Trump vs. Amazon, KOMO vs. Seattle, and the Crisis of Neoliberalism

Written Charles Mudede via The Stranger on 4/3/18

Until very recently, stations like KOMO gave the entire right legitimacy, the center left some say, and anything left of the center nothing. This political orientation was considered to be neutral. The middle had no radicals. The middle was reasonable, even if it included the views of extremist groups like the NRA. Socialism was located on another planet. This American political standard was reinforced everyday by our local newscasters. Their loyalty was impeccable. A Dem faced political death if he or she did not appreciate and operate with a construction of an American middle that treated the poor not as a class, but as the excluded. Even Obama repeatedly stressed the great ontological importance of those who consumed local network news: the vast middle class.

How did we get from that stable ideological situation to one where newscasters are forced to read partisan scripts?

We must begin with the crash of 2008. It tossed millions of middle-class people out of their homes, and sent the locus of white American dreams, the suburbs, into decline. The economists of neoliberalism had no answers for this crisis. And this crisis of ideas became a crisis of legitimacy. A vacuum was created on the right, and much of the center left. This vacuum is now filled by another vacuum: Trump. He is the right, the capitalist, the rich, the GOP without justification. Trump is there because Trump is there. Whatever he says, he says. In a situation like this, local news is no longer part of a thriving and respectable ecosystem that can include parts of the center left on its own terms. That game is up. No more being nice to middle-class moms and pops. Our times are raw. You must read this script.

What connects Sinclair Broadcast Group's script reading to Trump's escalating attacks on Amazon is exactly the legitimacy crisis. Unbeknownst to many Americans, most of our ideas about freedom, government, and the market were formalized not that long ago (in the 1970s). For example, most Americans today would be shocked to learn that Depression-era president Franklin D. Roosevelt named freedom from want as one of his four all-American freedoms. Norman Rockwell devoted a series of paintings to these freedoms.

Notice that the freedom to buy and sell wasn't on the list. By the 1980s, however, it was the only freedom around. Real freedom ("freedom from") was completely replaced by bogus freedom ("freedom to"). This shift is explained by the reemergence of the super-rich after it was decimated by two massive wars and a market crash in the first half of the previous century. Most will also be shocked to learn that after World War II, many thought the one percent, who offered no workable solutions to the Great Depression, were a thing of the past. And with good reason. In the US, they faced a tax rate of 90 percent.

Why was the Reagan Revolution so successful? Because it supplied two very different drugs to two groups of working-class Americans. On one side, and indirectly, urban black Americans were hit with cheap cocaine. On the other, rural white Americans were hit with racism. Both drugs are very addictive. To better understand the latter (which is not a substance but is related to grooming), recall that the British Empire resorted to it after it exhausted the conventional addictive substances (tea, sugar, coco, coffee, and tobacco), and was still faced with the growing demands of a massive working class. By the Boer War of 1899, the drug of patriotism (in the form of jingoism) had come into its own. Without it, the Conservative Party would have been overwhelmed by the Labor Party. Patriotism, like racism or tobacco, is a low cost substitute for actual wants. In the way sugared tea was, in the era of Empire, a substitute for real food, racism or patriotism was and still is a substitute for active citizenship.

But the Reagan Revolution, which inaugurated the America's neoliberal stage, and therefore global capitalism, collapsed in 2008 when it not only failed to predict the housing crash, but offered ways out of the Great Recession. Orthodox economics morphed into zombie economics. This led to the crisis of legitimacy that is with us to this day.

Amazon is under attack because it's a classical neoliberal enterprise. It's not particularly patriotic. It definitely believes that free trade, low taxes, and creative destruction are the mechanisms of progress. These ideals made it a perfect fit for the years between 1980 and 2016—Obama was the last neoliberal president, Carter was the first. But not for the one that began in November 2016 and is supported by no ideas. In Trump's unapologetic America, evangelical Christians knowingly vote for sexual predators, black athletes are called the sons of bitches, Muslims are banned outright, and newscasters read from partisan scripts. The GOP has accepted this extreme state of things because its leading ideas went down with the crash of 2008—not taxing the rich makes the poor rich, universal healthcare is bad for the sick, high wages hurt workers. If you are not on the radical right, you may as well be a socialist. America is now them against the rest—center right, center left, left, progressive, social democrats, communists, environmentalists, feminists, and so on.

Matthew Wisner