Local Author Explains Poverty and the Rise of Trumpism

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Professor Sasha Abramsky speaking at “What Happened to Our Country? a public forum of the Gatherings Initiative

Several hundred people turned out for the latest Gatherings Initiative event, which featured local author and professor at UC Davis Sasha Abramsky, author of Jumping at Shadows: the Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.

The talk took place on Sunday afternoon at the Davis Senior Center and was followed by a panel discussion led by Davis City Councilmember Lucas Frerichs which included: Mindy Romero, UC Davis Center for Regional Change; Sandy Holman, Culture Co-op/United in Unity; Kate Laddish, Democracy Winters; and Anne Kjemtrup, Davis Muslim Hands.

Professor Abramsky talked about the rise of demagogic, fear-based culture.  He said that when a new leader normally comes in, we tend to work out an arrangement whereby we cooperate even when we disagree.  “When cooperation proves impossible, at some point you move from cooperation to opposition,”  he said, and then at some point where opposition becomes impossible, “you move from opposition to active resistance.

“The amazing thing about this moment is that trajectory happened in about ten seconds,” he said.  “As soon as Donald Trump got elected, it became absolutely obvious that we were in a historically unique moment.”

The question is how we got to this moment, and he started his discussion in 2008 with the aftermath of the Great Recession.  But he said that “the headline numbers began getting better.

“When you just looked at the headline numbers about five years out from the Great Recession, the headline numbers were looking pretty good,” he said.  The key question is “how does a country with headline numbers as America’s, a country at the peak of its political power, its diplomatic power, and its military power, a country which has more economic resources than any other country in human history, how does that country fall prey to the politics of fear and politics of demagoguery in a way that we saw in the last election season and the way that we’re now living in the consequences of today?”

Professor Sasha Abramsky addresses a full house in the multipurpose room of the Davis Senior Center

He asked how a country not in the midst of any sort of political, economic or military collapse can “vote for a demagogue.”  He said, “A man who looked at Muslims and said, they’re the reason for your problems.  A man who looked at Mexicans and said, they’re criminals or build a wall against them.”

He said there is nothing unique about this in human history, “but it normally occurs at a moment of complete national collapse.”

For Professor Abramsky, the question of how this happened lies in a combination of factors.  First is economic anxiety, which he said was not just present since 2008, but actually went back decades and affected people at the bottom of the economy.

Second was this “petri dish of fear and anxiety” which he attributed to factors like terrorism, rapid cultural change, rapid technological change, sexual identity changes – “all the things that have been occurring over the last 30, 40, 50 years and for many people are scary.

“When you put it all together,” he said, “suddenly you have a combination of events that creates a fear-based political culture.”

The headline numbers, he said, “that’s all true,” but it’s not the full story.  The problem is “that stubborn poverty remains.”  While we may have 4.3 percent unemployment nationally, we have 14 percent poverty.  “That’s by an extraordinarily cautious measure of poverty,” he stated.

He said that one in five kids lives in poverty in the United States, and in some cities the African American rate is closer to one in three kids living in poverty.

“Just extraordinary numbers,” he said.

And there are millions of Americans in “deep poverty” who are unable to buy food, get health care, and get basic needs.  “When you see those numbers and then you hear the stories of those people in poverty, suddenly the economic anxiety starts to make more sense.

“For the people at the bottom of the economy, they’re not wrong,” he said.  “They’re lives are heading in reverse.”

He said that whites with no more than a high school degree, “your life expectancy in the last decade hasn’t just risen at a slower pace than that of other demographics, it’s actually gone down.  It’s gone down by about five years.”  He said, “That creates an extraordinary stress if people’s lives are being truncated to such an extent.  That’s not happening in any other Western Democracy.”

He said, “Is it any wonder that that particular group was very very susceptible to the politics of fear, the politics of anxiety, the politics of demagoguery?”

Professor Abramsky cites Yale Political Scientist Jacob Hacker who calls this “a great risk shift.”  “Even though on average we’re getting wealthier, we’re doing so in such an unequal way that for tens of millions of Americans, they’re not seeing the benefits of economic growth because those benefits are going up the economic ladder to the very very top, the 1 percent.

“But the further down that pyramid you go, the less you see economic benefits occurring,” he said.  He said for the bottom 20 percent, “your real wages peaked in the Nixon era.  That’s a long time ago.

“In between for the last 45 years, year in and year out, the bottom quintile has seen its real income go down,” he said.  The next quintile has seen its income stagnate.  “So for the bottom percent of this economy, at best they and their families have been running in place for the last four and a half decades.  And at worst their standard of living has been imploding.”

