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Anger in America

US President Donald Trump has exploited popular anger to advance his own interests, but he did not create that anger. America’s elites have spent decades doing that, creating the conditions for a figure like Trump to emerge.

HONG KONG – Many blame today’s populist rebellion in the West on the far right, which has won votes by claiming to be responding to working-class grievances, while stoking fear and promoting polarization. But, in blaming leaders who have seized on popular anger, many overlook the power of that anger itself, which is aimed at elites whose wealth has skyrocketed in the last 30 years, while that of the middle and working classes has remained stagnant.

Two recent analyses get to the heart of the issues at play, particularly in the United States, but also in the rest of the world. In his new book Tailspin, the journalist Steven Brill argues that US institutions are no longer fit for purpose, because they protect only the few and leave the rest vulnerable to predatory behavior in the name of the free market. According to Brill, this is an upshot of America’s meritocracy: the best and brightest had the chance to climb to the top, but then essentially pulled the ladder up behind them, as they captured democratic institutions and used them to entrench special privileges for themselves.

The author Matthew Stewart agrees, arguing that, “the meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children.” Stewart shows that in the mid-1980s, the share of US wealth held by the bottom 90% of the population peaked at 35%; three decades later, they owned just 20%, with almost all of what they lost going to the top 0.1%. The 9.9% between these two groups – what Stewart calls the “new American aristocracy” – comprises what used to be called the middle class. In 1963, the 90% would have had to increase their wealth sixfold to reach the level of the 9.9%; by the 2010s, they would need 25 times their wealth to reach that level.

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