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The Year in Class War

Donald Trump's first year in office can best be seen as an all-out assault by the rich against the rest.

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty

Everything’s coming up Dollar General. “The economy is continuing to create more of our core customer,” its CEO, Todd Vasos, recently informed The Wall Street Journal. “We are putting stores today [in areas] that perhaps five years ago were just on the cusp of probably not being our demographic and it has now turned to being our demographic.” Joyful news for Vasos, who earned $8.5 million in 2016, and for his company, which is enjoying rising profits. His cashiers, who make minimum wage, have less to celebrate. Dollar General says it’s courting customers who make under $40,000 a year. Its pay scale means it’s producing those customers, too.

This is not to make Vasos a scapegoat. In fact, he is more honest than most about what is happening in America’s free market economy. He is certainly more honest than the Republicans in power, who insist, with barely feigned conviction, that wealth will eventually trickle down. He understands that the moment we live in is advantageous to him, and that what is good for Dollar General is not necessarily good for workers. And he knows that the government wants to keep it that way.

The term “class war” is out of vogue. The Democratic Party doesn’t use it, wary of its Marxist heritage. Mainstream outlets avoid it, at least as a serious way to describe how elites are perpetuating their command of this country’s resources. When it is used, it is mostly to denigrate class agitation in the opposite direction: those on the bottom end who dare to criticize the wealthy. But the Donald Trump era has been clarifying in so many respects, not least in showing that the Republican Party, in league with the upper classes, is engaged in an all-out class war against the working and middle classes. In every area of policy—tax, environment, health, energy, even the management of the nation’s national parks—we have seen a sustained disdain for common people and an allegiance to the rich. It is class war, and they’re winning.

The paeans to trickle-down economics and limited government are belied by the hard facts. Severe poverty increased in 2016; the Pew Research Center reports that three in ten families in poverty made at least $15,000 below the poverty threshold. Rich families, however, are getting richer. “In 1963, families near the top had six times the wealth (or, $6 for every $1) of families in the middle. By 2016, they had 12 times the wealth of families in the middle,” the Urban Institute revealed this year. Social mobility, meanwhile, is decreasing. Data compiled by The Financial Times shows that in 2016, 30- and 40-year-olds earned significantly less than their parents did at the same ages.

The Republican tax bill, the latest and most successful expression of a long campaign, would exacerbate these trends. Even objective outlets like The Washington Post find that the Senate version of the bill—which slashes corporate taxes, allows significant exemptions to the estate tax, repeals the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and weakens public employee unions—“is weighted to wealthier Americans.” As one conservative economist told Bloomberg, “It’s death to Democrats.” But it’s much more than that; it’s also an attack on the GOP’s own working-class voters, who Republicans hope will stick with the party despite higher taxes and stagnant wages and more expensive insurance because of the country’s other great battle, the culture war.

In terms of actual policy, however, Republicans are working for their obscenely wealthy donor class. They have drafted a bill that shifts wealth from one class to another and concentrates it, where it becomes a lasting testimony to the superiority of the few in contrast to the inferiority of the many. It becomes a value judgement, a determination of worth. And that value judgment can be seen in all areas of this Republican-controlled government.

The country’s social safety net is the party’s next target in 2018. “We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” Speaker Paul Ryan recently told a local radio show. “Frankly, it’s the health care entitlements that are the big drivers of our debt, so we spend more time on the health care entitlements—because that’s really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking.” Entitlement reform means cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, which will help pay for the $1 trillion hole in the deficit caused by the tax bill.

Before the tax bill, there was Obamacare repeal. Long a staple of conservative campaign rhetoric, Republicans proved unable to marshal themselves well enough to carry out their years of threats. But their attempts are instructive—and not just because the policies they proposed are likely to pop up, gremlin-like, in bill after bill until Republicans are swept from office. There can’t really be any doubt that Republican leadership is indifferent to the welfare of its poorest backers, after a close and critical examination of their proposals to break down our already-mediocre health care system.

Consider the Graham-Cassidy bill, the party’s last sad grasp at victory: It would’ve cost 21 million people their health insurance, according to one study by the Brookings Institution, a figure well in line with other repeal attempts. The American Health Care Act would have uninsured 23 million; the Better Health Care Act, 22 million. Republicans wanted to starve Medicaid and kill the individual mandate, and when these policies proved to be dramatically unpopular they resorted to lying. It’s the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that’s wrong, Republicans say. As people with disabilities protested in the halls of Congress and were dragged out of their wheelchairs by Capitol police, wealthy donors were salivating over the tax breaks in the bills.

Health care law is a useful magnifying glass. Viewed through the lens of Graham–Cassidy, we can see how conservative policies entrench the existence of a vulnerable class. The Republican vision for health care reform implies sharp distinctions between lives with value and those without, and those distinctions map directly onto socioeconomic divides. In a debate over the future of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch insisted he wanted to save the program, which insures nearly 10 million children whose parents do not qualify for Medicaid. But he issued a telling caveat too: “I believe in helping those who cannot help themselves but would if they could. I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger and expect the federal government to do everything.” This is classic GOP rhetoric, splitting those who “deserve” help from those who allegedly do not. The less the poor take, the more we have to spare for our John Galts.

