Opinion | To Escape the Trump Trap and Save Democracy, Make America More Equal

It’s easy to seek relief from fear of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s return by imagining that soon his outrages will stack so high that even loyal supporters will begin to fall away. If 34 felony indictments from falsifying business records didn’t crack the spell, surely recent news of Trump’s stunning record of business failure will feed doubt about the man’s judgment.

Right?

Hmm. Maybe not. Yes, it’s true that Trump is now the first U.S. president to be tried and convicted of crimes. Yet, almost half of Americans believe these charges are politically motivated, and thus unjust. Only about a third disagree.

So, as we face one of the most critical elections in our nation’s history, extreme care is in order. Just how do we reach those still leaning toward Trump, but who might be deterred?

Probably not by insulting them, or railing against them in any way.

Do we really think that a person whose life has focused on becoming one of the world’s wealthiest—Donald Trump is worth an estimated $7.5 billion—is a probable leader to move us toward greater fairness?

Instead, Democrats could broadcast empathy for the anger animating Trump supporters by condemning the deep unfairness in our economy that makes their lives so difficult and offering real solutions.

Too often even progressives let stand the myth of America as a middle-class country, failing to acknowledge that our income inequality is more extreme than in over 100 nations, worse even than El Salvador and Kenya. We can alert and hopefully motivate our fellow Americans by using this sad truth as proof that we can do better, much better.

At the same time, we can help awaken Americans to the urgency of electing leadership determined to strengthen our democracy. We can spread the shocking truth that we are ranked lowest among liberal democracies by the Electoral Integrity Project. Globally we come in a sad 75th overall and 15th among the 29 states of the Americas. In Germany’s Wurzburg University Democracy Matrix we place somewhat better: 36th worldwide between Israel and Cape Verde.

This news can be hard to swallow. But we can reframe our poor rankings as proof of possibility. We, too, can reverse our extreme economic inequality as we establish a more accountable democracy.

Also, Democrats can center election efforts on helping to register those hurting most from Republican policies. In that vein, note that in 2022 voter turnout in households with incomes below $20,000 was only a third—half the 67% turnout of those with household incomes above $100,000.

What if Democrats focused more on closing that huge gap? One tool is the vote-by-mail option, already proven to increase turnout among low-income communities.

Defenders of the status quo and corporate power often charge that any rule to keep markets fair is a form of creeping “socialism” antithetical to democracy. Progressives can counter by pointing out that democracy itself depends on market rules serving us all—rules that prevent wealth from consolidating in the hands of a few who can then use that advantage to gain inordinate political power.

Progressives can also underscore that control over wealth has tightened to a shocking degree. The Congressional Budget Office tells us that the wealthiest 10% hold 72% of total wealth. And the bottom half? Just 2%.

In other words, a market economy could work for all of us, but only if we set democratic rules around it. We can, for example, reinstate rules preventing monopolies, which go way back to 1890 when the Sherman Antitrust law prohibited “monopolization.” However, in the 1980s Ronald Reagan’s administration killed them. So today our economy is greatly more consolidated than it was a generation ago, reports the Open Market Institute.

Examples?

Today, Walmart alone controls 72% of “warehouse clubs” and super centers. Amazon sells three quarters of all e-books and two thirds of hard copy books sold online. For 79% of groceries produced, just four or fewer companies control at least 50% of the market—for example, just three companies own 93% of sodas. And in grocery retail, just four companies control 65% of the market, as mom-and-pop stores close all across the U.S. and food prices increase.

Equally important, we can reduce—and eventually remove—the power of private wealth over democracy via public financing of elections and greater transparency. In the past, public funding has given voters a wider choice of candidates, including two underdogs who went on to win the Oval Office—Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Reagan in 1980. It worked well in presidential races for a quarter of a century.

Undoubtedly, most Americans desire a society grounded in basic fairness enabling opportunity for all. So, we can also underscore the obvious: Do we really think that a person whose life has focused on becoming one of the world’s wealthiest—Donald Trump is worth an estimated $7.5 billion—is a probable leader to move us toward greater fairness? Perhaps we need to think again, and set our sights on reducing the inequalities that are driving Trump supporters to think otherwise.


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