Chris Ruddy, the C.E.O. of Newsmax, has found a business opportunity in feeding Trump supporters the fantasy that the president could still win the election.
In 2004, Hillary Clinton was in the Senate and Christopher Ruddy had some making up to do. He was, back then, best known as “the Inspector Clouseau” of the Vince Foster case — a New York Post reporter who had popularized the baseless theory that Mrs. Clinton’s friend, who committed suicide in 1993, had been murdered.
But it now seemed possible that Mrs. Clinton might run for president, and Mr. Ruddy laid it on pretty thick. Mrs. Clinton was doing “a remarkably and surprising good job for NY as Senator,” he wrote to a mutual friend, former Mayor Ed Koch of New York. “I might not like Hillary’s liberalism, but I don’t dislike her on a personal level — as I do Rudy. Rudy Giuliani is a bad person.”
I asked an amused former Clinton aide to dredge this correspondence out of an old box because Mr. Ruddy, a Long Island-born 55-year-old, has emerged as the most audacious media entrepreneur of the Trump election fantasy. The chief executive of Newsmax and part of President Trump’s South Florida social circle, Mr. Ruddy has capitalized on the anger of Mr. Trump’s supporters at Fox News for delivering the unwelcome news, first in Arizona and then nationally, that Mr. Trump had lost his re-election campaign. On Newsmax, however, the fight is still on, the imaginary election-altering Kraken is yet to be released, Mr. Trump is striving valiantly for four more years and the ratings are incredible.
Newsmax’s prime-time ratings, which averaged 58,000 before Election Day, soared to 1.1 million afterward for its top shows, with one host, Greg Kelly, cheerleading on Twitter and on the air for “the QUEST TO COUNT all the LEGAL VOTES.” The ratings even drew a congratulatory call from Mr. Trump himself, my colleagues Michael Grynbaum and John Koblin reported last week.
But Mr. Ruddy, as those Clinton messages show, is not the sort of true-believing ideologue his viewers may imagine in the foxhole alongside them. He is, rather, perhaps the purest embodiment of another classic television type, the revenue-minded cynic for whom the substance of programming is just a path to money and power.
All successful TV programmers have some mercenary in them, of course, but even by those standards, Mr. Ruddy is extreme. He has turned Newsmax into a pure vehicle for Trumpism, attacking Fox News from the right for including occasional dissenting voices. And when Trumpism turned this month from an electoral strategy into a hallucinatory attempt to overturn the election, Mr. Ruddy saw opportunity: Newsmax, available on cable in most American households and streaming online, became the home of alternate reality.
“In this day and age, people want something that tends to affirm their views and opinions,” Mr. Ruddy told me in an interview.
He wasn’t hard to reach. Like many people who get generally, even inexplicably, friendly media coverage, the genial Mr. Ruddy is always willing to talk to the press. He is, in fact, a rare and valuable commodity: someone with real access to Mr. Trump who will tell the truth on the record. His insights — 62 quotes in The New York Times in the last four years, 61 in The Washington Post and 51 appearances on CNN — deliver what journalists crave: up-close insights about the president. He has even invited reporters to tag along to Mar-a-Lago as his guest at the president’s private club, which has been a minor irritant for President Trump’s staff, two former Trump aides told me. Not that he’s made any secret of his strategy. The fake crisis of the U.S. electoral system is “great for news,” he told The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner last week.
Mr. Ruddy is hardly alone in the sudden scramble to convert Mr. Trump’s political profile into cash.
“There are a lot of well-capitalized people circling,” said Michael Clemente, a former executive at ABC News and Fox News and former chief executive of Newsmax, who has been part of conversations as a potential leader of a new venture. He describes the proposition as a question of math, and the dominance of liberal-leaning cable channels: “Fifty percent of the country has 90 percent of the news media speaking to them.”
The noisiest effort is led by Hicks Equity Partners, the family business of a Republican National Committee co-chairman and friend of Donald Trump Jr., Thomas Hicks Jr. The Hicks group has sought to lead buyouts of both Newsmax and its smaller and stranger rival, the One America News Network. The group is also pursuing a third strategy, according to a confidential investment proposal I obtained, which would focus on culture rather than news: building “a family-friendly programming destination of broad appeal based on traditional values” by buying and merging a small “equestrian sports and lifestyle” channel and a larger one, which a person briefed on the talks identified as the small, independent Ride-TV and Great American Country, which is owned by the cable behemoth Discovery. (A spokesman for Hicks Equity Partners didn’t respond to an inquiry about a potential deal.)
Other possibilities for the president to cash in on his stature include creating a new Trump TV network from scratch, either as a television broadcast channel, a package of online video or even a way to direct cash into the Trump family political operation.