Later he argued that for 45 years “we’ve managed to underplay the consequences of poverty.  And now what’s happened is all of this is leaping the range.”  All of the anxiety and uncertainty, not just among the poor but also the wealthy, that is created by an unequal society “has been unleashed.”

He said, “All of the rage of poverty or that fear of the poor has generated has coalesced.  And all of these streams have come together in our current political moment, to pave the way to demagogy.”

After Professor Abramsky finished speaking, a panel discussion, moderated by Davis City Councilmember Lucas Frerichs, discussed how the social justice themes of the presentation relate to our lives in Yolo County and Davis.

 

Davis City Councilmember Lucas Frerichs heads up a panel discussion from left to right: Kate Laddish, Democracy Winters; Sandy Holman, Culture Co-op / United in Unity; Anne Kjemtrup, Davis Muslim Hands; and Mindy Romero, UC Davis Center for Regional Change 
Kate Laddish, Democracy Winters; Sandy Holman, Culture Co-op / United in Unity; and Anne Kjemtrup, Davis Muslim Hands
Kate Laddish, Democracy Winters, speaks
Sandy Holman, Culture Co-op / United in Unity and Anne Kjemtrup, Davis Muslim Hands
Anne Kjemtrup, Davis Muslim Hands speaking
Mindy Romero, UC Davis Center for Regional Change

—David M. Greenwald reporting



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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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21 thoughts on “Local Author Explains Poverty and the Rise of Trumpism”

  1. Ron

    He said, “Is it any wonder that that particular group” (Caucasians, with no more than a high school  diploma) “was very susceptible to the politics of fear, the politics of anxiety, the politics of demagoguery”.

    Why doesn’t that group vote for someone like Bernie Sanders more often?  (Someone who promises to redistribute wealth.)  Seems like that’s the question that always eludes those who study this types of phenomenon.  And, those in more liberal areas of the country seem to have no clue regarding the appeal.  Some simply and literally scream, “how”?

    I suspect it has something to do with traditional (more conservative) “American Values/Identity”, etc. (Even when the person that they support might harm them, financially.)

    Overall, this country is still surprisingly conservative (when you get outside of coastal states).

     

    1. Todd Edelman

      Lots of those people DID vote for Bernie and I’ve heard that some switched from Trump to Bernie if they got some good information and a hug.

      But also Hillary and the DNC had some funny ideas about how to defeat Trump and Bernie was not part of that scheme…

      1. Ron

        Todd:  Maybe so, although they seem so different.  I still think that those with more liberal points of view don’t really understand the appeal of someone like Trump.  (Flag-waving, traditional values.)   You won’t find much of that, in areas such as Davis.  (Perhaps Roseville, Folsom.  But definitely in other areas of the country.)

        Ironically, another commenter pointed out that the alleged murderer in Portland alternately supported one, or the other candidate (Trump, and Sanders).  Seems so odd, to me.

  2. Todd Edelman

    Sandy Holman is so great. Her group organized Juneteenth at the VMA which had a great group of performers and others present, framed of course by history and respect for elders – and she connected the latter during her words yesterday.

    Mindy Romero made a good point about complementing activism with voting and it was great to learn from the others about the region’s Muslim community and what’s happened recently in Winters.

    I’m about 50 and was one of the youngest people there — not saying others of my age group are not interested in this type of event but I’m sure that “senior center” is a turn-off for some. (For me the location makes it interesting, and this is not really just a senior activity so… I dunno. Branding and words make a difference: “Davis Futures Forum” fills Council Chambers but at the most recent BTSSC meeting – what’s that? – I was the only community member present not formally connected to something on the agenda.) In any case it was great to see a situation where to a large extent – except perhaps for political position – the people and speakers identify differently.

    A perfect event, really. And a few elders came by bicycle, in the rain! Maybe it would have been nice to start and end with some simple acoustic live music. Also Lucas Frerichs was totally in the groove as a moderator.

  3. Tia Will

    He said there is nothing unique about this in human history, “but it normally occurs at a moment of complete national collapse.” 

    I was out of town and so may have missed this point, but would like to make sure it is included. Both candidate Trump and Bannon have made it clear that there must be a complete systemic collapse before things will improve. I believe that at the very least, they attempted to portray the United States as though it were in complete national collapse during the campaign, and at worse, may be attempting to engineer a collapse ( as they are doing with the ACA).

     

    1. Jim Hoch

      Perhaps nothing is happening in his world but that may be a result of head/rectum syndrome. Outside poeple’s way of life is disappearing. Towns are withering away and one symptom of this stress is the narcotic epidemic which is killing tens of thousands.

