of the middle class in America has brought about this right-wing conservative nationalist revolution, if that is what it really is. One cannot know how far in the Alt-Right, Tea Party, direction the country will go. Fox TV has helped push the country in that direction. Personally, I never watched Fox TV. I couldn’t stand to.
From the perspective of the mainstream of university educated, the United States is a nation awash in public stupidity. It certainly looks that way from Europe. It also looks that way from Turkey too, where people tend to look to the state (the “father-state”) to help them out. The public mindset of Americans is practically incomprehensible to people in Turkey, where there is so much populism. The state is seen to have a duty to do something.
Slow economic growth, the export of jobs, economic stagnation, the slow decay of the infrastructure, contrasts with rapid growth in the big emerging countries like Turkey, China, India, These countries have made significant advances in development over the last quarter century. They have “caught up” in many ways.
Beginning in the 1970s, the deindustrialization of America was intentionally carried out in earnest. Corporations invested abroad for higher profits. Ronald Reagan “turned the bull loose.” All the cheap imported crap produced filled up the Walmarts. But with the loss of jobs, many Americans could not even buy the flimsy junk coming in from China. Americans lived on their credit cards and the equity in their houses, if they had any.
Much of America was turned into an internal third world. Lack of jobs. NAFTA brought in more Mexicans and exported the jobs to Mexico. Wages fell. Many Americans lost their houses after 2008. There was really no excuse for it. Mostly bad public policy.
American life was going south, in more ways than one. Who was to blame? The gospel of Frederick Hayek, Austrian so-called free market economics, had done a number on American society. Ronald Reagan, and the right-wingers, who exported the jobs, praised globalization and told the people that the government was to blame. There was just too much government.
Reagan was right in a way. Public policy in America did nothing for the common people. Everything served the profits of the big business class. It is actually hard to see this approach working in any country except America. Cable TV, dominated by Fox TV, the mouthpiece of big business and the Republican Party, kept up the brainwashing.
Then along came 9-11. This was the opportunity to scare the daylights out of the American people about foreigners and the Islamic world. The US went to war. Rumsfeld talked about going after some sixty countries. Things only got worse. Trillions of dollars squandered in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere. The US got control of the region and the oil. But the wars go on.
Then a “black president” was elected. Obama was a nice guy, who was going to fix things up and make America loved again. Everything would be OK. People breathed a sigh of relief. George W. Bush went back to Texas. Obama got the Nobel Peace prize. And then he went right on launching wars just as George W. had done. More Americans died in these wars that were never official wars. And Obama did precious little for the people who needed some help from the government under the new neoliberal dispensation.
Racism and religion together pushed middle America to the right. The system was not working for the middle classes, the working class. Hope for the future declined, even while the President gave speeches about “Hope” and “Change.” The middle classes were angry and were not going to take it anymore. At this point, according to Marx, the country should have gone to the Left. In America, as in Nazi Germany in the l930s, it went to the Right. Part of it was just tossing a Molotov cocktail to blow up the system that was screwing them over.
The name of that system was “capitalism” but the American variety of stockholder capitalism was much harsher than stakeholder capitalism in Europe. Right-wingers warned Americans that if they were not careful, they might end up being “just like Europeans.” No way, of course. Actually, they would have loved it, but they were not supposed to know that.
Americans started blaming the scapegoats, not the system. The Blacks, Mexicans, foreigners, the government, universities, environmentalists, feminists, the Left, gays, Moslems, immigrants, and so on.
They were being screwed by the corporations, but they saw the left and blacks as their enemies.
Trump tied into this anger and accidently got elected. He would Make America Great Again. Kick some ass at the top.
But wait a minute. Wasn’t he also one of those at the top? Never mind. He was the only one that was kicking some ass. At least in his speeches. He was angry. And full of shit. I’ve never seen anyone so full of shit, in fact. But the lumpen elements of America ate it up. There was no other such another place to turn. And obviously, Hillary was just going to be business as usual.
Trump won. A big surprise to him, Hillary, and almost everybody else. In a normal country, he would have lost, of course. But under American exceptionalism, it is not the candidate that gets the most votes who wins. Under American democracy, the candidate who gets less votes wins. Everyone is supposed rejoice at that.
“Oh Beautiful for Spacious Skies…” and so on.
Trump had arrived. Surely, no candidate for president had ever been so ill-prepared to be the president. But the Government is not a business corporation.
According to Wolff, no one in the White House knew what they had to do. Few had any experience at all in government. Certainly not the ones in charge. Trump had no idea how to deal with Congress. And he was not interested in that, anyway. He didn’t count on being stopped by the courts. He knew how to manage things, or so it was said. He came with a business mentality. He would turn legislation over to Paul Ryan.
The group in the White House was divided. Bannon represented the Alt-Right, Breitbart base out in rural and small-town America. And the South. He was given the title of “chief strategist.” He thought that he was running things, even though most of the time, he was not. But Wolff thinks that Trump probably won because Bannon fixed his “broke-dick” campaign just in time.