Mr. Ruddy has a head start. His main commercial advantage is the network’s distribution, which the company says puts it in 70 million of the roughly 90 million American homes that have cable, thanks to deals with the largest distributors, Comcast and AT&T. It’s a laborious, and expensive, process to get onto the cable package — even if you are, as Newsmax currently is, way up the dial. The programming is also available through a livestream on its app and on a range of newer “over-the-top” TV platforms like Roku. (OAN claims to be available in about half as many cable homes.) The process of establishing a cable network is also deeply political, as things often are in monopolistic industries: Newsmax was dropped from AT&T’s DirectTV in 2016, and restored the next year after Senator Charles E. Grassley called the move “unfair” during hearings about AT&T’s attempt to acquire Time Warner. You could imagine executives at Comcast and AT&T taking their time to make a deal with Trump TV.
But Mr. Ruddy also has a problem. His TV business, a speculative bet that could be worth billions if it can cut deeply into Fox’s audience, currently loses money. The company invested $70 million from 2014 to 2017, according to a confidential overview produced for potential investors in 2018 that one of them shared with me. And Mr. Ruddy told me Newsmax is still investing.
Those costs are partly because new channels often pay cable companies to get on TV. Mr. Ruddy declined to describe his specific arrangements with the cable providers, but said, “It’s not unusual for companies to do that when they start out.” And it’s partly because big advertisers have fled right-wing talk shows, leaving even the widely viewed prime-time shows on Fox News with less lucrative “direct response” ads for pillows and medical devices.
Newsmax has inverted the usual media business dynamic. The company is losing money on television, and making it on the internet, though Mr. Ruddy told me he expects that “revenues on cable and OTT television will be more robust and consistent than the online business for the next 10 years.”
Newsmax has built a solid, and unusual, business by catering to the 50-and-older demographic it described in the document shared with investors as “Boomers and Beyond.” The website’s voice, its big and lucrative email lists, and its products, from books to magazines to vitamin supplements, have the tone of conservative direct mail. And it’s working: The company projected its 2018 revenues at more than $59 million, divided among advertising, subscriptions and e-commerce. (One sponsor on the app last week was selling health advice, asking “Is the ‘Pandemic’ a Lie?”)
Newsmax has been raising money to finance its TV ambitions. Private equity from “a couple of investors,” Mr. Ruddy said, has paid to upgrade studios and hire figures like Mr. Kelly and the former White House press secretary Sean Spicer as the hosts of shows that replaced hours of World War II documentaries, and carry conservative radio talkers including Howie Carr from Boston. The investors, he said, are domestic, despite a Politico report (picked up on Breitbart) indicating he was in talks to raise money from Qatar. Mr. Ruddy said he sent proposals to many sovereign wealth funds, among others, but has not taken foreign investment. He blames his former rival, Stephen Bannon, for pushing the Qatar story, but such grudges are fleeting in the often-shifting alliances of the new right: Mr. Bannon’s podcast, “War Room,” is now also broadcast on Newsmax late at night on weekdays.
Newsmax now needs to raise more money, or sell fast, if it’s going to keep upgrading its talent and production quality to press its advantage with Fox News — which has begun nervously trying to block guests from appearing on the network.
When I pressed Mr. Ruddy on why he was stringing along his audience with a story he can’t, really, himself believe — that Mr. Trump won the election — he didn’t really defend it. Instead, he countered that he wasn’t the only one. “For two years, the liberal media pushed this Russian hoax theory, and there didn’t seem to be any substantiation at the end of the day and it was a pretty compelling, gripping story — controversial personalities, things happened, sparks were flying,” he said.
Newsmax continues to tell a gripping story. On Friday night, Mr. Kelly referred to Joe Biden’s “alleged victory,” hosted a long interview with Rudy Giuliani and later turned to an analyst who gave Mr. Trump a “35 to 40 percent chance that he wins this.” The 8 p.m. host, Grant Stinchfield, announced that “the momentum seems to be shifting back to the president’s favor,” and interviewed a lawyer for Mr. Trump, Jenna Ellis, and a Pennsylvania state senator trying to take back the state’s election certification.
Mr. Ruddy’s cynicism brings me back to the most trenchant attack from conservative media on the mainstream media: that journalists think conservatives are stupid. Tucker Carlson regularly tells his audience that the college-educated snobs in New York who preside over the major outlets view conservatives as unsophisticated rubes, misled by misinformation, not as people who actually believe in the ideas pushed by Mr. Trump, like immigration should be sharply curtailed. Those attacks on the media are often false, but the coastal media sometimes does fail to understand people who aren’t like them, left and right, and sometimes they patronize their audiences.
But nobody I’ve ever covered treats an audience with the blithe disdain of Mr. Ruddy. He has them watching a great story — a thriller, a whodunit — about a stolen election. He thinks they’re stupid enough to fall for it, dumb enough to keep watching even after the fantasy inevitably dissolves, buying the supplements and the books and, crucially, tuning in to channel 1115 in large enough numbers that, eventually, the cable companies will pay him.
Perhaps he actually thinks his viewers are that dumb. Or maybe he just needs them to stick around long enough for him to find someone just as cynical, but with more cash on hand, to buy him out.
Mr. Netanyahu only confirmed an unspoken truth. And yet something has changed.
