Sanders, Trump and the Hassles of Regular People

"Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me."

-- F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Every once in a while, I have an experience that sheds some light on why most of the one percent do not give a rip about the struggles of regular people, and why so many voters are turning to outsiders like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

The other day, I was mistaken for a VIP, and was thus spared a lot of hassle. I suspect this sort of red-carpet treatment is normal if you are a notable. I can tell you, it was a thrill, even briefly, to be an accidental tourist in the executive class.

I was on a last-minute trip, and in the sheer confusion of it all, I left my laptop on the plane. When I realized what I'd done and started getting my mind around all the consequences, I felt like crying. Total catastrophe.

Instead, I did what you do, and said a little prayer. I called the airline, took the better part of an hour to get routed to the right department, reported the loss, and was given a tracking number.

I imagined that if I was very lucky, my laptop might turn up in a day or two. Or it could end up in some kind of baggage limbo, or be crooked by another passenger before a cleaning crew discovered it.

Then, totally bummed by my own lapse, I headed off to the event that was part of the reason for the hurry-up trip.

By sheer dumb luck, I ran into an old friend who knew a lot about the airlines. What are the odds, I asked him as I explained my mishap, that I'll get my laptop back any time soon?

Oh, I think they're pretty good, he said. Then I noticed him quietly making a phone call.

An hour later, my cell phone buzzed. It was a high-ranking person.

Mr. Kuttner?

Yes?

I have your laptop. Where may I deliver it?

Judas Priest! My friend had called a contact, and I had been mistaken for a VIP.

This does not happen to ordinary mortals, but I imagine it is standard treatment for captains of industry -- the same folks who avoid traffic jams because they take helicopters; who don't have hassles with managed care because have boutique doctors who make house calls, as well as VIP hospital suites; who don't worry about underfunded public school systems because their kids are in private schools; and on and on and on.

It's hardly a surprise that the elite doesn't empathize with the struggles of ordinary people -- because the elite doesn't experience them. Wealth has always had its privileges, of course, but lately the gap has widened.

Daily life is more and more of a hassle for more and more people, whether it involves insecurity of jobs, of pay, of schools, of health care, of retirement, of unaffordable apartments and tuitions, of long lines and crumbling transit systems -- you name it. And the super-elite doesn't care, because they literally don't experience any of this.

Thus the Sanders and Trump revolutions.

I had one other experience that produced a similar revelation. It was almost a decade ago.

I was interviewing Robert Rubin, the architect and enabler of the Democrats' alliance with Wall Street, as well as the patron of more than a dozen other senior public officials with close ties to the financial industry.

He had left government and returned to a senior job at Citigroup, the bank that benefited so handsomely from Rubin's role in getting the Glass-Steagall Act repealed.

After about half an hour, Rubin said that we had to wrap up the conversation because he needed to go to the airport. Oh, I said, I have to go to the airport, too. Maybe we can finish the interview in the car.

He looked at me, with mild amusement and pity. Oh, I think we're going to different places, he said.

Silly me. Rubin was heading off to his corporate jet, and I was going to join the masses on the shuttle.

Rubin has since retired. Not long ago, I spotted him, at one of the shuttle gates at LaGuardia. You cannot believe the wattage of the grin that I broke into.

Even in retirement, I doubt that Rubin worries much about misplacing his laptop.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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