I have to admit to being alternately puzzled and depressed that I seemed to be the only libertarian with a major public platform to take a nuanced view of Donald Trump. After all, many of his foreign policy positions echo the libertarian critique of our interventionist foreign policy – and his enemies are, in large part, our enemies. However, with the publication of David Stockman’s Trumped!: A Nation on the Brink of Ruin, and How to Bring It Back, I see that I am not alone.
Stockman’s thesis is that Trump is essentially right about the decline of American greatness, that the system is rigged, and that a ruthlessly self-centered elite has prospered at the expense of the rest of us. The American economy, and indeed our society, has been hideously deformed by the monetary policies of the Federal Reserve and our spendthrift political class:
“This epic deformation has delivered historically unprecedented setbacks to the bottom 90% of American households. They have seen their real wealth and living standards steadily deteriorate for several decades now, even as vast financial windfalls have accrued to the elite at the very top.”
“In fact, during the last 30 years, the real net worth of the bottom 90% has not increased at all. At the same time, the top 1% has experienced a 300% gain while the real wealth of the Forbes 400 has risen by 1000%.
“That’s not old-fashioned capitalism at work; it’s the fruit of a perverted regime of printing press money and debt-fueled faux prosperity that has been foisted on the nation by the bipartisan ruling elites.”
Trump, says Stockman, is right about the symptoms, but he’s wrong about the disease. It’s not the monetary machinations of China, or “free trade” that’s the root of the problem, it’s “thirty years of madcap money-printing at the Fed” and “the $50 trillion of new public and private debt generated by that monetary eruption.” Trade deals and immigration are just surface phenomena: the underlying cause is “bad money and towering debts.”
And yet Trump’s jeremiads aimed at the elites are right on target:
“That much, at least, Donald Trump has right. Throwing out the careerists, pettifoggers, hypocrites, ideologues, racketeers, power seekers and snobs who have brought about the current ruin is at least a start in the right direction.”
And on the foreign front, too, in Stockman’s view Trump, for all his demagoguery, is preferable to “the arrogant and insular group-think of the Imperial City.” Yes, Trump is “often far too bellicose. But he has pinned the tail where it belongs. That is, on the imperial notion that America is the indispensable savior-nation and policeman of the world.”
While the colorful real estate magnate comes in for some fairly harsh criticism, Stockman opens his book with this evaluation of the man and the movement he spawned:
“So if the ideals of world peace, capitalist prosperity and constitutional liberty are to survive at all, it’s up to The Donald.
“Admittedly, that seems like cold comfort. There is much that is dark, disturbing, and authoritarian about Trump’s personality and candidacy.
“But a nation that has been Trumped is a people coming back to life. Americans don’t want to take it anymore. Instead, they want heir existing rulers to take a permanent hike.
“That’s a damn good start, and it is the outlaw campaign of Donald J. Trump that ha finally lit the flame of rebellion.”
In a world where we demand clean-cut scenarios, Good vs. Evil, especially in our politics, the truth is that a “rank demagogue” – as Stockman describes him – may just be the key to our liberation. Sure, he’s full of “baloney, bombast, brimstone, and bile,” but he’s succeeded in not only diagnosing the problem but also pointing to the perpetrators, albeit in general terms. Stockman, for his part, gets specific.
Trump keeps repeating that “We aren’t winning anymore,” and this is really the key to his rise, which Stockman rightly says “is striking a deep nerve on Main Street.” And as the author shows at great length in this book, the real incomes of average Americans – as opposed to, say, Warren Buffett – are shrinking. The losers, in short, are you and me: the winners are “Washington, Wall Street, and the bi-coastal elites” who “prosper from a toxic brew of finance, debt, and politics.”
While I don’t usually touch on economic issues in this column, one of the main features of this book – and what I found most educational – is that it answers the oft-asked question: How did Trump manage to defy all predictions, beat the elites, and get to where he is today? Stockman shows how the system is indeed very much rigged in favor of the rich, and his analysis of how this came to be is a real eye-opener. And he does it in a way that draws a very clear line of demarcation between the Good Guys – ordinary Americans – and the Bad Guys, i.e. “the military/industrial/surveillance complex, the health and education cartels … the tax loophole lobbies, the black and green energy subsidy mills and endless like and similar K-Street racketeers.”
Of particular interest is his account of how economic metrics have been perverted and outright faked in order to give us the illusion that all is well. Because all isn’t well: far from it. As Stockman puts it:
“Most of America’s vast flyover zone has been left behind. When adjusted to an honest measure of inflation we call the ‘Flyover CPI’ [Consumer Price Index], real hourly wages are lower than they were in 1985, and real median household income is down 21% from year 2000 levels.”
Those are some pretty astonishing statistics, but it gets worse: when juxtaposed next to the obscene fortunes being made by crony capitalists and the beneficiaries of the Fed-fueled stock market and High Finance, the portrait Stockman draws of 21st century America resembles nothing so much as the France of the Sun King and Marie Antoinette – right before the storming of the Bastille.