RAMALLAH, West Bank — Last week, ahead of the parliamentary elections in Israel this Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised that if re-elected, he would annex up to one-third of the occupied West Bank.
His announcement prompted widespread international condemnation. But for most Palestinians such declarations mean nothing. We’ve heard many statements of support over the years, and nothing ever changes. Cynicism is widespread; by now, many of us would prefer straight talk. As Gideon Levy, a columnist for Haaretz, wrote recently, referring to Mr. Netanyahu’s plan: “Let him turn the reality in this territory into a political reality, without hiding it any longer. The time has come for truth.”
Israel already is reaping all the benefits of annexation in the West Bank, and without having to bear any responsibility for the welfare of the Palestinians living here.
Mr. Netanyahu made this promise, on the eve of an election, only to please his right-wing supporters. Formal annexation won’t bring about any real change or extra benefits for the Israelis who live in the occupied areas. For all intents and purposes, the Israeli government already treats them as though they were living in Israel proper (extending Israeli law to them), and gives them perks (cheap mortgages and tax relief).
That’s one reason that many Palestinians I know have come to believe in a one-state solution: After all, with so many Israeli settlements in the West Bank by now, a two-state solution would be impossible to implement. That’s not to say, however, that many Palestinians welcome Mr. Netanyahu’s formal annexation plan as a step forward toward that goal.
Israel has always wanted this land — without its people. And the territory Mr. Netanyahu is promising to annex is sparsely populated with Palestinians. Most Palestinians living in the areas slated for annexation have already lost their land and they would not get it back. They would simply be condemned to remaining laborers in the service of Israeli usurpers.
But Mr. Netanyahu’s move would, at least, have the virtue of being clarifying: If implemented, it would confirm the demise of the 1993 Oslo Accords — a development that many Palestinians would welcome because they have been disappointed by the agreement. Under the accords, the permanent status of the territories in the West Bank was to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization; outright annexation, as Mr. Netanyahu is now proposing, would be a clear violation.
For a time, the agreement was expected to bring about a negotiated peace between the two sides and freedom for the Palestinians. Instead, over the years it has enabled Israel to keep exploiting Palestinians economically, control much of their resources and exercise total dominion over their borders.
Mr. Netanyahu was an avowed opponent of the Oslo Accords when he was in the political opposition, before 1996, the year he first became prime minister. By now, after his various stints as Israel’s leader, he can claim credit among his supporters for having shrewdly managed the occupation of the West Bank until the time he could fully annex the territory. He furthered this goal with his unfettered encouragement of more and more Jewish settlements being built in the West Bank.
Palestinians have little interest in the elections in Israel this week. I’m not sure if that’s the result of their experience of living under an occupation that has morphed into ravenous colonial rule or of the economic hardships they suffer. Either way, I think few Palestinians believe that it will make much difference to them who is elected. None of the candidates is expressing a clear position on the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations; those simply are not on the campaign agenda. I wrote nearly the same thing half a year ago, before the previous election.
What does stand out is the ever-growing discrepancy in power between Israel and the Palestinians. When Mr. Netanyahu declares that he will annex about one-third of the West Bank, everyone knows he has the power to do so. When Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, declares that he will cancel the divisions of the West Bank created by the Oslo Accords — into so-called Areas A, B and C — which gave Israel power over more than 60 percent of the area, everyone knows he is powerless to implement that announcement.
Worse, it is possible that Mr. Netanyahu is shrewd enough to carry out his promise of annexation and then manage to weather all the criticism and the consequences. He would probably justify the measure as being necessary for the defense of his country: He recently said to his voters in a Facebook post that Arabs “want to annihilate us all — women, children and men.” (Facebook then temporarily suspended some features of the account, as a penalty for violating the company’s hate-speech policy.) This hardly augurs well for the prospect of peace between our two nations if Mr. Netanyahu is re-elected.
Then again, it’s not like his main opponent, Benny Gantz, a former military chief, is better disposed toward us Palestinians. Short of being a Saudi billionaire, Mr. Gantz said last week, “the best place to be an Arab in the Middle East is in Israel” — as though Palestinians in Israel were treated like Israelis’ equals. “And the second-best place to be an Arab in the Middle East is the West Bank.” As though Palestinians — or anyone — could be happy living under foreign occupation for half a century. How deep can denial go?
Mr. Netanyahu is shameless. Mr. Gantz is blind. Palestinians see no prospect in this election. How could they?
We can save our broken economic system from itself.
Despite the lowest unemployment rates since the late 1960s, the American economy is failing its citizens. Some 90 percent have seen their incomes stagnate or decline in the past 30 years. This is not surprising, given that the United States has the highest level of inequality among the advanced countries and one of the lowest levels of opportunity — with the fortunes of young Americans more dependent on the income and education of their parents than elsewhere.
