Donald Trump Channels Occupy Wall Street, and The Revolt Against The Ruling Elite


Four years ago, the Occupy Wall Street movement was summarily dismissed as utterly nihilistic -- having no focus, no program and no lasting legacy. But the current presidential campaign has shown how foolish that analysis was. Today, the political and policy agenda has shifted radically with ideas spawned by the Occupy movement, invigorated by continuing economic turmoil. The theme of economic populism dominates the political debate in both the Republican and Democratic parties. The message of the Occupy movement was aimed at energizing the disenfranchised by exposing economic inequality; highlighting the control of the political process by financial interests and the rigging of the political and economic system for the benefit of an elite few. Donald Trump (as well as Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson) best exemplifies the desire to abandon the status quo. These political outsiders have surprisingly garnered support from more than 50 percent of Republican voters. Trump's message -- that he will not take political contributions, and thus cannot be bribed by the one percent -- is powerful and exhilarating. Think about what this means. It's revolutionary in modern American politics. Trump brags about giving large sums of money -- $1.5 million to politicians of both parties in the past. "When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do." He knows first hand how the corrupt system works. He is the perfect messenger. What Trump unapologetically says is that politicians, who raise large sums of money ($100 million for Bush and Clinton), are all bought and paid for. It is the unspoken truth that we all know --- and nobody will say. Main Street establishment politicians -- who raise large amounts of money from special interest groups, like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton -- have no answer to this message. What can they possibly say? Trump's acknowledgement of his past participation in the corrupt political system, ironically, is taken as evidence by his supporters of Trump's incorruptibility and truth-telling. Trump is a different phenomenon, and "different" is what people want. Trump (and Carson, Fiorina) and Democrat Bernie Sanders are addressing the angry concerns of more than 100 million Americans who feel unmoored from the foundations of the economy since 2008 -- when the system collapsed, and even before that. The polls show that 62.2 percent of voters think the country is headed in the wrong direction. This is the 11th straight year of wrong-track pessimism in national polls. This depressed middle class is fed up with the status quo and our broken economy. They want to restore the good jobs they once had. They have lost homes. They have lost the American Dream, upward mobility, hopes for their children. Politicians have failed to protect them from the economic downsides of technological advances, globalization, and the free-market ideology that has sucked millions of American jobs overseas. They have lost confidence with their leaders. With good reason: middle class income has dropped nearly 10 percent since 2000 -- from $57,724 to $53,657, according to the Census Bureau. Since 2006, only the top 10 percent of families have seen their income go up. The income of the bottom 90 percent has fallen. These outsider candidates are speaking to people who have not lined up perfectly in the last 40 years. Everything is changing too quickly and not for their betterment, they believe. Structural economic and technological turmoil has turned everything upside down for them. Educated wealthy elites are those most well-positioned to reap the benefits. There have been clear winners and losers and according to the data, which shows that 90 percent of Americans have not been on the winning side. And many voters are raging at the politicians who allowed this to happen to our once great middle class. They want to make America great again. No, it has not been so great lately. Meanwhile tough guy Trump is promising to restore that greatness again. No wonder the Silent majority has turned into the noisy majority, ever since the Occupy movement and the Great Recession that precipitated it. Even establishment politicians have begun adopting and co-opting the populist tone of Occupy. Hillary Clinton has repeatedly declared that the "deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top." Jeb Bush recently advocated raising taxes on the super rich by eliminating the carried interest tax break, which permits a lower tax rate for many in the financial industry (a position that Trump has supported for a long time). Democrats have tried to do away with loophole for years but have been frustrated by the influence of major donors. Ted Cruz recently acknowledged "the top 1 percent earn a higher share of our income...than any year since 1928." Marco Rubio said that reversing inequality could be accomplished by turning the earned income tax credit into a subsidy for low-wage earners. These tax-the-rich ideas, with support from both political parties, are finally on the table, according to the New York Times -- a direct result of issues raised by the Occupy movement. The Occupy movement has radically re-made the Democratic Party. Elizabeth Warren launched her political career in 2012 by popularizing Occupy themes, Michael Levitin wrote in the Atlantic Magazine. Bernie Sanders has based his successful campaign speaking out against Wall Street greed and breaking up the big banks, as have Martin O'Malley and other democratic candidates. John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1925 that in 100 years, by 2025, productivity would rise exponentially so that nobody would have to work anymore. See Atlantic Magazine's "A World without Work." All well and good for some, the productivity bonanza Keynes predicted is largely coming to pass. But the downside for most is that the bountiful fruits of technology and globalization has been gobbled up by a greedy elite, and while everyone else has been left behind in a jobless gulag. We are living in a transformative economic time that needs instant correcting. The world is at a crisis point, the likes of which we have never seen before, argues Chris Hedges in a new book. Hedges notes parallels between our time and the 1848 revolutions throughout Europe and the French Revolutionary era that preceded it. Indeed, there have been other past massive political disruptions in American history: Teddy Roosevelt's revolt against the excesses of the Gilded Age in the beginning of the 20th century, the FDR era in the 1930s that saved capitalism by providing a safety net, and the disruptions of the 1960s, which ironically led to a right wing reaction. Even Republican strategist Glen Bolger wrote recently in his blog, "A political storm is not coming. It is already here." We are in an era where ideas that buttress the old ruling elite no longer hold sway, but we have nothing to take its place, warns Hedges. It's like a pot that's beginning to boil, but the changes are not visible. The façade of power remains intact, but it is less and less credible. There is a disconnect. Both the right (The Tea Party) and the left (Occupy Wall Street) feel government and politicians are not responding to the basic concerns and needs of its citizens. Congress has a disapproval rating of 75 percent versus an approval rating of a mere15 percent. The great beauty and success of democracy -- as opposed to dictatorship and other authoritarian forms of government -- is that public concerns and discontent can filter up and must eventually be addressed by the ruling elite. Dictators all start out popular and responsive to their citizens, but most quickly become tone deaf to their needs. We are in an era where incremental and piecemeal reforms can no longer function, as they did in the past. The role of money in politics has become a dictatorship in and of itself, which controls both the Democratic and Republican parties. Trump's populist ascendancy has been compared to Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s, Huey Long in the 1940s, Ross Perot in the 1992 election, Hugo Chavez, and George Wallace. European demagogues and populists have also been on the rise in this era of economic turmoil. In Italy, Trump-like Silvio Berllusconi is the most prominent example. But Jeremy Corbyn's populist takeover of the Labour party last month, the leftist Scottish National Party, and the right wing ULIP are examples from Great Britain. Other outsider successful populist movements include the Syriza coalition in Greece, the Podemos in Spain, and the Five Star Movement in Italy. Trump's political stardom may be the best thing that has happened to U.S. politics since the arrival of Barack Obama, according to liberal Frank Rich. He has performed a public service by exposing, however crudely, the posturing of both Republicans and Democrats and the dysfunctional obsolescence of the prevailing political culture. Despite his bull-in-a-china-shop antics, his vulgarisms, and his ignorance, Trump may ultimately be the spur to a much-needed and overdue reform that will save our politics from collapse, just as Franklin D. Roosevelt saved capitalism during the Great Depression. Trump, Sanders and the other outsiders will probably not win their party's presidential nominations. But the rage they are articulating is not going away. In all likelihood these Occupy issues will be co-opted by more establishment and semi-establishment figures like Rubio, Bush, Clinton, and Biden. Write: Tweet: @blakefleet