Trump and the Luxury of Failure

As expected, even a small sliver of Donald Trump’s tax returns proved to be interesting and infuriating. The rise and fall and rise (and fall, and rise) of Trump serves as a primer on success and failure in America.

The business fortunes of Trump have oscillated from runaway success to total disaster multiple times. However, the situation gravitates towards money- his fortunes are rooted in the money and connections he inherited. Thus, even when his net worth was well below zero, he could act in a way that most broke Americans could never. Failure as a celebrity real estate mogul seems to resemble deferred success. And as his tax returns show, massive loss can be turned into gain. Never mind that most American carry around debt for years, if not their whole lives.

But the ability to fail is in itself a privilege. Many Americans fail once financially, and never return to a place where it could happen again. Hardship is not a short, confined phase in a larger journey, but rather becomes built into the structure of life.

Yet seeing the continuous wave of protests against police violence in cities, it becomes clear that whole population can never fail, for the system has not and will not let them succeed. There is no money for food, childcare, the same benefits that well-off children and their families have. The school system is dysfunctional and higher education is both remote and expensive. Deindustrialization, trade pacts, and outsourcing have stripped communities of decent work with benefits. Reading Matthew Desmond’s Evicted a few weeks back, his case studies lacked the money to both pay rent and do anything else. Kids attended a dozen different schools, grew up more often in the streets than in the home. Hardship was passed down generation to generation.

In America, only the wealthy can succeed and fail like Donald Trump has.

 

The next Donald Trump

We are now forty days from the 2016 election, and the result is still very much in doubt. The collision of two unpopular, ill-liked candidates has created something approaching competition. On the Wednesday after, talking heads will find their own way of saying “the losing party would have won if they had ran anyone else as their candidate.”

So perhaps we are heading into a Donald Trump presidency. The effects of this, domestically and internationally, are in the air. But one should expect regression and an increase in everyday hostility towards non-whites as a start.

This post is not about the 2016 election. It’s about the next Donald Trump-like candidate to gain a mass following in the United States. And the one after that, going forward into the indefinite future.

A common error in conventional thinking is to mix up structural and particular events. That is, is Trump emerging from a large, stable movement in society, or is he a man with a particular skill set that is not easily replicated? Sociologists like myself think the former explanation is better, while conventional Republicans would like to think the latter is true.

The debate about Trump harkens back to debates about the rise of populists and fascists in the modern world. That is, were Adolph Hitler, Idi Amin, or the Khmer Rogue a special type of evil that is so tied to their being? The unsettling reality, which explains why so many believe that, is that monstrous figures emerge from society. Any political leader or force that has existed can return in a similar form. That means that we, collectively, have the potential to both build and destroy.

Deindustrialization, outsourcing, stagnant wages, underemployment, falling unionization rates, rising healthcare and education costs. All of these, beginning around 1970 and continuing until now, are serious structural forces. They impact a wide swath of society, but for conservative populists, working class whites can be utilized to gain power. Much of the country is at least partly segregated, making racial appeals effective. A massive recession hit the bulk of society head on, and the recovery has only benefitted the rich elite. These days are the crucible of radical politics, which has reached a more complete form on the right, though the Sanders campaign and Jill Stein indicate movement towards the left as well.

Remember that Hitler attempted to seize power first in November 1923 with the Beer Haul Putsch. The Enabling Act, which gave the Nazis unchecked power, came a full decade later. But in that time, the Weimar Republic struggled with hyperinflation, economic stagnation, and political paralysis. The persistence of this particular structure is what made far-right politics possible. As long as crisis reigned, there was always another chance.

And that’s what we should expect going forward from the 2016 election. Structural issues will persist, and a Clinton presidency is not going to solve core economic problems (remember when her husband destroyed welfare and funded prisons instead?) or help communities of color to any meaningful degree. Deadlock in the Senate, demagogues in legislatures across the country. There can always be another Trump. When they come, we should not be surprised.

Privilege in activism: avoiding white monopolization

Criminal is an eclectic, short-form true crime podcast, part of the Radiotopia network of eclectic, short-form podcasts. It’s genuinely a great listen, usually dealing with stories that are local, often in a historical context. The most recent episode, “The Finger”, deals with a white Oregon man who tested the limits of free speech protection by giving every cop he sees the bird.

This episode highlights something that I think is important, if we wish to have healthy social justice activism. The question of how white people fit into Black Lives Matter as a structure is not new- the White Panther Party is proof of that. What “The Finger” represents is a deep double-standard where authorities criminalize speech for marginalized groups, but are indifferent when coming from traditionally dominant ones.