But things don’t have to be that way. There is an alternative: progressive capitalism. Progressive capitalism is not an oxymoron; we can indeed channel the power of the market to serve society.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s regulatory “reforms,” which reduced the ability of government to curb the excesses of the market, were sold as great energizers of the economy. But just the opposite happened: Growth slowed, and weirder still, this happened in the innovation capital of the world.
The sugar rush produced by President Trump’s largess to corporations in the 2017 tax law didn’t deal with any of these long-run problems, and is already fading. Growth is expected to be a little under 2 percent next year.
This is where we’ve descended to, but not where we have to stay. A progressive capitalism based on an understanding of what gives rise to growth and societal well-being gives us a way out of this quagmire and a way up for our living standards.
Standards of living began to improve in the late 18th century for two reasons:
- the development of science (we learned how to learn about nature and used that knowledge to increase productivity and longevity) and
- developments in social organization (as a society, we learned how to work together, through institutions like the rule of law, and democracies with checks and balances).
Key to both were systems of assessing and verifying the truth. The real and long-lasting danger of the Trump presidency is the risk it poses to these pillars of our economy and society, its attack on the very idea of knowledge and expertise, and its hostility to institutions that help us discover and assess the truth.
There is a broader social compact that allows a society to work and prosper together, and that, too, has been fraying. America created the first truly middle-class society; now, a middle-class life is increasingly out of reach for its citizens.
America arrived at this sorry state of affairs because we forgot that the true source of the wealth of a nation is the creativity and innovation of its people. One can get rich either by adding to the nation’s economic pie or by grabbing a larger share of the pie by exploiting others — abusing, for instance, market power or informational advantages. We confused the hard work of wealth creation with wealth-grabbing (or, as economists call it, rent-seeking), and too many of our talented young people followed the siren call of getting rich quickly.
Beginning with the Reagan era, economic policy played a key role in this dystopia: Just as forces of globalization and technological change were contributing to growing inequality, we adopted policies that worsened societal inequities. Even as economic theories like information economics (dealing with the ever-present situation where information is imperfect), behavioral economics and game theory arose to explain why markets on their own are often not efficient, fair, stable or seemingly rational, we relied more on markets and scaled back social protections.
We are now in a vicious cycle: Greater economic inequality is leading, in our money-driven political system, to more political inequality, with weaker rules and deregulation causing still more economic inequality.
If we don’t change course matters will likely grow worse, as machines (artificial intelligence and robots) replace an increasing fraction of routine labor, including many of the jobs of the several million Americans making their living by driving.
The prescription follows from the diagnosis: It begins by recognizing the vital role that the state plays in making markets serve society. We need regulations that ensure strong competition without abusive exploitation, realigning the relationship between corporations and the workers they employ and the customers they are supposed to serve. We must be as resolute in combating market power as the corporate sector is in increasing it.
If we had curbed exploitation in all of its forms and encouraged wealth creation, we would have had a more dynamic economy with less inequality. We might have curbed the opioid crisis and avoided the 2008 financial crisis. If we had done more to blunt the power of oligopolies and strengthen the power of workers, and if we had held our banks accountable, the sense of powerlessness might not be so pervasive and Americans might have greater trust in our institutions.
The neoliberal fantasy that unfettered markets will deliver prosperity to everyone should be put to rest. It is as fatally flawed as the notion after the fall of the Iron Curtain that we were seeing “the end of history” and that we would all soon be liberal democracies with capitalist economies.
Most important, our exploitive capitalism has shaped who we are as individuals and as a society. The rampant dishonesty we’ve seen from Wells Fargo and Volkswagen or from members of the Sackler family as they promoted drugs they knew were addictive — this is what is to be expected in a society that lauds the pursuit of profits as leading, to quote Adam Smith, “as if by an invisible hand,” to the well-being of society, with no regard to whether those profits derive from exploitation or wealth creation.
A future without a liberal class will prove to be a problem not only for the people it is supposed to protect but also for the integrity of the American democratic system as a whole.
Indeed, the government needs to have a liberal functioning class, as it acts as a safeguard against policies that are too harsh. A liberal bulwark too is often the last hope for those whom the government has wronged.
It was the liberal class, for example, that pushed reforms such as workers’ rights, saving people from complete exploitation under an unfettered free market or despotic government.
A functioning liberal class also acts as an attack dog, battling radical movements that might wish to topple a government by instituting the moderate reforms that discredit more radical action.
The liberal class can claim, rightly or wrongly, that its policies can improve a social situation without the insecurity and chaos that can come with radical change.
Furthermore, Americans have become disappointed and restless without a functioning liberal class.
The failed liberal class in the United States provides no new meaningful reforms and is thus no longer a safeguard against governmental controls. Consequently, today’s working class feels disappointed and angry.
We can also find examples throughout history of how the disappearance of a functioning liberal class has caused the collapse of entire governments.
At the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany, for example, the liberal class failed to satisfy the needs of its citizens, such as providing job security and a stable economy. With their needs unmet, the public turned to extremists on both sides of the political spectrum for support, which eventually allowed the Nazi party to rise significantly in power.
