The Great Fear

Mark Twain once observed "it ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." For years the Republican party projected a standard image of itself, as did the Democratic and their respective adherents confidently saw themselves to be signing up for organizations whose purposes they knew.  The last few months have been rather cruel to each party's self-image.

If the candidacy of Donald Trump showed the GOP to be far more fragmented than it thought itself to be, his crossover support revealed a sudden realization among the Democratic faithful that their party had abandoned them.   Thomas Edsall summarized the situation in the New York Times: "an insurrection now threatens the future of the Republican Party — an insurrection of white working class voters who have been among the party’s most loyal supporters since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. These men and women felt that they lacked an effective political voice, until they heard the siren call of Donald J. Trump."

Edsall understood that African Americans had similar, if not greater grounds for disappointment.  Could the Democratic party face a "comparable revolt?"

How have African-American voters been faring over all? Badly. The Democratic debt to black voters is immense, and the party has not paid up.

There is no evidence yet of a political rebellion parallel to the one taking place in the Republican Party, despite the fact that poor black Americans are having a much tougher time than the white working class Republicans flocking to Trump.

One of the ways that revolt has been suppressed is by redirecting the anger of Sanders' activist legions at designated hate objects.  The War on Women, shutting down the GOP rallies, are not primarily directed against the Republicans. They are damage control for the Democrats.  A ceaseless variety of distractions must be offered because once the relief provided by venting begins to pall, what Elizabeth Kneebone of the Brookings Institution called  “the growth and spread of concentrated poverty” may start to be noticed.

As Kyle Smith pointed out in the New York Post, the destruction of the American middle class, both black and white, has been part of a long term shift by the Democratic (and Republican Party) toward a new globalized economic system led by a new credentialed aristocracy.  The pauperization of the middle class is happening because and not in spite of Washington's policies.

In his new book “Listen, Liberal, Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People,” progressive commentator Thomas Frank (author of “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”) says Democrats need to take a good long look in the mirror if they want answers to why blue-collar workers are feeling abandoned and even infuriated by what used to be their party.

Many such voters are now backing Donald Trump, who is sketching out the problem with America in exactly the terms they agree with: Jobs are either going to Mexico, or going to Mexicans. Unchecked illegal immigration on the one hand and free trade on the other hand are driving down the wages of working-class Americans, or costing them their jobs outright. ...

Blaming Republican Intransigence (TM) for liberalism’s failures, particularly in the Obama era, is a common excuse that Frank isn’t having. He points to areas such as Rhode Island and Chicago where Republicans are virtually extinct and finds that Democrats behave exactly the same way: They make mild clucking noises about inequality while taking donations and policy ideas from financiers (both R.I. and the City of Big Shoulders are run by former Wall Streeters) and outlining an economic future of enhanced “innovation” designed to tilt the economy even further in the direction of elite knowledge-economy workers and away from those without college degrees.

It wouldn't have been too bad if the new elitist aristocracy had been competent.  But Naseem Taleb argues that the global aristocracy has distinguished itself only by a shrill mediocrity.  "What we are seeing worldwide, from India to the UK to the US, is the rebellion against the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking 'clerks' and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think... and 5) who to vote for."

One of the reasons why Trump has been so destructive to the Republican party is that he divided it not only along the Left-Right political axis, whose shear forces it was prepared to withstand, but also between up and down, creating an earthquake along precisely the fault line that Taleb describes. Taleb notes that in many cases the current aristocrats are know-nothings. "Indeed one can see that these academico-bureaucrats wanting to run our lives aren't even rigorous, whether in medical statistics or policymaking. I have shown that most of what Cass-Sunstein-Richard Thaler types call "rational" or "irrational" comes from misunderstanding of probability theory."

Such misunderstandings were on display in president Obama's $4 billion dollar self-driving car initiative.   The Manhattan Institute points out that the president's program could have unanticipated, job-killing results.

