Carlyle, Dickens and the Strange Death of Liberal America – Part II

[This is the second part of a note on what Carlyle and Dickens may tell us of events in 2016.  You may recall that Carker was the character in Dombey and Son who lusted after revenge for the humiliation that he suffered all his life.  Both writers saw the decline of religion and the worship of money.]


The word ‘revolution’ is much abused, but we do appear to be going through something very like that with technology.  In any revolution, people have to get hurt.  Mao Zedong said that ‘A Revolution is not a dinner party’.  He should have known – if he had had a conscience, he would have been haunted by tens of millions of dead souls.

During the recent US election season, Donald Trump campaigned on Twitter – a device made for people who have trouble thinking or writing, and part of the ‘revolution’ that is closing minds and forbidding manners, both processes that are hallmarks of demagogues.

It was the fear of revolution that led England in the 19th century to abandon laisser-faire and to intervene across all markets by legislating to protect the young and the weak and the infirm.  They were legislating against the darker downside of capitalism, and the emergence of Karl Marx would spur them on.  England saw a vast reform movement that would culminate in the final containment of the powers of the British aristocracy in the House of Lords.  What was in truth a constitutional crisis was provoked by Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.  In the People’s Budget of 1909, Lloyd George said:

These problems of the sick, the infirm, of the men who cannot find a means of earning a livelihood … are problems with which it is the business of the State to deal. They are problems which the State has neglected for too long.

Well, this doctrine, called New Liberalism, certainly looked revolutionary to the aristocracy, and for a moment the nation came close to a real revolution.

The English version of New Liberalism has never been accepted in the US.  Indeed, it is anathema to a large part of the Republican Party.  It was however reinforced by the Welfare State after the horrors of two world wars, and it is now in principle applied across the Western world except in the US.  As a result, the State became larger and larger and more expensive.

So, in the 1980’s, there came reactions.  In both the US and the UK Conservative governments sought to reduce the role of the State and to reduce taxes.  The movement was led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.  They wanted to go back to laissez-faire.  They did not see themselves as winding back the clock.  They thought that government should defer to the markets.  They said their programs would help create wealth for all.

Well, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher may have helped people get wealthy, but they certainly didn’t help to spread the wealth around.  The fruits of all the growth in the West from free trade, immigration, and technology have mostly tended to go to those at the top of the tree.  In the UK, Mrs Thatcher was said to have been cruelly indifferent to those who lost jobs or who otherwise missed out under her.  Statistics are not always helpful, but two are critical to our present problems.  The first is this from the OECD: between 1975 and 2012 around 47% of total growth in US pre-tax incomes went to the top 1%.

Most would say, I suggest, that this result shows that during that time the US was badly governed.  Some would go further and say that the new regime of Ronald Reagan was badly flawed and ultimately cruel.  Very many certainly said the same about Margaret Thatcher.  But whether or not you agree with either of those propositions, there had to be a reaction – a revolt, if not a revolution.

So, we get Donald Trump elected on a demand to end laissez-faire.  The Americans now want their government to intervene in the markets and to give relief to the jobless and to the poor.  They want something like the People’s Budget of Lloyd George.

The people voting for Trump are, we are told, feeling vengeful and humiliated.  In a piece in The Monthly, Richard Cooke said:

The persistent thread linking those I speak to is one of humiliation….  Overwhelmingly, they want some sort of revenge.  On those who told them otherwise.  On those who should know their place.  On those who don’t belong here.  And they have chosen a bully to enact that revenge.

They are in short, John Carker writ large.

But why should people feel humiliated because the world has passed them by?  Because Americans like winners and they have little time for losers.  Hell for them is what Carlyle saw: ‘the terror of not succeeding; of not making money.’

The Americans have really dug themselves into a very deep hole.  And the worst is yet to come.  This brings us to our second relevant statistic.  There is a body of opinion that claims to be informed to the effect that over the next ten years, about 40% – two out of five – of present sources of employment will disappear because of disruption by technology.  It would I gather be unsafe to proceed on any other footing.

But we are not just speaking about humiliation.  The failure of the United States to implement the Welfare State has not stopped many Americans from blaming their government for all their woes.  (This is very Australian, but our history is very different – dependence on government is part of our DNA, even when the money’s run out.)   Too many Americans feel cheated.  The glaring wealth and contentment of the Clinton dynasty fuels their conspiracy theories.  The poorest of the two candidates was worth north of $100 million.

Many Trump voters are oblivious to the mainstream press, which are part of the chosen few that they are revolting against, and they are content with what they get from their soulmates on Facebook or Twitter. One horrifying statistic was that 44% of Trump voters were content to get their news from Facebook.

And if you have been cheated, who better to look to for revenge than a cheat?  Trump is not just a compulsive liar – he cheated on the draft and he cheated on tax.  When he was called out for not paying tax because he had failed in business, the revolting Rudy Giuliani said that Trump was a genius.

There was a time during the French Revolution when people at the bottom of the tree felt that the only thing they had in life was their French citizenship.  One of the worst parts of the Terror involved government agents or informers stripping suspected people of their citizenship or at least of their rights as French citizens.  (They got over this under Napoleon and then they decided to spread the benefits of the revolution around – even though Robespierre had correctly warned them that no one likes ‘armed missionaries’).  In America, this preciousness means that many American citizens do not want to share their only and priceless asset with others.  Sadly, we see the same process here.  A large part of human history involves those getting into the cubby-house slamming the door on those coming after them and kicking away the ladder.

