Author Steven Brill: Election of Donald Trump was a "revolt against meritocracy"

Steven Brill on his new book "Tailspin" and how American meritocracy actually produced an era of oligarchy

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 29, 2018 5:00AM (EDT)

Steven Brill (Knopf/Michael Lionstar)
Steven Brill (Knopf/Michael Lionstar)

Extreme wealth and income inequality are a threat to democracy.

The Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court declared that unlimited political spending is a type of protected free speech. By this logic, corporations are now people and can use their near-limitless resources to undermine democracy by subverting the will of the American people. Gangster capitalists such as the Koch Brothers -- who also do not believe in basic principles of democracy -- are enforcing a true tyranny of the minority through their donations to candidates, their funding of interest groups and lobbyists and their endowment of entire university departments and professors to produce "scholarship" that supports their agenda.

Beyond public policy, wealth and income inequality are impacting the American people in other immediate and personal ways as well. By one recent report, 43 percent of Americans cannot afford basic necessities. Wages are stagnant and declining when adjusted for inflation. An entire generation of young people is not saving for future retirement because they anticipate working forever and also do not have any disposable income.

What led to these outcomes and what can be done to remedy them? Could these systemic failings have other causes as well? I recently spoke about these topics and others with Steven Brill, the bestselling author of such books as "America's Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System" and "Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools."

In his provocative new book "Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall – and Those Fighting to Reverse It," Brill argues that the post-World War II expansion of American meritocracy actually created a new type of oligarchy, one whose members are better equipped to protect the gains and power of their own group to the disadvantage of others not in their class.

In this conversation, Brill and I discuss this boomerang effect, the structural factors which created the political conditions necessary for a right-wing authoritarian such as Donald Trump to win the White House, and how America's political leaders should embrace a politics that serves the interests of all people, not just affluent elites who have separated themselves from the day-to-day struggles and needs of most Americans. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Donald Trump's victory and this current political crisis were decades in the making. This moment is a reflection of serious institutional and structural problems in American society. How do you make sense of it all?

During the 1960s I was part of a generation that benefited from the expansion of American meritocracy. I was one of the first group of students to be admitted to Yale when it was opened up to Jews, admissions was made need-blind, people started getting financial aid and Yale transformed from being just the old boys' network to something a bit more meritocratic and open. The beneficiaries of that in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s would become the  lawyers who created and engineered corporate takeovers and ways to fight unions in the South, as well as how to lobby so that regulations would not be passed. That generation also became the bankers who created casino capitalism.

The election of Trump is a kind of revolt against the meritocracy. Consider this: Hillary Clinton is the epitome of the meritocracy. She’s first-generation money. She went to Wellesley and Yale Law School. She’s always prepared. She never shoots from the hip, she seems cool and calculating but always does her homework. Now compare her to Trump. He is a guy who was born with money, went bankrupt six times, always shoots from the hip, takes pride in never, ever being prepared, and is the ultimate freeloader and not a product of the meritocracy.

But the people who were fed up with what this new meritocracy produced said, “What the hell -- let Trump have a shot.”

Trump won every single category of white voters. It wasn’t some cartoon caricature of the "white working class" that the mainstream media likes to paint about the rubes out there in the hinterlands. That narrative about white "economic anxiety" is easier to report on and write about than it is to dig into the real systemic and structural problems in American society.

Anyone running on a Republican ballot is going to have locked in a certain percentage of white upper-class votes. What I think really gets lost in the narrative is that the people who’ve been screwed in this country are the middle class and the poor. But Trump, like George Wallace, was able to turn the middle class against the poor. For example, by saying, "All the problems you’re having are the result of these poor people" -- in his case, immigrants -- "who are getting advantages that you don’t get." But in reality, the middle class and others who are not rich have been screwed over too.

Another dimension to the rise of Trump and his right-wing populism shtick is this sense among his public that there are people -- their social betters and superiors -- who are telling them how to behave and ultimately be better people. This all gets bundled into "political correctness." There is also a sense that some people, those who are not white, are "jumping ahead in line." Trump was skillful in his ability to exploit that anger.

Yes, I think that’s true. I would also add that they are resentful because government doesn’t work for them. Basically democracies work when there is a balance between a competitive marketplace where people can achieve and succeed but also an embrace of the common good where those who don't make [it] to the top in one generation may see their children or grandchildren make it later on. Another part of a functioning and healthy democracy is that those at the top are also, like everyone else, invested in the types of public services that should be available to all citizens.

