This is an excellent, well articulated, and deeply important article. - Molly
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
By Rajan Menon
Donald Trump’s supporters believe that his election will end business as usual in Washington. The self-glorifying Trump agrees and indeed his has, so far, been the most unorthodox presidency of our era, if not any era. It’s a chaotic and tweet-driven administration that makes headlines daily thanks to scandals, acts of stunning incompetence, rants, accusations, wild claims, and conspiracy theories. On one crucial issue, however, Trump has been a complete conformist. Despite the headline-grabbing uproar over Muslim bans and the like, his stance on national security couldn’t be more recognizable. His list of major threats -- terrorism, Iran, North Korea, and China -- features the usual suspects that Republicans, Democrats, and the foreign policy establishment have long deemed dangerous.
Trump’s conception of security not only doesn’t break the mold of recent administrations, it’s a remarkably fine fit for it. That’s because his focus is on protecting Americans from foreign groups or governments that could threaten us or destroy physical objects (buildings, bridges, and the like) in the homeland. In doing so, he, like his predecessors, steers clear of a definition of “security” that would include the workaday difficulties that actually make Americans insecure. These include poverty, joblessness or underemployment, wages too meager to enable even full-time workers to make ends meet, and a wealth-based public school system that hampers the economic and professional prospects, as well as futures, of startling numbers of American children. To this list must be added the radical dangers climate change poses to the health and safety of future citizens.
Trump may present himself as a maverick, but on security he never wavers from an all-too-familiar externally focused and militarized narrative.
Barack Obama wrote a bestselling book titled The Audacity of Hope. Perhaps Donald Trump should write one titled The Audacity of Wealth. During the presidential campaign of 2016 he morphed unashamedly from plutocrat to populist, assuring millions of people struggling with unemployment, debt, and inadequate incomes that he would solve their problems. The shtick worked. Many Americans believed him. Fifty-two percent of voters who did not have a college degree chose him. Among whites with that same educational profile, he did even better, winning 67% of their votes.
Unemployment, underemployment, stagnant wages, and the outsourcing of production (and so jobs) have hit those who lack a college degree especially hard. Yet many of them were convinced by Trump’s populist message. It made no difference that he belonged to the wealthiest 0.00004% of Americans, if his net worth is the widely reported $3.5 billion, and the top 0.00002% if, as he claims, it’s actually $10 billion.
Former Louisiana Governor Huey Long, perhaps the country’s best-known populist historically speaking, was born and raised in Winn Parish, a poor part of Louisiana. In the 1930s, his origins and his far-reaching ideas for redistributing wealth gave him credibility. By contrast, Trump wasn't cut from humble cloth; nor in his present reincarnation has he even claimed to stand for the reallocation of wealth (except possibly to his wealthy compatriots). His father, Fred Trump, was a multimillionaire who, at the time of his death in 1999, had a net worth of $250 million, which was divided among his four surviving children. The proportional allocations are not publicly known, though it’s safe to assume that Donald did well. He also got his start in business -- and it wasn’t even an impressive one -- thanks to lavish help from Fred to the tune of millions of dollars. When he subsequently hit rough patches, Dad’s connections and loan guarantees helped set things right.
A man who himself benefited handsomely from globalization, outsourcing, and a designed-for-the-wealthy tax code nonetheless managed to convince coal miners in West Virginia and workers in Ohio that all of these were terrible things that enriched a "financial elite" that had made itself wealthy at the expense of American workers and that electing him would end the swindle.
He also persuaded millions of voters that foreign enemies were the biggest threat to their security and that he’d crush them by “rebuilding” America’s military machine. Worried about ISIS? Don’t be. Trump would “bomb the shit out of them.” Concerned about the nuclear arms race? Not to worry. “We’ll outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
Yet few if any Americans lie awake at night fearing invasion by another country or the outbreak of nuclear war. Fifteen years after 9/11, terrorism still ranks high on the American list of concerns (especially, the polls tell us, among Republicans). But that danger is not nearly as dire as Trump and the U.S. national security state insist it is. A litany of statistics shows that deaths from car crashes leave death-by-terrorist in the dust, while since 2002 even bee, hornet, and wasp stings have killed more Americans annually in the United States than “Islamic terrorists.”
Since 9/11, only 95 Americans -- 95 too many, let it be said -- have been killed in terrorist attacks in the U.S. Not one of the perpetrators was a tourist or someone on another type of temporary visa, and several were non-Muslims. Nor were any of them refugees, or connected to any of the countries in Trump's two Muslim bans. Indeed, as the journalist Nick Gillespie notes, since the adoption of the 1980 Refugee Act no refugee has been involved in a terrorist attack that killed Americans.