It’s more difficult to frame the Trump administration’s deregulation campaign in such stark terms. Deregulation, however, serves the same goal that conservative health policy and tax policy do: It empowers corporations and disempowers workers. Nearly as soon as Trump took office he signed an executive order requiring agencies to kill two regulations for every one regulation they implement. Trump is convinced that regulations are inherently bad, and that his order will result in some magically perfected regulatory regime. In practice, however, his deregulatory policy has come at the expense of average people. By May, Trump had used the Congressional Review Act 14 times to end regulations protecting clean water, funding for Planned Parenthood, and broadband access. More recently, his Department of Labor threatened to end a ban on tip-pooling in the restaurant industry.

Trump pushes deregulation for the same reasons he stocked his cabinet with some of the wealthiest people in the country. It’s hardly an accident that most of the individuals appointed to steer this deregulation push have deep ties to the industries they’re meant to oversee. A New York Times/ProPublica investigation uncovered 71 administration appointees with corporate ties, and 28 had potential conflicts of interest. They have every incentive to work on behalf of their former employers or themselves, and little reason to defend the interests of the public.

Trump’s menagerie seems determined to prove claims that he has turned the U.S. government into a kleptocracy. Consider Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who took government helicopters to private events and steered a $300 million contract to help rebuild Puerto Rico to a small firm in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana; or former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who resigned in September after reports that he billed the government for private flights. And let us not forget Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who took a government flight to Fort Knox so that he and his wife could watch the solar eclipse atop a dragon-hoard of gold. “It’s very hard not to give tax cuts to the wealthy,” he said in October. In every instance, we see an extraordinary degree of entitlement, alongside a nonchalance for how taxpayer dollars are used.

The administration is in the midst of undermining both the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the sole government agency tasked with protecting consumers from predatory financial practices, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which has struggled to protect Americans from the effects of climate change and industrial pollution thanks to the administration’s deep ties to the oil and gas sector. The CFPB’s new director, Mick Mulvaney, has called the agency a “sad, sick” joke, and has taken contributions from payday lenders. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is basically a glorified agent of the fossil fuel industry.

The administration’s deference to oil and gas companies, at the expense of the health and wellbeing of voters, can even be seen in its drive to suck up public lands. The idea of the commons means nothing to it. If there is land that can be drilled to make rich people richer, then the protections for the Alaska Wildlife Refuge will have to go. So long, Bears Ears.

“The modern American capitalist system is far from perfect. But for all its flaws, our system—and the digital communication channels it enabled—has delivered social justice more swiftly and effectively than supposedly more enlightened public bodies tend to,” Reason editor Elizabeth Nolan Brown argued recently in The New York Times. Brown’s premise—that free markets helped activists get celebrity sexual harassers fired—doesn’t stand up in an era marked by grotesque inequality. If anything, capitalism is exactly why these sexual harassers operated with impunity for so long.

The ongoing vulnerability of women and people of color is the deadliest proof that class war exists. Harvey Weinstein survived by placing financial pressure on his victims and offering incentives to everyone else to keep quiet; the markets that made him a millionaire enabled him to hire literal spies and sic them on Rose McGowan. Domestic workers, who are mostly women of color, recently told Splinter News that almost non-existent labor protections make it difficult, even impossible, for them to report sexual harassment or abuse. Other inequalities also demand an accounting: The Economic Policy Institute reported in 2017 that the median wealth of white families is 12 times higher than the median wealth of black families; when we talk about the wage gap, we’re talking about a phenomenon that predominantly holds back Latinas and black women.

Even the consequences of deregulation disproportionately affect people of color. The Trump administration’s hostility to climate science, and its friendliness to industry, will make it even more difficult for marginalized communities to survive. “We often forget that the choices we make on regulations affecting clean air, clean water, and enforcement are interconnected with the lives of our vulnerable communities and tribal populations,” wrote Mustafa Ali when he resigned from the Environmental Protection Agency in March.

Trump’s war on women and people of color stems from an irrefutable record of racism and misogyny. But it is facilitated by a specific economic platform. Trumpism cannot be destroyed without reckoning with its economic dimension. The risk it poses is best understood through the same terms that propelled the American labor movement to its early victories: The problem is class war, and the solution is a clear, vibrant left-wing platform. Instead, some Democrats ally with payday lenders and wrings hands over the deficit; others still denigrate single-payer health care as a futile dream. Would-be social reformers look to Silicon Valley and corporate donors for solutions, as if the people who are perpetuating our inequalities have it in their best interest to solve them. But egalitarianism is the great counter to Trump’s false populism.

“Don’t kill us, kill the bill,” chanted activists with disabilities in November. They protested not Obamacare repeal but the tax bill, because the consequences of both policies will be the same. There will be other bills, other policies; there will be more deaths, just to satisfy the wealthy. All wars have body counts, and class war is the same. We can at least admit we’re fighting one.