If I decided to flip off every police officer I saw, there would be some consequences. My car would get pulled over more. Small infractions like jaywalking or speeding could get me fined. A cop might even yell at me and be confrontational. And though I can’t say this for sure, I’m relatively confident that I would not suffer bodily harm for my choices. This applies to acts of protest in general. The same action has a fundamentally different meaning depending on who does it. For me, the consequences are real, but limited. For a black person, someone LGBT-identified or undocumented, people have been killed for much less than The Finger.

Recently I read a 2010 paper titled “The achievement gap and the discipline gap: two sides of the same coin?” (PDF). A section talks about how white and black students are disciplined for different acts, despite similar levels of misbehavior.

reasons for referring White students tended to be for causes that were more objectively observable (smoking, vandalism, leaving without permission, obscene language), whereas office referrals for Black students were more likely to occur in response to behaviors (loitering, disrespect, threat, excessive noise) that appear to be more subjective in nature.

The arrest of Sandra Bland was similar to this– based on subjective judgement about “attitude” and “disrespect.” Her minor traffic offense was inflated- despite white drivers doing a similar maneuver all the time. Similar actions, but vastly different consequences.

So that gets back to privilege and protest. I have space that others do not- I can get away with more provocative and militant tactics. The police are more likely to issue warnings before physical confrontation. Authority figures divulge more information around me because they don’t automatically assume I oppose them. This means people with privilege can be the most provocative, visible members of the movement. In the process, it diverts attention away from communities that are under attack by the state.

That’s unfortunate and counterproductive, because one of the most powerful aspects of Black Lives Matter is how dangerous it is to publicly confront the police as a black person in the United States. I can flip The Finger and curse out a police officer, but it doesn’t carry the same meaning.

One line of thought is weaponizing privilege. That is, people with privilege should exploit it to fight for social justice. My critique of white supremacy, the theory assumes, has special meaning because it is a critique of one’s own identity. But at the same time, it feels like things are going in the wrong direction. Privilege used for noble purposes is still fundamentally unjust, and its use cements it within society.

A counter, which after a year and a half around BLM, is that white, male allies are taking leadership positions within the movement when they weaponize privilege. I think that does happen, and I have witnessed it.

Ultimately, I feel my actions should exist within the democratic framework of a movement. That is, not unilaterally using my advantages, but rather offering it as an option should others feel it can be used in some way. White people have a tendency to make decisions personally, and then seek retroactive approval. That’s dangerous and undermines social justice movements. Marginalized groups should have their autonomy acknowledged and respected.

So I choose not to give cops The Finger, because most people cannot. It is important to respect how dangerous activism can be for certain groups of people, and not casually antagonize just because I can get away with it.

Poverty: don’t treat the symptoms, treat the disease

From Chris Rhomberg, sociology professor at Fordham University, is this editorial “We Forgot to End Poverty“. In the season of Toys for Tots, soup kitchens, and in-the-spirit-of-Christmas altruism, it’s important to figure out why the United States still has tens of millions of its people living in poverty. As he writes:

Both sides attempt to “reform” poor parents to push them into the low-wage labor market, but neither side questions the failure of that market to provide families a secure way out of poverty.

Even as unemployment edges downward, millions of Americans remain poor, exposing a basic flaw in the TANF approach: the lack of jobs that pay a living wage.

It comes down to this: there are two ways that welfare ceases to exist. Either poverty is eradicated and people no longer need state assistance, or welfare is gutted or transformed without dealing with structural problems in labor and education. The United States with the bipartisan welfare reform bills in the mid-1990s, assistance was capped and shortened, continuing to shrink in its scope and amount in the past two decades. This would make sense if welfare reform was getting rid of poverty, but it hasn’t. Escaping poverty requires jobs that don’t exist and wages that are not offered- plenty of people in poverty work full-time.

Source: http://www.nj.com/njvoices/index.ssf/2011/09/census_us_poverty_rate_broke_1.html

So policy needs to keep in sight the major social problem. If the goal is to reduce welfare, make it cheaper and more efficient, you can do that. But that requires a narrow view that ignores why welfare exists in the first place. Never lose sight of the core problem. Welfare is the symptom of an underlying illness. To erase welfare does not cure anything, merely remove a way that we are reminded of poverty’s extent and persistence.

Short laws don’t fit complex societies

Sen. McConnell next to his claimed mountain of ACA regulations. (Nicolas Kamm/AFP/Getty)

Every so often someone, somewhere proposes a constitutional amendment requiring laws to be as simple as possible, and as short as possible. It’s part of the long tradition of suspicion towards bureaucracy. Why is the budget the size of three phone books? Why can’t Congress just get down to the core of it? Tea Party groups and other small-government conservatives often take hardline stances towards making government more common sense, often by taking a howitzer to the various agencies that seem to make stuff complicated. Each Republican presidential primary is a smorgasbord of tax plans, each aimed at hacking the IRS down to a skeleton crew.