About 4 million Americans work as truck drivers. If some large percentage of those jobs went away, this would mean another middle-class occupation had been undermined by technology. Truck drivers do much more than drive. The UPS driver rings your buzzer and hands the package to you, for example. Drivers of soda delivery trucks may also stock the product on the shelves. ...

The locus of power in the automobile industry might also shift from Detroit to Silicon Valley. In the case of music, newspapers and other industries where digitization has already shifted power in that direction, we’ve seen vast industrial disruption...

Keep in mind that one reason President Obama bailed out GM and Chrysler is because more than 1 million jobs in the United States are linked to the auto industry. Yet the tech industry does most of its manufacturing outside the country. Apple employs 700,000 people offshore (including subcontractors), compared with only 43,000 people in the United States. If Silicon Valley wins the driverless car industry, we may see this shift accelerate. Manufacturing jobs are only part of this change ...

The list of potential downstream effects is limitless. It is these second- and third-order upheavals – politics, policing, etc. – where the driverless car may create profound societal change far beyond the obvious.

But Obama fails to see the impact of driverless cars, any more than he could see why Putin entered Syria or why he left.  The cars program not only emphasizes how the "party of the people" has become the party of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, more dangerously it showcases how feckless the elite is.  A nation can withstand a loss of income more than it can endure a loss of faith.  And there is precious little in the political system to believe in.  With Sanders' crusade folding before the Hillary juggernaut his followers will have no political vehicle of their own.  The last prophet will have been struck down.

That leaves them with nothing to do but vent their rage at Trump, Cruz, Romney, etc.  They must be kept at it lest they look round them with all the sudden realization of chumps who realize they've been played for fools all these years. Then proceedings may then take on a life of their own.

It would be a mistake to imagine that unrest only springs from grinding poverty.  Psychology plays a big role too. In the years before the French Revolution a widespread inexplicable panic broke out that historians are still trying to explain.  It was called The Great Fear.  Peasants ravaged the countryside and lived in dread of phantom armies.  It was so bizarre that one theory puts it down to an outbreak of hallucinogenic fungus in the grain crop.

The Great Fear (French: la Grande Peur) was a general panic that occurred between 17 July and 3 August 1789 at the start of the French Revolution. Rural unrest had been present in France since the worsening grain shortage of the spring, and fueled by the rumors of an aristocrat's "famine plot" to starve or burn out the population, peasant and town people mobilized in many regions.

In response to rumors, fearful peasants armed themselves in self-defense and, in some areas, attacked manor houses. The content of the rumors differed from region to region—in some areas it was believed that a foreign force were burning the crops in the fields while in other areas it was believed that robbers were burning buildings.

The socialist writer Jean Jaurès argued the Great Fear, rather than simply being driven by injustice, was at least partly caused by anxiety.  The aristocracy, though unloved, was at least predictable and familiar.  It was the collapse of the aristocratic system as much as privation that pushed the peasants over the edge and precipitated the Great Fear.  Jaurès wrote that it "was in all likelihood purely instinctive: we nowhere find a clear formula and it doesn’t seem there were any conscious leaders."

That may be what is happening now. Rightly or wrongly Americans used to have a sense of place in the world.  It was once a comforting place where the president -- be he from either party -- protected them.  It was a place where secretaries of state and defense stood guard over the borders and  American children could count as their birthright having better lives than their parents.

Now that place, that sense is gone, demolished by a confluence of events, diluted by apparent betrayals and conflicts of interest.  It was sent rolling down the hill not in the least by an administration eager to fundamentally remake America, little thinking they were manacled to the great edifice they cast down the slope.

If Trump represents the Great Fear his origins can be traced in the arc from the Three AM Call to the Barking Dog.  We needed to believe, in this dangerous world, that the former was true and not the latter.  What Trump did was look behind the curtain and destroy one faith without giving us another. What now?  What now?  That may be the real question this campaign should answer.

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