Forecasting is a pastime for fools, so we at TheMarker stopped indulging in that futility a decade ago. Just as well. As 2015 ended, who would have predicted Donald Trump? A Brexit? Yet another year of Israeli real estate prices scraping the stratosphere? Still, we can always try to make sense of the year that was.
Trump as punishment
2016 was the year of the Donald. Many insist on seeing Trumpism as a one-off, an all but unimaginable aberration from common sense, but Trump is bigger and more real than the people horrified by him will admit.
Trump isn’t just richer and more megalomaniacal, racist and mendacious than the norm in politics. Trump is a spit in the face of the global liberal agenda. Like the Brexit, Trump is the outcome of millions of people in the West screaming against the establishment and the elites. They have been ignored and won’t take it anymore.
Jill Abramson, former editor in chief of The New York Times, was confident that Hillary Clinton would make history – it was obvious. In fact, most of the media and intellectuals in America assumed the same.
But the other day, writing in The Guardian, Abramson changed her tone, suddenly remembering that in 1991, when she was a young reporter covering Bill Clinton’s campaign for president, she discerned that he loved money and rich people most of all.
“I saw how he loved schmoozing with rich people, how his body language literally changed as he mixed with the ultra-rich,” she wrote. Abramson now accuses the Clintons of being responsible for the rise of Trump and destroying the Democratic Party by turning it over to donors.
It’s human to seek images larger than life and ascribe our successes and failures to them, but the Clintons aren’t much different than Tony Blair or the political and liberal economic elites of recent decades.
Most people in the liberal economic establishment focused on identity politics and served, by deed or omission, the needs of giant companies and monopolies. They could remain kosher on issues of race, religion and gender, but they ignored the mounting anger of the majority that felt the liberal slogans about freedom, rights, equality of opportunity and prosperity were for other people.
It turned out that the middle class of conservative right-wing people had long believed that the government was screwing them. Meanwhile, the middle class of liberals thought they were being screwed by big business.
Whether screwed by government or big business, it’s really the same story: Democratic institutions weren’t working for the people but for somebody else.
We didn’t need Trump’s victory to understand the anger and alienation between the public and the elites. Bernie Sanders’ roaring popularity was the clearest canary in the coal mine, but the establishment ignored it.
Why Clinton? Because it was her turn? Because she was a known brand? Because she and her husband have been part of the establishment for 30 years? Because big business stood behind her?
It seems so, and that’s the sin for which Trump is the punishment. The man who vowed to drain the swamp and fight interest groups in Washington has made patently clear that those were just more of his lies.
Barack Obama did try to drain the swamp but realized he’d drown in it first; Trump doesn’t even intend to try. Most of his cabinet picks are swamp denizens. The people seem to think that enormously rich people are more effective, that they deliver, and maybe there’s truth in that, but politics isn’t like running a business.
But the real problem with the plutocrats who influenced the Obama administration from the outside and will be influencing Trump from the inside is that they have an alternative view of government’s role.
Most of the very rich figure that they earned it via their tremendous personal skills, that they are living proof that anybody can do it, and that their existence proves that equal opportunity is alive and kicking. It isn’t that the system’s broken, it’s that everyone else is lazy.
Trump the muse?
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been telling his ministers and cronies that they should be learning from Trump’s example. The first lesson: Greatly expand appointments to “positions of trust” – a euphemism for political appointments.
Actually, Bibi predates Trump in so many ways. Netanyahu launched a strategy of attacking the press right after the 2015 election. (Though Trump took it further, using Twitter to bash the media, arguing that all criticism of him serves the establishment.)
Netanyahu was also first at something else; in his case it was a reversal of policy. He abandoned efforts to increase competition in the Israeli economy and turned economic policy into his own personal policy. His associates get protection from competition – Yitzhak Tshuva and the gas monopoly, Shaul Elovitch and Bezeq telecommunications group – while competition is used to threaten people not on his side.
Trump isn’t even in the White House yet but seems to be racing in that direction. Corporate America is realizing that if Trump thinks somebody’s against him, the attack will start with a tweet that slashes billions from their companies’ values.
“Crony capitalism” isn’t enough to describe this. It isn’t just big money buying politicians, it’s the president or prime minister signaling that he only does deals with his favorites. Transparent, equitable laws and regulation determine nothing; everything is ad hoc.
Take me to your strong leader
Many followers of Trump and Netanyahu think their man will improve the lot of the middle class. They figure all that’s needed is a strong leader who knows how to make deals and protect the state’s interests.
Sounds gripping, and maybe in the short run, or in the margins, there could be results. But it will fail in the long run. Prosperity ultimately depends on the quality and integrity of the political and economic leaders. Without quality government there can be no quality services. Without quality regulation, a fair business scene can’t flourish.
Libertarian fantasies about letting the “free market” or “animal spirits” work their wonders are inane because every deal or initiative lies on the infrastructure laid down by the state – laws, regulations, public services and so on.
A “free market” is all too often a place where the rules of the game serve the strong, the rich, the cronies.
Time to look in the mirror
The year 2016 really was a terrible one. We’re entering a new era with new rules of the game, with politicians who want to break the rules in order to erode democracy’s institutions under the guise of “leading.”
This is where great danger lies. In the United States and Israel, and in fact in most of the developed world, democracy faces a test. The strength of democratic institutions faces a test. The main thing preventing their collapse is not the structure of government, the checks and balances and the separation of powers, but the informal institutions – culture, values, norms and habits.
It’s easy enough to forecast negative scenarios, some of them terrifying. But that isn’t useful right now. We don’t need to threaten the powers of liberalism with World War III and the rise of autocracies and kleptocracies.
If anything, this is a time for optimism – that the terrible slap in the face of liberals this year will sober them up and lead to change for the better. Liberal ideas are still the most relevant and the most promising; we just need to make sure they serve a much larger part of the population.
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