Still, Trump’s hyperbole has persuaded many in this country that terrorism poses a major, imminent threat to them and that measures like a 90-day ban on travel to the United States by the citizens of certain Muslim countries will protect them. (A recent poll shows that 54% of the public supports this policy.) As for terrorist plots, successful or not, by white far-right extremists, the president simply hasn’t felt the urge to say much about them.
In other words, President Trump, like candidate Trump, embraces the standard take on national security. He, too, is focused on war and terrorism. Here, on the other hand, are some threats -- a suggestive, not inclusive, list -- that genuinely make, or threaten to make, millions of Americans insecure and vulnerable.
Poverty: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2015, 43 million Americans, 13.5% of the population, lived below the poverty line ($11,700 for an individual and $20,090 for a three-person household) -- an increase of 1% since 2007, the year before the Great Recession. For children under 18, the 2015 poverty rate was 19.7%. While that was an improvement on the 21.1% of 2014, it still meant that nearly a fifth of American children were poor.
The working poor: Yes, you can have a job and still be poor if your wages are low or stagnant or have fallen. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) uses a conservative definition for these individuals: “People who spent at least 27 weeks in the labor force during the year -- either working or looking for work -- but whose incomes were below the poverty level.” Though some studies use a more expansive definition, even by the BLS’s criteria, there were 9.5 million working poor in 2014.
Even if you work and bring in wages above the poverty line, you may still barely be getting by. Oxfam reports that 58 million American workers make less than $15 an hour and 44 million make less than $12 an hour. Congress last raised the minimum hourly wage to $7.25 in 2007 (and even then included exceptions that applied to several types of workers). That sum has since lost nearly 10% of its purchasing power thanks to inflation.
Wage stagnation and economic inequality: These two conditions explain a large part of the working-but-barely-making-it phenomenon. Let’s start with those stagnant wages. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), for about three decades after World War II, hourly wage increases for workers in non-supervisory roles kept pace with productivity increases: at 91.3% and 96.7%, respectively. Then things changed dramatically. Between 1973 and 2013, productivity increased by 74.4% and wages by only 9.2%. In other words, with wages adjusted for inflation, the average American worker made no more in 2013 than in 1973.
As for economic inequality, the EPI reports that from 1980 to 2013 the income of the top 1% of wage earners increased by 138% compared to 15% for the bottom 90%. For those at the lowest end of the wage scale it was even worse. In those years, their hourly pay actually dropped by 5%.
When was the last time you heard Donald Trump talk about stagnant wages or growing economic inequality, both of which make his most fervent supporters insecure? In reality, the defunding of federal programs that provide energy subsidies, employment assistance, and legal services to people with low incomes will only hurt many Trump voters who are already struggling economically.
Climate change: There is a scientific consensus on this problem, which already contributes to droughts and floods that reduce food production, damages property, and threatens lives, not to speak of increasing the range of forest fires and lengthening the global fire season, as well as helping spread diseases like cholera, malaria, and dengue fever. Trump once infamously described climate change as a Chinese-fabricated “hoax” meant to reduce the competitiveness of American companies. No matter that, in recent years, the Chinese government has taken serious steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Now, President Trump is gearing up to take the U.S. out of the climate change sweepstakes entirely. For instance, he remains determined to withdraw the country from the 2015 Paris Agreement (signed by 197 countries and so far ratified by 134 of them) aimed at limiting the increase in global temperature to a maximum of two degrees Celsius during this century. Scott Pruitt, his appointee to run the Environmental Protection Agency, denies that climate change is significantly connected to “human activity” and is stocking his agency with climate change deniers of like mind. Needless to say Pruitt didn’t balk at Trump’s decision to cut the EPA’s budget by 31%.
Nor do Trump and his team favor promoting alternative sources of energy or reducing carbon emissions, even though the United States is second only to China in total emissions and among the globe’s largest emitters on a per-capita basis. Trump seems poised to scale back President Obama’s plan to increase the Corporate Annual Fuel Efficiency Standard -- created by the government to reduce average automobile gas consumption -- from the present 35.5 miles per gallon to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, end the 2015 freeze on leases for coal mining on federal land, and ease power plant emission limits. Worse yet, Trump’s America First Energy Plan calls for producing more oil and gas but contains nary a word about climate change or a green energy strategy. If you want a failsafe formula for future environment-related insecurity, this, of course, is it.
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