Then there were Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the two spoiled rich kids. Trump hired his daughter and son in law. It was nepotism. Shamelessly defended by the President. These two represented the New York corporate sector. Sometimes they were called Clinton Democrats. Trump largely gave Kushner the Middle East portfolio. Apparently his only supposed qualification was that he was Jewish. Ivanka was made an official advisor. They thought they could control the President and make him “presidential.”
Then there was Priebus, who would take a more professional, traditional approach, establishing a relationship with Congress and working through normal channels.
According to Wolff, it was not clear what anybody in the White House did. Early on, their main concern became controlling the President. For Bannon, this was futile. Just let Trump be Trump. There was no way to control him.
All of this was great for the media. Almost every tweet from Trump on Twitter was a news item. Trump was like a small child crying for attention. Much of the book is about the fight going on between Bannon and Jarvanka (Ivanka and Kushner). Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs people were busy setting about to dismantle the administrative machinery of the US Government.
Trump would rule by executive orders. Dozens of executive orders were prepared to attempt to undue everything that Obama had done. Apparently, this was sometimes just for the heck of it, if nothing else. Of course, the attempt to repeal Obama care became a fiasco, let alone replacing it. It could partially be accomplished by the tax bill, which Wolff does not cover in the book. This would be great for big corporations and Wall Street, but a looming disaster for the country. No one cared about the deficit, Democrats or Republicans. In fact, the Democrats are hardly mentioned at all in the book and hardly even Congress. Except for Paul Ryan who Trump turned over the job of legislation. Trump just didn’t want to bother with it.
The Administration, it is claimed, had great distrust in science, experience and expertise of any kind. The way to go was just to fly it by the seat of the pants. That’s the way to go, especially if one is a genius. And Trump must be a genius, it was suspected. After all, he had won. Maybe he had something. Maybe he was not the “idiot” that people kept calling him, after all. If he was, how could he have become the President?
Maybe he would be a miracle worker and pull it off with Congress too.
Predictably, Trump fired most of this cast of characters, including Bannon, by the time the book went to press. What a fiasco. There it is for all the world to see. This was not likely to help America’s reputation, already in tatters around the world.
The term “fire and fury” came from Trump’s burst against North Korea and what the country could expect if the “little missile man” threatened the USA.
Trump talked sense about getting out of foreign wars while he was a candidate. The wars were a great waste of money. He was thinking like the common man in the street. But once the generals got hold of him, such as General McMaster, the National Security Advisor, Trump quickly changed his tune. He got his instructions about the birds and the bees and what he would have to do. After all, the US is a global empire. It was just another indication of his profound ignorance of the US role in the world. Trump wanted to get the US out of Afghanistan, but it seems that when he discovered that there were many billions of dollars-worth of minerals there, he was ready to send more troops. Bannon was dead-set against this.
The book reveals that several of Trump’s worst decisions were urged onto him by Ivanka and Jared. The firing of FBI Director Comey was one. As a result, a special prosecutor was hired to look into the allegations that Trump colluded with the Russians. Everyone was forced to hire lawyers.
In the book, Trump comes across as a clown with everybody fearing his next outrage behind his back. But he is there and is going to stay for at least one term.
Wolff suggests that perhaps things have already gone beyond Trump. Has all this become a conservative nationalist revolution spearheaded by the Alt-Right? Only time will tell. Bannon entertains the notion that he can lead this movement and perhaps even become President.
The book is a good read. It is a piece of the story that may contribute to understanding what has gone on. On the other hand, the book does not try to get a grip on the damage being done to the United States of America by this Administration. Nevertheless, it gives one a glimpse into the shenanigans inside the White House under Trump. It practically drove the people that worked there crazy, especially those who tried to approach it professionally.
When he found out about the book, Trump had his lawyers try to stop the publication. So, the book was rushed out ahead of time to pre-empt any attempt to block it. This likely increased sales of the book by a significant amount.
At this point, the American people are begging and crying for some decent policies. It is pretty clear what those should be. A national single-payer health care system; cancellation of most student debt; free university education; bringing the troops back home; a national program to provide affordable housing; rebuilding of the infrastructure by the government; jobs with a liveable minimum wage; investment in public rapid transit in cities and across the country; investment in wind, solar and other alternative energies; high-speed rail; getting people out of jail; economic security; programs that help the ninety-nine percent. Corporations must pay their fair share of taxes. Unfortunately, the Democrats are not going for it. They keep playing the same game and shilling for corporate cash. That is the real crises because it is so hard for third parties to affect the American political process.
Wolff’s book is worth reading, even though it will not make one happy. It is a real shame. With its wealth, America could, in fact, be a great country. But I am afraid it is not going to be, as long as it keeps funnelling most of its wealth up to the one percent and increasingly impoverishing the people. That system is not a democracy, but an oligarchy ruled by the rich plutocrats.
January 30, 2018