I think many members of the American public realized that the government is not delivering services to them. They feel this when they or a loved one has to call the Social Security Administration and wait six hours on a phone line or wait a year-and-a-half for an appointment. These things all matter to regular folks, but it doesn't matter to people in Washington. That’s is where the resentment comes from: Stuff doesn’t work. The country isn’t working for people.

In terms of policy, how do we address the social distance between the one percent and other elites -- the "affluent and influential" -- and the rest of the American people? How do we reinvigorate the commons and some sense of a linked destiny?  

You have to have political leaders who, instead of playing off the poor against the middle class or using identity politics, basically speak up for the entire 99 percent. And then it becomes unsustainable. At the conclusion of my book, I argue that things are getting so bad that at some point they are going to get good. By this I mean that you’re going to have a kind of Arab Spring in the United States.

At some point, if all the coal miners get a political leader who can channel and communicate their concerns, they will realize that Donald Trump is not an answer to their problems. He didn’t get their jobs back. For example, every month health care costs go up for the average American. This is true even if they have good insurance. After necessary living expenses, non-disposable income in the United States has been going down for decades. Again, that is not sustainable.

Then there are the ways the American taxpayer subsidizes huge corporations such as Walmart. As you know, when a person is hired at Walmart or McDonald's, they are often given information on how to get food stamps and other public assistance. These corporations are able to make huge profits and very often pay little federal income tax because the American people subsidize them. In turn, those same corporations don't pay their employees a living wage.

The minimum wage is below the poverty line. How can our government suggest that an adequate wage keeps you in poverty? Consider housing. We give massive housing subsidies -- hundreds of billions of dollars a year -- to the middle and upper classes in the form of mortgage-interest deductions. That totally dwarfs the amount of money that is spent for assistance to the poor and other vulnerable groups. Yes, the middle class has been squeezed, but the poor have been squeezed even worse. Things have gotten so bad in the country in terms of politics that even good Democratic politicians are afraid to talk about the poor.

What is the role of technology in this story?

Technology has exacerbated polarization and changed our politics, because -- for example though data mining -- politicians can target their exact message to specific audiences, thus validating the latter's prior assumptions. Compare that to how in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, technology was a great unifier for the country. It was a common experience to listen to [Franklin D.] Roosevelt’s fireside chats, for example. In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, television was a common experience too. We all watched the JFK funeral procession together. We watched the moon landing together. We watched reports on the Vietnam War together from Walter Cronkite. It was a unifying experience.

There were problems of course: a small number of large corporations basically controlled the news we saw. But now look at what technology does: It totally splits us up. There is no unifying experience, except maybe watching the Super Bowl.

Too many people get their own news from friends on Facebook, or watch TV news programs that confirm our biases. So we can’t agree on the facts. Almost everybody agreed that Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon because they all watched it together. Now if someone landed on Mars, Infowars would probably be saying it’s a hoax.

You are a child of the working class. Can you share a bit about your life trajectory and how it informs your thinking? One of the complaints in this political moment is that America's elites are "out of touch" with "regular people."

I grew up in Far Rockaway in Queens, and my dad's business was a struggling liquor store. One day when I was 14, I was playing basketball and went up for a rebound, got tangled, landed on my knee and broke it. Why is that important? I had to stay home from Junior High School 198 for a month because they wouldn’t let anyone in with crutches. So while I was staying home, I read a lot of books. One of them was a biography on John Kennedy. It said he’d gone to something called "prep school." I couldn’t figure out what that was. I did a little research and realized that prep school was like college except you got to go earlier -- which sounded like a pretty good idea to me. I applied and got into Deerfield Academy. I then ended up at Yale University. It was all a great thing for me.

But that process of expanding the meritocracy created what is ironically a more entrenched and smarter aristocracy than the one it replaced. It’s more entrenched because all of us who succeeded can afford to send our kids to the best schools and get them SAT tutoring and other types of training, extracurricular activities and the like. Therefore Yale today is economically less diverse that it was 20 years ago. Once you have a meritocracy, then you let in people based on how well they did on the SAT, what kind of schools they come from and how well they did. The parents who are products of the new meritocracy are now able to make sure their kids win that race just the way they did.

What are you worried about in this moment regarding the United States? And what are you happy or more positive about?

Well, if you see the people who are really in the trenches fighting back to improve society you’ll be optimistic. But the truth is, we’re going to go through a lot more pain before we start to turn things around.

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By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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