Analysis

Trump’s Success Greased, in Part, by Previous Presidents

Americans on left and right were broken into believing democracy equals plutocracy – by Obama, Bushes and Clintons

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) greets President-elect Donald Trump at inauguration ceremonies swearing in Trump as president on the West front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2017.
© Carlos Barria / Reuters/REU

If you take an interest in developments in the biggest economy in the world, you probably formed an opinion on Donald Trump’s first 100 days in the White House. If you’re among his supporters, you may well think he’s a fantastic president. If you loathe him, you feel these 100 days proved you right: He’s a bad joke. Or a scary one.

Surf the internet for articles on the real estate magnate’s first 100 days and you’ll find something suitable to your political bent. Here’s my take, and it will probably annoy Trump supporters and Obama supporters alike.

An unusual way to approach the question is to ask what Obama did in his first 100 days, an interesting question not least because he was so young, starting his presidential stint at 47 and ending it at 56, but also because Trump campaigned on a series of promises, their common denominator being a vow to reverse Obama’s policy: He would cancel Obamacare and financial regulation, cancel trade agreements, and dramatically change U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

So what did Obama achieve in his first 100 days (while Trump in his own first 100 failed to cancel Obamacare, did manage to begin financial deregulation, and appointed climate change-deniers to regulate environmental issues)?

Well, more or less, nothing. That nothing is no coincidence. As his advisers told the New York Times, that nothing was planned, strategic. In his first public speech, at the University of Chicago last week, Obama was eloquent, funny and interesting as always, but mainly he said nothing. A strategic nothing.

What did Obama do during the last three months? A glance at the Instagram account of Richard Branson shows a lot of pictures of the two of them water-skiing and having fun on the billionaire’s private island. Obama has spent a lot of this time on Polynesian islands, on the yacht of another billionaire friend, David Geffen, and with other billionaires.

Obama and Trump at the swearing in of the 45th U.S. president, January 20, 2017.
© Carlos Barria / Reuters/REU

Of course, Obama is a private person, and after eight years at the presidential helm, he deserves to have a blast. Why are we poking into his private business anyway?

Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Obama is a huge symbol. Despite leaving the White House, he remains and will remain a public personality, until death. He isn’t 80, he has no grandchildren, and tens of millions of Americans who admired him still do: the first black president of the United States.

Obama’s choice to spend most of his time so far with billionaires is perfectly legitimate, because it reflects accepted norms in the U.S. on the right, left and in the center, too: politicians and billionaires belong to the same social group.

Having settled our feathers and realized that it’s perfectly jake, reasonable, logical and in fact expected that Obama spend the rest of his days in the company of billionaires, we can ask sociologists, psychologists and even the average reader of this column what they think any of us would do when we spend time with a certain group of people.

The answer is obvious. Gradually, we come to see the world through their glasses.

In other words, and this will infuriate supporters of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, it would be a mistake to view the rise of Trump to the presidency of the U.S. as an abrupt turn in the path the nation has been treading.

There are things that distinguish Obama and Trump, important things, but the two men, and Hillary Clinton, also have things in common. They are all members of the top 0.1% in America. No, actually, the top 0.01%.

How did Obama get there? Pretty fast. First of all, a lot of water has flowed down the Chicago River since Obama was a social activist in the city. Neighbors on Greenwood Street, Hyde Park in Chicago’s south, where he still has a house guarded 24 hours a day, haven’t seen him much in the last decade.

Since Obama left Harvard, where he studied law, he has taken a clear course, spending very little time with low-, middle- and even high-class Americans, and more and more time among the mega-rich. In his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” which he wrote in 2006, he describes that immediately after he started flying regularly on private jets to raise money from West Coast billionaires, he realized that it was easy to get used to this comfort.

AP

The United States is a plutocracy, or an oligarchy. That quality has become innate to most of its formal and informal democratic institutions, and runs deeper than ever before in the past 100 years. American liberals like to blame the nation’s path to plutocracy on the rise of Republicans in the 1970s and 1980s (Reagan and Bush the father). But it’s only because it’s convenient for them. Oligarchic norms have struck deep roots in the Democratic Party, and the greedy couple Hillary and Bill Clinton, who for almost 20 years have soaked almost every interest group and corporate and giant in the U.S., seem to be the record-holders in mixing private and public, politics, philanthropy, oligarchs, billionaires, dictators, Third World and First World.