A lot of economic topics are covered, in great detail, and I won’t try to summarize them all here. What is of special interest to my readers, however, is how he ties this all in to Trump’s – and his own – critique of our globalist foreign policy.
The Great Bubble generated by the Federal Reserve that screwed “flyover country” and enriched the One Percent poured billions into the War Party’s coffers. “Money” created out of thin air and mountainous debt financed the greatest military buildup in history, one that started under Ronald Reagan and undermined the conservative crusade to cut back the federal Leviathan. And the politics of this process brought about our ruin.
The budget gridlock and runaway deficit spending is made possible, says Stockman, by a pact between the two wings of the Uniparty in Washington: the “liberal” wing pushes for “social spending” while the “conservative wing” insists on unnecessary military spending – and a “compromise” is reached where both get what they want, and the taxpayers be damned.
Runaway military spending was institutionalized and made permanent under Reagan, who proposed a military budget that was formerly around $140 billion and increased to a proposed $350 billion. While this number was slightly reined in, the key development during the Reagan years is aptly described by Stockman:
“To wit, an invincible coalition of military hawks, pork barrel politicians and social-welfare liberals found a modus vivendi that kept the welfare state virtually intact, while defense spending climbed steadily higher.”
Although the alleged justification for the military buildup was an alleged first-strike threat posed by the Soviets, the American counterweight never materialized – because there was no such threat to begin with. What the money was spent on instead was a massive buildup of conventional forces: a vast expansion of the Navy, the M-1 tank program, and an array of weaponry and equipment designed for the projection of conventional forces on a global scale. Meanwhile, the Soviet empire withered on the vine, and their shrunken military drew back – while ours was readied for the post-cold war advance to the very gates of Moscow, and throughout the Middle East.
That the Reagan buildup occurred before the fall of the Berlin Wall was a godsend to the War Party: as Stockman points out, “No Congress would have voted for the massive new conventional force procurements that enabled these pointless interventions. Once the Soviet Union was no more, even the porkers of Capitol Hill would have seen that they had nothing to do with the security of the citizens” of the US.
But the addictive drug of Keynesian militarism had already been injected into the body politic:
“Once the tanks-, ship-, and aircraft production lines had been opened in congressional districts across the land, it was an altogether different political dynamic. The congressman from the Lima, Ohio M1 tank line, for example, was more than eager to repudiate John Quincy Adams’ injunction about not search the earth for monsters to destroy; to get more tanks and jobs at home, he needs to find more monsters abroad.”
And find them he did: the Iraqis, the Taliban, ISIS, and now the Russians. The corporate media, acting in tandem with the military-industrial-congressional complex, readily churns out rationales for military intervention like clockwork: one “menace” fades, while another is waiting in the wings. And the coffers of the War Party, and the political class, are filled, their status as “experts” and “leaders” is enhanced, and the debt-fueled funny-money machine chugs along at full speed, enriching the already-wealthy and cleaning out the savings of the lower and middle classes. Meanwhile, the rest become wards of the State – and many wind up as cannon fodder, fighting Imperial Washington’s wars as a way out of the dead end of dying communities and dysfunctional lives.
Here is where Trump comes in: he appeals to these people, the forgotten victims of the Bubble Economy, the working class that no longer works, the pawns who fight our wars and die on foreign battlefields. They flock to his rallies in the tens of thousands, they shout their defiance of the elites who despise The Donald – and them.
Trump’s economic message – that the America of their fathers and grandfathers can be restored, that this country can once again become the industrial powerhouse of the world, that the jobs can be brought back from wherever they have gone – appeals to those who have almost forgotten how to hope. And his foreign policy slogan, “America First,” also has the same visceral attraction: when Trump wonders why we’re making “bad deals,” such as the NATO deal that requires us to pay for the defense of a continent perfectly capable (albeit unwilling) to pay for itself, his supporters shout their approval. When Trump asks “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get along with the Russians?” they cheer – because no Russian ever looked down on them, or fired them, or called them “deplorables.” When Trump avers that it would be smart to let the Russians take care of ISIS in Syria, and that we have no business “rescuing” Aleppo, they agree wholeheartedly – because, heck, why aren’t we rescuing Americans from the hopelessness and poverty so many have fallen into?
Yes, Stockman is critical of Trump, but unlike all too many ostensible libertarians, he doesn’t sneer at the Trump supporters, because he understands the economic and social roots of their pain, he gets Trump’s appeal – and offers a fully libertarian analysis and program for reform.
There is much more to this book than I can cover in a single column. It is not only an analysis of the single most interesting – and important – political phenomenon of recent times, it is also a systematic overview of the world we are living in today – and a programmatic document that offers solutions. There have been so many articles and books on Trump and Trumpism that I’ve long since lost count: this is the single best treatment of its subject that I have seen. You can order it here – and I’d recommend that you do so before the first edition sells out completely.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.