The failure of the liberal class weakens an entire political system, the consequences of which are much harsher and broader than you might initially think.
.. But Biblically and historically, true prophets spoke out about injustice and exploitation. They spoke on God’s behalf when his people went astray and forgot the poor.
They punched up. Not down.
They spoke truth to power, not condemnation to the downtrodden and marginalized.
(As a fun exercise – have a read through the book of Amos and see how much these words resonate, or not, with the words of the so-called “prophets” of ultra-right wing Charisma News).
There are a whole lot of people who call themselves “prophets” today. But most of them barely ackowledge poverty, expoitation, or injustice. Jesus knew this, and that’s why he warned that there will always be a bunch of false prophets and false teachers running their mouths off who will “deceive many people” (Mt. 24:11).
You will know them by their fruit, because they only have one key message – God is going to “enlarge your tent” and “expand your influence”, he’s going to “give you great favor” and “bless you mightily”.
Of course God blesses. Of course God gives people favor, and even gives them influence sometimes. But these were not the main priorities of the Biblical prophets. This did not form the core of their message.
In Biblical times, there were two types of prophets.
- Firstly, there were those who feasted at the King’s table because they had been co-opted to speak well of evil leaders (1 Kings 18:19). They were always bringing these smarmy words of favor and influence and prosperity to the king. And the king lapped it up. Like a sucka.
- Secondly, there were those who were exiled to the caves, or beheaded (like John the Baptist) because they spoke out about the injustice or immorality of their leaders (1 Kings 18:4). The king didn’t like them very much. He tried to have them knee-capped.
I would suggest to you that, the leaders of the religious right in America, Charisma News, and so-called “prophetic leaders” of the charismatic and evangelical church (like James Dobson and Franklin Graham), have become the false prophets of this generation.
Case in point, their support of Donald Trump – possibly the most corrupt, immoral and unjust man to run for leadership in the Western World in recent years.
This man and his evangelical groupies have led a majority of white American evangelical Christians astray. (A Pew survey showed that 78% of white evangelicals support Trump).
These false prophets claim he is “God’s Trumpet” who will restore the power they long for – power over Supreme Court appointments. They hope to feast at his table when he comes into power and are willing to turn a blind eye to things they have been talking about for decades, including adultery, sexual assault, racism, misogyny, violence, etc.
They are the very definition of false prophets. And to my mind this calls into question every aspect of their ministry and teaching. They clearly DON’T have a hotline to God, because I know that God is particularly concerned about orphans and widows and foreigners. The very people that Trump bulldozes to build his next casino.
I urge you to consider what a true prophet sounds like. Listen to people who echo the prophets of the Bible, speaking truth to power and grace and love to the downtrodden.
Here is a sampling of Biblical prophets just to remind you what they sound like:
“Hear this, you who trample the needy and destroy the poor of the land!”
Amos the prophet (Amos 8:4)
“Seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”
Isaiah the prophet (Isaiah 1:17)
“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice”
Jeremiah the prophet (Jeremiah 22:13)
“Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
Ezekiel the prophet (16:49)
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Micah the prophet (Micah 6:8)
“Thus says the Lord of hosts… do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the immigrant, or the poor…”
Zechariah the prophet (Zechariah 7:9-10)
Got it? It’s pretty clear to anyone who has immersed themselves in these scriptures.
The teachings of many modern day evangelical church leaders just do not resonate with God’s heart for justice, the way the Biblical prophets did.
So who will you listen to? I’d love to know, who you see as prophetic in this day and age? Share in the comments.
Romney’s main complaint in the piece is that Donald Trump is a mercurial and divisive leader. That’s true, of course. But beneath the personal slights, Romney has a policy critique of Trump. He seems genuinely angry that Trump might pull American troops out of the Syrian civil war. Romney doesn’t explain how staying in Syria would benefit America. He doesn’t appear to consider that a relevant question. More policing in the Middle East is always better. We know that. Virtually everyone in Washington agrees.
Corporate tax cuts are also popular in Washington, and Romney is strongly on board with those, too. His piece throws a rare compliment to Trump for cutting the corporate rate a year ago.
That’s not surprising. Romney spent the bulk of his business career at a firm called Bain Capital. Bain Capital all but invented what is now a familiar business strategy:
- Take over an existing company for a short period of time,
- cut costs by firing employees,
- run up the debt,
- extract the wealth, and
- move on, sometimes
- leaving retirees without their earned pensions.
Romney became fantastically rich doing this.
Meanwhile, a remarkable number of the companies are now bankrupt or extinct. This is the private equity model. Our ruling class sees nothing wrong with it. It’s how they run the country.
Mitt Romney refers to unwavering support for a finance-based economy and an internationalist foreign policy as the “mainstream Republican” view. And he’s right about that. For generations, Republicans have considered it their duty to make the world safe for banking, while simultaneously prosecuting ever more foreign wars. Modern Democrats generally support those goals enthusiastically.