Obama was and remains much more elegant than the Clintons in his personal conduct. He didn’t run around like Bill with his fly down, and passed eight years in the White House without a single personal scandal. We must not underestimate that.

But at the very beginning of his term, Obama was given the greatest opportunity ever received by a progressive president.

Wall Street was on its knees after the worst financial crisis since 1929. The entire American people were him, right, left, and center. It was an opportunity to stop the plutocracy in its tracks.

And what did Obama do? Not much. He appointed Wall Street people to key positions, appointed attorney generals who pressed no charges, he put no bankers or CEOs in jail, and continued to orate about inequality, as 90 percent of the economic growth flowed into the pockets of the upper 10 percent.

Real estate prices in prime areas of Washington shot up in recent years despite the crisis, including because the sheer number of lobbyists and brokers between big money and government continued to grow exponentially throughout Obama’s term.

No, don’t look for it in the official statistics. Those actually point to a sharp decline in the number of lobbyists in the U.S. over the past decade. A deeper look, however, reveals the ruse. In 2006, there was a “reform” regarding the proper disclosure of lobbyists, after Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff was convicted of fraud and sent to prison. After his release, he published a book explaining to Americans what lobbyists really do.

They do not convey information and enrich the knowledge of congressional members, he wrote. Mainly, they bribe them, through perfectly legal methods. Washington then enacted disclosure rules for lobbyist activity, ruling, among other things, that a lobbyist is someone who is occupied with lobbying at least 20 percent of his time.

What did lobbyists do? They stopped registering as lobbyists and started calling themselves strategic advisers, public relations agents or just consultants. What did they actually do? What lobbyists do: trade in information, power, perks and donations, connecting between big money, politicians, regulators and journalists.

Obama, just like Trump, talked a lot about his intention of fighting this during his 2007 campaign. And what did he do? Nothing?

CARLOS BARRIA/REUTERS

Nothing would be a compliment. In 2010, at the height of Obama’s administration, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the famous Citizens United ruling, allowing rich benefactors to transfer unlimited sums for political purposes through instruments called Super PACs. The amount of money in American politics grew during Obama’s eight years to record levels.

Obama’s supporters will leap up and argue that the conservative Supreme Court judges were responsible for the plutocratic ruling. Obama even attacked it with unusual ferocity. But not really: American judges, like most judges everywhere, are influenced by public sentiment. The Obama era is an era of big money norms in politics no less – perhaps more – than the Bush Jr. era was.

If Obama spends most of his time rubbing shoulders with American oligarchs, places their people in key positions, names a billionaire who gave him money to serve as secretary of trade and industry, why shouldn’t the Supreme Court figure that heaps of money given by billionaires to politicians are part and parcel of freedom of expression?

Upon his return from the Polynesian islands, Obama jumped right onto Bill and Hillary Clinton’s wagon, announcing he had accepted the request of the investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald to speak at their health conference. The price? Market rates, $400,000 for the speech.

That venue for Obama’s first speech is poignantly ironic. The British-American economist and Nobel laureate Prof. Angus Deaton, who has been researching the decline in American longevity, describes the U.S. healthcare system before and after Obamacare as a giant rent-seeking machine. It maneuvers the legislators to create systems of laws and regulations that increase their profits. Obama deserves credit for expanding coverage to tens of millions of Americans, but the way he chose to do it was through capitulation before most of the interest groups in healthcare: drug and medical equipment companies, insurers, hospitals, medical unions – which is why the American healthcare system remains hideously expensive, corrupt and unequal.

Most of the shares of the companies involved in the corrupt American healthcare system have been galloping since the advent of Obamacare, and it is only natural for the industry’s insiders to be particularly happy to hear him speak at Cantor Fitzgerald. En route, Obama is sending a message to young Americans aspiring to a career in politics, or to be social leaders: This is the road to the big money. The $65-million advances Michelle and I are getting on the books we write isn’t enough. One has to squeeze Wall Street for the maximum, even if the real cost of the money I expect to receive from speeches there is the loss of much of my legitimacy as a public figure entitled to critique the ills of the American economy in general, and Wall Street in particular.

