The Road to Trump
In his otherwise thoughtful review of Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal and Steve Fraser’s The Limousine Liberal [March 20], Matt Stoller charges that “Robert Reich spent much of his career peddling many of these meritocratic premises and working out the justifications for why this new upper class deserved its increased share of the national wealth.”
Rubbish. Anyone who has read my books and articles over the last 40 years would see that I’ve argued the opposite. Stoller claims that in my 1991 book, The Work of Nations, I saw as a “cause for celebration” the secession of the successful. To the contrary, as I wrote in that book, “the underlying question concerns the future of American society as distinct from the American economy, and the fate of the majority of Americans who are losing out in global competition. The answer will depend on whether there is still enough concern about American society to elicit sacrifices from all of us—especially from the most advantaged and successful of us—to help the majority regain the ground it has lost and fully participate in the new global economy.”
Unfortunately, as we’ve witnessed over the last quarter-century, America’s most advantaged and successful have in effect chosen not to sacrifice in order to help the majority regain ground. And that tacit decision has helped deliver us to Donald Trump.
Robert B. Reich
Matt Stoller Replies
I am not disputing that Robert Reich has always cared about inequality. What I wrote, which jibes with Thomas Frank’s critique, is that the framework that Reich proposed in the 1990s was in part responsible for the economic and political inequality Americans face today.
Reich’s ideas stood in sharp contrast with the Democratic Party’s traditional focus on fighting concentrated power. They were simply a variant of how Chicago School libertarians saw political economy, packaged in liberal corporatist clothing and with some more welfare and infrastructure spending attached. In fact, Reich learned antitrust from key conservative antitrust guru Robert Bork, first as Bork’s student at Yale and then as his assistant for two years in the solicitor general’s office.
Reich claimed, in books like The Work of Nations, that Americans no longer need worry about the political power of the corporation or the nation-state. For every job lost to automation, he argued in 1991, “three new jobs open for aerobics instructors.” He called the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 “well-intentioned legislation” with a “practical effect precisely the opposite of that intended.” One of his colleagues, Susan Tolchin, pointed out in 1992 that his writing “played right into the laissez-faire theories of the Reagan-Bush administration.”
Reich’s writing implied that we no longer had to use antitrust or trade law to protect American citizens, and it helped his boss, Bill Clinton, sell a long list of libertarian policies in the 1990s. Today, the result of overlooking power is clear: massive control over society by a new set of aristocrats. Reich partly admitted his error in 2015, and that is greatly to his credit. But his change of heart is recent. In 2005, he keynoted an outsourcing convention designed to encourage senior corporate executives to restructure their labor relationships. This was at the key inflection point when executives were shifting American jobs to China and beginning to create the populist anger that flowered in 2016. It’s time for Reich to more completely acknowledge how profoundly his writings in the 1990s, and Bill Clinton’s internalization of this thinking, paved the way for Donald Trump.
Laila Lalami’s “Who Belongs in America?” [March 20] is a fine article, and its last paragraph in particular deserves attention. Perhaps The Nation will see fit to expand upon it. “Get out of my country!”—this is exactly what Trump and many of his people and followers want. His speech to the joint session of Congress a few weeks ago could not have made this more obvious: He continually referred to America as “ow-er coun-try,” with a strong emphasis on the first syllable of each word—a rhetorical as well as oratorical ugliness that the press seemed to ignore. To me, the meaning was clear, and intended to appeal to his view of “the desirable American,” presumably those who support him. This is indeed an invitation to the rest of us to “get out and stay out.” This surely deserves more attention.
The People’s News
In addition to Mark Hertsgaard’s well-formulated media prescriptions [“How to Fight Fox and Friends,” March 20], what we need is an outlet that broadcasts the voices of ordinary people, rather than those of the professional pundits, journalists, politicians, and academics who currently predominate. If blue-collar whites who have been duped by Trump’s right-wing “populism” were to see people who looked and talked like them channeling progressive populist outrage, expressing solidarity with poor and working-class people of color, and, in general, just telling it like it is, this would provide an effective counter to Trumpist hate and fearmongering and to corporate Democratic neoliberalism. I hope that the proposed Heartland News and other new outlets will put real people front and center, un-airbrushed and unfiltered.
Reading Michael T. Klare’s “Billionaires vs. Bombardiers” [March 13], as well as many other articles pointing to the chaos caused by the Trump administration, I was reminded of Winston Churchill’s reported characterization of John Foster Dulles as a bull who carried his own china shop around with him. Certainly this applies to Trump as well.
The Past as Prologue?
Thanks for Richard Evans’s review of Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent, 1889–1839 [March 20]. It nicely highlights the scary parallels between Hitler and Trump—and between the Germany of the early 1930s and the United States of the last couple of years.
silver spring, m.d.
Mark Hertsgaard and Douglas Grant’s “How Lies Spread” [March 20] stated that Republican Congressman Mike Castle was voted out of office in 2010. In fact, Castle lost the primary in a special election that year.