There are signs, however, that most people do not support this, and not just in America. In countries around the world — France, Brazil, Sweden, the Philippines, Germany, and many others — voters are suddenly backing candidates and ideas that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. These are not isolated events. What you’re watching is entire populations revolting against leaders who refuse to improve their lives.
Something like this has been in happening in our country for three years. Donald Trump rode a surge of popular discontent all the way to the White House. Does he understand the political revolution that he harnessed? Can he reverse the economic and cultural trends that are destroying America? Those are open questions.
But they’re less relevant than we think. At some point, Donald Trump will be gone. The rest of us will be gone, too. The country will remain. What kind of country will be it be then? How do we want our grandchildren to live? These are the only questions that matter.
The answer used to be obvious. The overriding goal for America is more prosperity, meaning cheaper consumer goods. But is that still true? Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones, or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far. A lot of Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country. Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.
The goal for America is both simpler and more elusive than mere prosperity. It’s happiness. There are a lot of ingredients in being happy:
Above all, deep relationships with other people. Those are the things that you want for your children. They’re what our leaders should want for us, and would want if they cared.
But our leaders don’t care. We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule. They’re day traders. Substitute teachers. They’re just passing through. They have no skin in this game, and it shows. They can’t solve our problems. They don’t even bother to understand our problems.
One of the biggest lies our leaders tell us that you can separate economics from everything else that matters. Economics is a topic for public debate. Family and faith and culture, meanwhile, those are personal matters. Both parties believe this.
Members of our educated upper-middle-classes are now the backbone of the Democratic Party who usually describe themselves as fiscally responsible and socially moderate. In other words, functionally libertarian. They don’t care how you live, as long as the bills are paid and the markets function. Somehow, they don’t see a connection between people’s personal lives and the health of our economy, or for that matter, the country’s ability to pay its bills. As far as they’re concerned, these are two totally separate categories.
Social conservatives, meanwhile, come to the debate from the opposite perspective, and yet reach a strikingly similar conclusion. The real problem, you’ll hear them say, is that the American family is collapsing. Nothing can be fixed before we fix that. Yet, like the libertarians they claim to oppose, many social conservatives also consider markets sacrosanct. The idea that families are being crushed by market forces seems never to occur to them. They refuse to consider it. Questioning markets feels like apostasy.
Both sides miss the obvious point: Culture and economics are inseparably intertwined. Certain economic systems allow families to thrive. Thriving families make market economies possible. You can’t separate the two. It used to be possible to deny this. Not anymore. The evidence is now overwhelming. How do we know? Consider the inner cities.
Thirty years ago, conservatives looked at Detroit or Newark and many other places and were horrified by what they saw. Conventional families had all but disappeared in poor neighborhoods. The majority of children were born out of wedlock. Single mothers were the rule. Crime and drugs and disorder became universal.
What caused this nightmare? Liberals didn’t even want to acknowledge the question. They were benefiting from the disaster, in the form of reliable votes. Conservatives, though, had a ready explanation for inner-city dysfunction and it made sense: big government. Decades of badly-designed social programs had driven fathers from the home and created what conservatives called a “culture of poverty” that trapped people in generational decline.
There was truth in this. But it wasn’t the whole story. How do we know? Because virtually the same thing has happened decades later to an entirely different population. In many ways, rural America now looks a lot like Detroit.
This is striking because rural Americans wouldn’t seem to have much in common with anyone from the inner city. These groups have different cultures, different traditions and political beliefs. Usually they have different skin colors. Rural people are white conservatives, mostly.
Yet, the pathologies of modern rural America are familiar to anyone who visited downtown Baltimore in the 1980s: Stunning out of wedlock birthrates. High male unemployment. A terrifying drug epidemic. Two different worlds. Similar outcomes. How did this happen? You’d think our ruling class would be interested in knowing the answer. But mostly they’re not. They don’t have to be interested. It’s easier to import foreign labor to take the place of native-born Americans who are slipping behind.
But Republicans now represent rural voters. They ought to be interested. Here’s a big part of the answer: male wages declined. Manufacturing, a male-dominated industry, all but disappeared over the course of a generation. All that remained in many places were the schools and the hospitals, both traditional employers of women. In many places, women suddenly made more than men.
Now, before you applaud this as a victory for feminism, consider the effects. Study after study has shown that when men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them. Maybe they should want to marry them, but they don’t. Over big populations, this causes a drop in marriage, a spike in out-of-wedlock births, and all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow — more drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, fewer families formed in the next generation.
This isn’t speculation. This is not propaganda from the evangelicals. It’s social science. We know it’s true. Rich people know it best of all. That’s why they get married before they have kids. That model works. But increasingly, marriage is a luxury only the affluent in America can afford.
And yet, and here’s the bewildering and infuriating part, those very same affluent married people, the ones making virtually all the decisions in our society, are doing pretty much nothing to help the people below them get and stay married. Rich people are happy to fight malaria in Congo. But working to raise men’s wages in Dayton or Detroit? That’s crazy.