The issue is that government of any size is incredibly complex. Any large institution is- look at the metric tons of paperwork produced by a sizable corporation. Large bills like the Affordable Care Act are not the norm, but they are common. Over three hundred million people live in the United States, who then interact with everyone else on Earth. Even the simplest ideas, those common sense two page proposals, will gain weight as it is connected into the legal system.

Ultimately the task state and federal governments have is not to make their laws briefer or in much simpler language, but making the scope and purpose of a law coherent. Most of a long bill’s paperwork, or tax regulation, is the legal machine code created by a dedicated battalion of lawyers. The specifics of those U.S. code alterations are not important, rather the public needs to grasp what their practical effect will be, and what principle is guiding their use. Doing the paper stunt, where politicians show how giant a given bill can be, is just that- a stunt.

Many ideologies attempt to simplify society, but society refuses easy guidelines. It is monstrously complicated because people are different in a million tiny little ways. I expect solutions to societal problems will be complicated. They just need to be sufficiently graspable.

The young, the old: society trying to keep itself together

Two crucial processes exist in modern life. One is society trying to get the younger generation ready for present reality. The other is society is trying to help (or sometimes make) older generations adapt to present reality. Tension between these age cohorts could be considered a more complicated version of the generation gap.

All groups are insulated, as everyone self-selects their friends and company. The young and old are special. Children have yet to shoulder the full weight of the social system. Their experiences are rarely independent of their elders. Even at 24, this split for me is clear.

For instance, I was just old enough to understand what 9/11 was without relying on someone. I understood that terrible people do exist, that the places targeted had great value, and that nothing was going to be the same from then on. Those entering college this fall do not have the same base of knowledge, something that the author of Gin and Tacos explains well as a professor having to deal with 18 year olds. As he states, we are failing in some regard because the present reality depends on both the distant and recent past. We teach the Civil War from elementary school onwards. History classes rarely give the same scrutiny to the post-Vietnam era.

I have a problem with how the tension between older generations and the middle strata of American society gets portrayed in the media. Clearly this line is blurry. People of typical working age are creating the technology and ideas that move things forward, but not exclusively. Also the political ruling class trends older, with many elite players being past retirement age.

However, stories about the gap tend to focus on narrow difficulties, like how inventions like the Internet have been difficult to diffuse among those who grew up with typewriters and rotary dial telephones.

If we are honest, it goes far beyond that. The civil rights movement marches on. Even I needed some help with discussing gender identity and sexual orientation. To spread new expectations requires going into communities that have their own standards. Children are far easier to teach than 60+ individuals, and that is a clear point of conflict in “the generation gap” or something similar. There is an expectation of change, but it will never fully translate.

This bit of sociology fascinates me. Popular media tends to ascribe special qualities to a generation; The Wire collected over a century’s worth of ‘the youth are so dang selfish, the worst ever!’ A better way to view it is in the rate of social change. When culture changes rapidly, the disparity between one group of individuals and another rises. In a time like now, when change is rapid and spread across all aspects of life, the stress of holding it all together is great and it shows. What is society but many different groups, held together by a few fragile chains?

Beware the zero-sum worldview

Human nature is complex. Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control.
                                                                Steven Pinker

A little more than a year ago I wrote a short post about viewing life as transformative as opposed to transactional. Those who embrace transformation use experience and social interaction to build something new. Transactional personalities focus on maintaining the present.

I came across this contrast in terms of personal worldview and the potential for self-improvement. Its main context is business, with the idea that traditional leadership is transactional while new, better leadership is transformative. However, since that original post I’ve come to see these two ways of interacting with the larger world as important. Not because I think it divides people into good or bad; instead, it helps show the difference between static and dynamic personalities.

If you think of a transactional individual as viewing social life in the way an accountant views her ledger, all movement and apparent growth is an illusion. Give money to a friend, and they must always pay it back. Suffer an insult or damage, it must be compensated for by the other party. In the end, it all zeros out.

This leads to my main point: the biggest and most negative creation of a petty or tit-for-tat worldview is revenge.

Revenge (n.) – Any form of personal retaliatory action against an individual, institution, or group for some perceived harm or injustice. (source)

Revenge is a counter. If it isn’t in response to some prior wrong, it’s aggression. Historically, and persisting in some societies, blood feuds are an endless series of retaliations. One family or clan suffers an initial wrong, and a long line of kin suffer the reverberating consequences. In these feuds, there is no zeroing out. The ledger can never be perfectly balanced, because those killed and injured have a value that can never be fully replaced or countered.

The split between transformation and transaction may inform policy debates like capital punishment. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth is one of the oldest written legal codes, and it sees the ultimate justice as being a retaliation. Though this appeals to many, some view great crimes as a chance to grow and change. To learn empathy and love for our enemies is to transform ourselves and the world. There is no learning in revenge, it is a base, short-term solution to a problem that may persist long after the crime committed, the sentence paid.