All this brings us to the billionaire who decided it wasn’t enough for him to finance presidents; he wanted to be president himself.

Trump is not some sharp deviation from the road the U.S. has been taking. He’s an almost natural part of American norms and ideas.

If you ask how tens of millions of Americans, some of whom earn the minimum wage, the cannon fodder of corrupt American capitalism, decided that a billionaire who made most of his money in real estate and casinos – which are almost always based on political ties – will help them; if you wonder what’s going on in the minds of people who are convinced that what they need is a billionaire in the White House who spent most of his career skinning his investors, suppliers and customers – start thinking about the last 30 years in the White House, under Obama, Clinton, and both Bushes, father and son.

Americans were brainwashed into thinking that the solutions to most economic and social problems are their billionaires. It didn’t seem to occur to most of them that many of these billionaires became billionaires because the rules of the game and the laws in the U.S. were written especially for billionaires, big business and other people connected to political systems.

Thus edified, we can address Trump’s first 100 days in office. Trump has no problem declaring the cancellation of regulation and supervision over financial systems less than 10 years after the wracking financial crisis of 2008. He has no problem dismantling environmental regulation. He has no problem declaring gigantic tax cuts for the rich after vowing to care for the poor. And he has no problem naming billionaires, lobbyists and multimillionaires to all the key posts in the cabinet, regulatory agencies and the White House. Americans on the left and right have long since been broken into thinking that this is how democracy works – by Obama, the Bushes and the Clintons.

Naturally, Trump offers some innovations. His predecessors lied from time to time, cut corners, made silly promises. He has no restraints in any of these areas: He lies without blinking, completely ignores his previous promises, and when he offends, he does it bigly.

Trump’s style and his relationship with the facts are astonishing. His economic adviser declared last week that Trump is the most transparent president in the history of the United States and that president has zero intention of releasing his tax returns. The utter and absolute contradiction in that single sentence does not bother Trump, his advisers or his voters in the slightest, nor are they moved by the fact that he promised while campaigning to release those documents.

His refusal to publish his tax returns is a new low in America’s plutocratic path. A billionaire with conflicts of interest worth billions in his domestic and international business, who makes decisions every day that affect his private business, his bankers’ business and that of his partners and existing and potential clients, refuses to sell his businesses, refuses to disclose their financial reports, and now he’s sitting in the White House. His children, who run his business empire, are his closest and most influential advisers, sitting in on all important discussions. Trump is thoroughly destroying any semblance of integrity and respect for democratic institutions, not to mention recognition of the problem of conflicts of interest: America is a business, he’s taken it over, he has a majority on the board, and he believes that to be legitimate.

It’s scary. Despite the moaning by New York Times columnists and the whimpering on CNN, the speed with which Trump’s imperial, corrupt, anti-democratic conduct became fully normalized is amazing.

Every weekend Trump drags decision-makers, former presidents, ambassadors and business buddies to his golf courses in Palm Beach, burning up unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money for security. At his Mar-a-Lago club, he mixes money, regulation, billionaires, friends, clients, international relations – all brazenly in front of the cameras.

Most Americans think this is how democracy looks. Half of them don’t like his views on women and immigrants, but the plutocratic and oligarchic trappings of the United States – a country run by Wall Street’s elite – they seem to take for granted.

Articles in the British magazine The Economist are unsigned. They are a sort of group effort by dozens of reporters and editors. Last month I met an editor there who spent three years in New York covering the American economy, following four years in India.

The Economist’s writers have unmatched access to the halls of global political and economic power. I asked him how he describes the American model. He thought for a few seconds, then answered that India is considered to be the biggest democracy in the world, and the most corrupt, by international standards of corruption. After three years in the United States, he said, he decided the U.S. is more corrupt than India. The only difference is that the corruption is institutional and legal.

And that is why a man like Trump, a property developer and reality TV star, can become president of the United States and make a mockery of its every custom, tradition and institution. The only question is whether American democracy will start to develop antibodies to Trumpism, and open its mind to new ideas and norms, which it hasn’t done for decades; or whether it will continue to trudge down the current road, until disaster strikes.