U.S. capitalism: The key 2020 battleground

Trump’s legacy might just be how American faith in capitalism began to truly wither on his watch

By Eric Bovim

Published April 7, 2019 6:59AM (EDT)

 (AP/Susan Walsh)
(AP/Susan Walsh)

This piece originally appeared on The Globalist.

Forget President Trump’s constant foibles, the Mueller investigation and much more. Not least due to the @AOC phenomenon, indications are that capitalism itself appears to be on the ballot in 2020.

Trump’s main legacy might just be how American faith in capitalism, which began its descent following the financial crisis of 2008, began to truly wither on his watch.

Politics, in part, are to blame. Today’s Washington is a vicious place. Gridlock and hyper-partisanship have been vibrantly on display in D.C. for over a decade. But Trump’s election was a turning point. Divisiveness and vitriol have become the norm.

The center in American politics, small puddle that it was, has all but evaporated since Trump took office—and each side has rushed to their respective corners.

Among Democrats and establishment Republicans, disdain for the president extends beyond ideology. Anti-Trumpism has become a visceral moral duty.

A cultural revolution a l’ámericaine?

Protectionism, isolationism and American nationalism, the pillars of Trumpism, are at total odds with the principles being trumpeted by 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls.

In their condemnation of Trumpism, they are making the calculation that anti-capitalist rhetoric can mobilize large swaths of the electorate to vote out a man they consider morally odious and unfit for the Oval Office.

They could be on to something. When Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper was interviewed recently after announcing his Democratic bid for president, he was asked three times whether he was a capitalist. All three times he dodged and demurred.

Back in 2016, Bernie Sanders was the first to tap into a decidedly left-of-center strain among Americans, although his “movement” was largely minimized by mainstream media at the time.

Not anymore. Back in January, an Axios/Survey Monkey poll showed that — maybe for the first time ever — a plurality of Americans believe our economic system is rigged to favor the rich.

Nearly 70% of respondents said they would be “excited” to support a candidate wanting to fix the system, a position taken by 90% of Democrats and 49% of Republicans.

Socialism no longer a dirty word

Just last month, a Harris Poll given to Axios found that Generation Z views the word “socialism” more favorably than previous generations and is more likely to embrace socialistic policies.

That represents a significant shift in the American psyche. This partially explain the forces in play in the Democratic party today.

Boomerang from the billionaire-coddling Clinton years

Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are the most effective voices for progressive ideas.

Unlike the Democrats’ 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, they aim their political arrows at more than just Trump. They are gunning for the — bipartisan — billionaire boys club (of which Trump is a prominent and particularly attention-seeking member).

At long last, and despite both Clintons’ best efforts over their many years of holding the reins of the Democratic Party apparatus, a reckoning with the extreme wealth inequality that pervades the richest country in the world appears now inevitable.

It’s true, wealth extremes in the United States are at absurd, untenable levels. Three men — Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett —own as much wealth as the poorest 50% of all Americans. The richest 1% own more than half of stocks.

Capitalism and Trumpism are not the same things

And yet, this nation would do well to ensure that capitalism itself does not become an unfortunate and unnecessary casualty in this rhetorical war against Trumpism.

Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Democratic, seems to know this. His centrist campaign, unlike those of Warren, Corey Booker and Kalama Harris, is betting that Americans, in the end, will rush to the political middle.

He is betting we understand that, while capitalism has enabled Donald Trump to get rich, it has also lifted millions out of poverty.

Big decision ahead for the Democrats

At this stage, it is unclear whether the ultimate Democratic 2020 presidential nominee is destined to fully embrace a leftist agenda consisting of a wealth tax, free college and single-payer health care — or whether s/he will be in the mold of a middle-of-the-roadster like O’Rourke.

Starbucks uber-capitalist, Howard Schultz is struggling to gain any traction in his fledgling “pre-campaign.” Michael Bloomberg, another billionaire centrist, has been hesitant to dip his toe in the campaign waters, although he too seems to be considering a run.

Trump, meanwhile, has no plans to renounce capitalism — or, it seems, even address some of its most egregious economic extremes. It is probably fair to say that he doesn’t even “get” these concerns.


Capitalism, as it has been practiced in the United States, certainly needs a makeover. Anger and resentment towards the super-wealthy have been bubbling up for a long time.

But it remains a very open question as to whether this day of reckoning will be forthcoming anytime soon.
Those in the United States tempted to sock it to the mega-rich can certainly argue that they are well-intentioned and good-hearted about the reasons for doing so.

At the same time, they should be clear-minded that overhauling the economic engine that has sustained U.S. prosperity for many decades in too radical a fashion is a dangerous thing.

This article is republished from The Globalist: On a daily basis, we rethink globalization and how the world really hangs together.  Thought-provoking cross-country comparisons and insights from contributors from all continents. Exploring what unites and what divides us in politics and culture. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And sign up for our highlights email here.

Eric Bovim

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