      People went for “Hope” in 2008 and 2012. HRC offered to put thousands of more people out of work and refused to even show up in unfashionable places.

  4. David Greenwald

    I must admit I was expecting Keith to be the first one to weigh in on this.  My impression from last night was it was a fascinating discussion but ultimately one done in an echo chamber.

    1. Jim Hoch

      I’m overseas but happy to critique his presentation as reported. I don’t support Trump the way some other posters here do but I can smell hysterical BS.

       

      LMK

      1. David Greenwald

        In what way would you describe the presentation as “hysterical”? I was trying to keep my piece to about 1000 words, I thought it was very well documented and methodically laid out.

        1. Jim Hoch

          “it became absolutely obvious that we were in a historically unique moment.”

          This election is only “unique” in the repellent nature of Trump’s personality and to a lesser extent his style and lack of qualifications.

          There is nothing in Trump’s policies that are especially unique of different. The way he goes about them is entertaining/horrifying, depending on your perspective, but the policies themselves are not “unique”.

          To me it reads like a guy who is completely unwilling to look at the fact that his policy agenda was rejected by large segments of the population, including many who voted for Obama twice.

          Rather than look at where he can find a way to create a Clinton/Obama style coalition he goes on a full b—h fit in, as you described it, an echo chamber.

          I don’t see this as a path to success.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            “Rather than look at where he can find a way to create a Clinton/Obama style coalition he goes on a full b—h fit in, as you described it, an echo chamber.”

            I think you misunderstand my echo chamber comment which was directed at the fact that everyone was talking to themselves. But I think the progressive left would argue that a Clinton/Obama style attempt at coalition building was part of the demise of the left this election as the mainstream portion of the Democratic party misread the electorate.

  5. Tia Will

    Jim

    I think that you are under estimating the uniqueness of this election and its aftermath. I am no conspiracy theorist and will provide examples of uniqueness.

    1) New to have candidate state that he feels that collapse of our entire system is necessary.

    2) New to have candidate make specific personal attacks & threats and encourage bullying at a minimum and outright violence against opponents at some rallies.

    3) New to have a candidate openly encourage foreign interference with another candidate’s campaign.

    4) New to have a candidate with zero experience who then having promised to surround himself with the “best” people as advisers, surrounds himself with an unprecedentedly unqualified cabinet and advisers.

    5) New to have a president engage in such flagrant intermingling of business for private profit with government affairs.

    6) New to have a president so flagrantly disrespectful and seemingly ignorant of the functioning of other aspects of government, especially the courts.

    I suppose I could go on, but I am sure that you get the drift of why I feel that we are dealing with a unique situation.

     

    1. Jim Hoch

      Hi Tia,
      My reply will have to be short and unsupported by references due to my current situation. it’s not a lack of respect for your points.
      1) New to have candidate state that he feels that collapse of our entire system is necessary.
      Google “William Jenning Bryan” for a start.
      2) New to have candidate make specific personal attacks & threats and encourage bullying at a minimum and outright violence against opponents at some rallies.
      3) New to have a candidate openly encourage foreign interference with another candidate’s campaign.
      Israel, need I say more?
      4) New to have a candidate with zero experience who then having promised to surround himself with the “best” people as advisers, surrounds himself with an unprecedentedly unqualified cabinet and advisers.
      What would be unique would be a candidate promising to surround themselves with complete idiots. As for lack of experience I suppose Eisenhower immediately comes to mind.
      5) New to have a president engage in such flagrant intermingling of business for private profit with government affairs.
      Recently I would agree, however looking to the 19th century I can find some parallels though I would prefer to check my cites rather than post from memory.
      6) New to have a president so flagrantly disrespectful and seemingly ignorant of the functioning of other aspects of government, especially the courts.
      I suppose that he is rather crude about it though criticism of the courts is nothing new. As to your separation of powers argument I could find thousands of quotes of judges criticizing both the legislative and executive branches yet nobody seems to mind when they say that certain laws are unwise or that the DOJ should not have brought a particular case. Given the freedom with which the judiciary criticizes the other branches on a regular basis it seems disingenuous to say the courts are off limits. Now the personal criticism, “Dudes a foreigner”  is crude but not unprecedented, again more a issue of style rather than substance.

  6. John Hobbs

    I have a simpler, but much less hopeful explanation for this: Stupidity and racism. The bible belt is stupid. They have worked for decades to insure this stupidity. The east coast is racist and this was the best opportunity for the insecure white guys to put in a man who’d see they get their privilege recognized. what neither part of his constituency grasps is that this traitor is in it for reasons too nefarious for most of us to believe.

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