This is negligence on a massive scale. Both parties ignore the crisis in marriage. Our mindless cultural leaders act like it’s still 1961, and the biggest problem American families face is that sexism is preventing millions of housewives from becoming investment bankers or Facebook executives.
For our ruling class, more investment banking is always the answer. They teach us it’s more virtuous to devote your life to some soulless corporation than it is to raise your own kids.
Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook wrote an entire book about this. Sandberg explained that our first duty is to shareholders, above our own children. No surprise there. Sandberg herself is one of America’s biggest shareholders. Propaganda like this has made her rich.
What’s remarkable is how the rest of us responded to it. We didn’t question why Sandberg was saying this. We didn’t laugh in her face at the pure absurdity of it. Our corporate media celebrated Sandberg as the leader of a liberation movement. Her book became a bestseller: “Lean In.” As if putting a corporation first is empowerment. It is not. It is bondage. Republicans should say so.
They should also speak out against the ugliest parts of our financial system. Not all commerce is good. Why is it defensible to loan people money they can’t possibly repay? Or charge them interest that impoverishes them? Payday loan outlets in poor neighborhoods collect 400 percent annual interest.
We’re OK with that? We shouldn’t be. Libertarians tell us that’s how markets work — consenting adults making voluntary decisions about how to live their lives. OK. But it’s also disgusting. If you care about America, you ought to oppose the exploitation of Americans, whether it’s happening in the inner city or on Wall Street.
And by the way, if you really loved your fellow Americans, as our leaders should, if it would break your heart to see them high all the time. Which they are. A huge number of our kids, especially our boys, are smoking weed constantly. You may not realize that, because new technology has made it odorless. But it’s everywhere.
And that’s not an accident. Once our leaders understood they could get rich from marijuana, marijuana became ubiquitous. In many places, tax-hungry politicians have legalized or decriminalized it. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner now lobbies for the marijuana industry. His fellow Republicans seem fine with that. “Oh, but it’s better for you than alcohol,” they tell us.
Maybe. Who cares? Talk about missing the point. Try having dinner with a 19-year-old who’s been smoking weed. The life is gone. Passive, flat, trapped in their own heads. Do you want that for your kids? Of course not. Then why are our leaders pushing it on us? You know the reason. Because they don’t care about us.
When you care about people, you do your best to treat them fairly. Our leaders don’t even try. They hand out jobs and contracts and scholarships and slots at prestigious universities based purely on how we look. There’s nothing less fair than that, though our tax code comes close.
Under our current system, an American who works for a salary pays about twice the tax rate as someone who’s living off inherited money and doesn’t work at all. We tax capital at half of what we tax labor. It’s a sweet deal if you work in finance, as many of our rich people do.
In 2010, for example, Mitt Romney made about $22 million dollars in investment income. He paid an effective federal tax rate of 14 percent. For normal upper-middle-class wage earners, the federal tax rate is nearly 40 percent. No wonder Mitt Romney supports the status quo. But for everyone else, it’s infuriating.
Our leaders rarely mention any of this. They tell us our multi-tiered tax code is based on the principles of the free market. Please. It’s based on laws that the Congress passed, laws that companies lobbied for in order to increase their economic advantage. It worked well for those people. They did increase their economic advantage. But for everyone else, it came at a big cost. Unfairness is profoundly divisive. When you favor one child over another, your kids don’t hate you. They hate each other.
That happens in countries, too. It’s happening in ours, probably by design. Divided countries are easier to rule. And nothing divides us like the perception that some people are getting special treatment. In our country, some people definitely are getting special treatment. Republicans should oppose that with everything they have.
What kind of country do you want to live in? A fair country. A decent country. A cohesive country. A country whose leaders don’t accelerate the forces of change purely for their own profit and amusement. A country you might recognize when you’re old.
A country that listens to young people who don’t live in Brooklyn. A country where you can make a solid living outside of the big cities. A country where Lewiston, Maine seems almost as important as the west side of Los Angeles. A country where environmentalism means getting outside and picking up the trash. A clean, orderly, stable country that respects itself. And above all, a country where normal people with an average education who grew up in no place special can get married, and have happy kids, and repeat unto the generations. A country that actually cares about families, the building block of everything.
Few people around the world today are likely to recognize the name of Lin Weixi, a Chinese villager whose death helped launch the First Opium War, the conflict that came to define China’s relationship with the West in the modern era. In early July of 1839, as tensions between Britain and China were heightening over a trade imbalance, a couple of British merchant sailors in Kowloon got drunk on rice liqueur and beat Lin, who subsequently died. The British superintendent of trade, Charles Elliot, arrested the sailors, but refused to turn them over to the Chinese authorities, an act that China regarded as a violation of its sovereignty and an offense to justice.
.. Huawei is the largest telecom-equipment manufacturer in the world, and it recently overtook Apple as the second largest manufacturer of smartphones, after Samsung. Huawei has also emerged an increasingly powerful player in the tech industry. This year, it announced that it would increase its annual expenditure on research and development to as much as twenty billion dollars, which would place it among the world’s top R. & D. spenders, with Amazon and Alphabet.