Trump supporters rejected both parties.  They rejected the Republicans as much as the Democrats.  Rejection of major parties is all the go around the world – but in the US a president wearing a Republican label will try to be seen to implement a policy for what used to be the electorate of the Democrats.

We have seen enough to see the contradictions.  The rejected poor are looking to a billionaire egotist to save them.  Do they really expect that his tax cuts will suit them?  Has any Republican economic scheme ever suited them?   How many of these people rely on government entitlements which it is the object of Republicans to abolish?  How on earth could Trump ride to the relief of these people on the back of ‘small government’?

Trump’s supporters say that he is an outsider; the downside is that he doesn’t know what he is doing or what he is talking about.  God knows that he has not been backward in advertising that fact.  (One European leader said that they will waste two years while Trump finds his way around.)  And we may be sure that he will be surrounded by sycophants and place seekers like Giuliani and Christie.  And of course his family – the revolt against dynasties will not preclude Trump from perpetuating that error.  The Americans have an 18th-century English view toward sharing the spoils of election wins.  (It is not far removed from that which prevails in Kenya.)

A party that is dedicated to free trade and laissez-faire is being asked to legislate to reduce inequality and help those who missed out.  Protection may or may not lead to trade wars, but it will lead to higher prices.  And about the only part of the Republican platform that Trump has accepted is the abolition of healthcare of the kind that the rest of the western world has enjoyed since shortly after the end of World War II.  How will that help those who led the revolt?

This party prided itself on a repellent form of patriotism.  (Is there a form of patriotism that is not repellent?  Do you recall when Obama was chastised for not being a patriot because he turned up one day without a flag in his lapel?) This party is now being fronted by a draft dodger and tax dodger who admires, and who has just got a ‘beautiful’ letter from, the KGB stooge who is the head of Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire?  And you will recall that Mr Reagan suggested to the Russians that they should tear down a wall.  How many real Republicans, or Reagan Republicans, want to cosy up to Putin?

And a party that makes a lot of play with God is in bed with the most ungodly man on the planet. Between them, they fuel a suspicion  that the evangelical Christianity espoused by many politicians in the US is just so much bullshit.

The Republicans themselves are in large part responsible for this diabolical mess.  They have idolised Ronald Reagan.  I thought that he was an idiot before he was elected and I did not see much evidence to the contrary while he was in office.  But I have to admit that I am biased – I don’t like people who rat on their mates for their own political well-being.  But whether or not Reagan is to blame for the massive movement of wealth toward the rich, a large part of his program will have to be reversed if Trump is to even look like he might be trying to deliver what he has promised.

The Republicans never accepted the legitimacy of Obama and led an unprincipled and unscrupulous opposition that was aped here by Tony Abbott (and even he now admits to regret at his part in lowering the tone of politics).  You can see the lack of principle in the Republicans in their point-blank refusal to follow the Constitution, a document they purport to admire, in appointing a new justice to the Supreme Court to replace the loaded gun called Scalia.  You could see it with the suggestion of Trump that if he lost the election would be rigged.  (Now, his campaign leader says that the current President is not doing enough to stop the protests about the election result.)  You can see it in their determination to stack the Supreme Court on the issue of abortion, an issue which is beyond the reach of Congress. They will debauch the judiciary to get what they want – the fact that the other lot are not stainless on this does not help the disenchanted.

How will decent Republicans react when the hard-heads flirt with fanatics of the Right?  Mr Stephen Bannon has a lot of form for racism.  He is set to be the leading hate-figure or punching-bag of the new regime.  He has already invited Marine Le Pen – who gushed over the election result – to see what they can do ‘to work together’.  On what?   The campaign manager defended his appointment.  He was ‘the general’ of the campaign, a former naval officer with a Harvard business degree.   Presumably he is not one of the rejected.  Has the nation of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Truman come to this?

The truth is that the Republican Party has brought every aspect of this disaster on itself, and the gormless hypocrites at the head of that party now stand, if that is the term, fawning on the man they had reviled.  And remember this – that during a large part of the primaries, Ted Cruz was seen as a bigger threat to the US than Trump – by the Republican Party.

Now, Carlyle and Dickens may have foreseen all this, or something very like it.  It may after all be just another cycle, and one the like of which we have seen before.  But it also looks to be pregnant with some of the horrors that those two great writers were so apt in describing.  They both wrote of the death of God and the idolatry of wealth.  We see the apotheosis of both in Donald Trump – the deposition of God and the coronation of the dollar.  This is far and away the scariest and the saddest thing I have seen.

But we are told that we should respect the outcome of the election.  This means that Americans should not behave in the way Trump threatened to.  If any American reacts unlawfully against the new President, they can be dealt with by the laws of the US.  But that’s all that it means to say that people should respect the result.  It would be absurd to suggest that the election means that anyone should respect Trump.  For some years the most popular politician in the history of Europe, if not the world, was Adolf Hitler – and it stayed that way until he was seen to fail.

Perhaps we might go back to Mommsen and let him have the final word.

On the very threshold of his despotism, he was confronted by the fatal dilemma, moral and political, that the same man had at one and the same time to hold his ground as a captain of robbers, and to lead the state as its first citizen – a dilemma to which Pericles, Caesar, and Napoleon also had to make dangerous sacrifices.

The Bible may be right – there is nothing new under the sun.

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