.. Huawei’s investment in innovation has been persistent and purposeful. According to the head of geotechnology at Eurasia Group, Huawei is the only company that can currently produce “at scale and cost” all the elements of a 5G network, heralded as the next frontier of wireless communications. As such, it is positioned to take the lead in what’s been called the fourth industrial revolution.
.. Washington has long been worried that Chinese telecommunications equipment can be used for intelligence purposes. Huawei was founded, in 1987, by Ren, who was formerly an engineer in the People’s Liberation Army. Last week, the Times reportedthat “Counterintelligence agents and federal prosecutors began exploring possible cases against Huawei’s leadership in 2010” and that “as they investigated Huawei, F.B.I. agents grew concerned that company officers were working on behalf of the Chinese government.” In 2012, a U.S. House Intelligence Committee report concluded that Huawei “was unwilling to explain its relationship with the Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party,” and that the United States “should view with suspicion the continued penetration of the U.S. telecommunications market by Chinese telecommunications companies.” The Times also reported that “the top United States intelligence agencies told senators this year that Americans should not buy Huawei products.”
.. All this is viewed very differently in China, partly for reasons that date back to the nation’s devastating defeat in the First Opium War. In the eighteenth century, the British wanted tea much more than the Chinese wanted anything from the West, resulting in a chronic trade imbalance and a huge outflow of silver and gold from West to East. To staunch that flow, British traders decided to flood the Chinese market with opium from India, violating Chinese laws that forbade trafficking of the narcotic. As efforts to enforce the ban broke down, the British handily captured the city of Canton, before marching up the Chinese coastline. Within two years, Great Britain had made significant headway into the Chinese market, pried open a series of ports, and extracted concessions that the Qing dynasty was helpless to deny.
.. The war taught China two lessons it has never forgot.
- The first was that it had failed to recognize the threat of Western technological prowess. While Britain was energetically cultivating the use of steam in the first industrial revolution—and the steam-powered ships that propelled its victory in the war—China had sequestered itself, falling behind in mastering the technology that became the modern world’s instrument of power. President Xi Jinping’s push for technological supremacy in the twenty-first century can be seen as a continued revision of Chinese tactics.
- The second was that principle matters little in an international war of wills. In 1840, a Chinese official named Lin Zexu was tasked with stamping out the opium trade. He sent a letter to Queen Victoria, signed by the Emperor, in which he made an appeal to her conscience. “The purpose of your ships in coming to China is to realize a large profit,” Lin wrote. “You do not wish opium to harm your own country, but you choose to bring that harm to other countries such as China. Why?”
Lin’s letter, however, reportedly never reached the Queen, and, in Parliament, the political and economic justification given for war elided ethical concerns. Aggression against the Chinese, it was argued, was entirely about defending Britain’s honor. Many agreed with the sentiments of Samuel Warren, a novelist and later a Member of Parliament who, in a widely distributed pamphlet titled “The Opium Question,” wrote, “In the name of the dear glory and honour of old England, where are the councils which will hesitate for a moment in cleansing them, even if it be in blood, from the stains which barbarian insolence has so deeply tarnished them? . . . Why are not there seen and heard there, by those incredulous and vaunting barbarians, the glare and thunder of our artillery?”.. Ultimately, a war of rivals is also a war of perceptions. During the lead-up to the First Opium War, the British public was most aroused not by accounts of opium’s destructive effects in China but by the indignity suffered by their fellow countrymen at the hands of the “incredulous and vaunting barbarians.” Today, the Chinese public is outraged by the arrest of Meng. National pride has been stoked by what the Global Times has termed a “despicable hooliganism” and an “unconscionable” attempt to contain Chinese growth. “Some Western countries are resorting to political means to resist Huawei’s attempts to enter into their markets,” the newspaper claimed, and its editor tweeted that “Arresting Meng Wanzhou is bringing terrorism to state and business competition.” Little sympathy seems to be expressed for what the state news agency Xinhua called “coercive measures” in detaining two Canadian citizens—a former diplomat and a businessman—in China in the days following Meng’s arrest, on the grounds of unspecified “activities jeopardizing Chinese national security.” It is difficult not to see those arrests as related to Meng’s detention... Even if people in the West have heard of Lin Weixi, it’s doubtful that they would see any connection between the case of a villager killed by a couple of drunken British sailors and that of Meng Wanzhou, a top executive accused of fraud who is able to post a multimillion-dollar bail and live under a sort of house arrest in one of two opulent homes that she and her husband own in Canada. They would certainly see a sharp distinction between China’s Party-managed judiciary and Canada’s independent courts. But a Western court’s attitude toward a Chinese citizen will be understood in China as an echo of a time when Western politicians exploited an asymmetric international order. How the nations involved choose to proceed at this juncture, two hundred years later, may come to define the terms of Sino-American engagement for many years to come.