The land of opportunity is now the land of deprivation and despair.


At the risk of sounding like some old guy whose million discrete thoughts have coalesced into a few platitudes, let me say this: the drama between Trump and Pelosi—and even the drama of the airline industry’s recent warnings—disguise a much greater and more fundamental problem: Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, and when the checks don’t come, they have no safety net. How does this happen in the world's most prosperous democracy?


When I was a child (“oh, here it comes,” I know) my father worked in a factory. Every day he just went to work. Every two weeks, regardless of my being oblivious to it, he apparently brought home a paycheck. My mother, though she moved on from factory work and eventually became a legal secretary, followed pretty much the same path. Most of my friends' parents did the same.


We never had family discussions about money, though I’m sure my parents did. And through it all, we had enough. More than that, we had savings. It was never enough to buy the yacht or the mansion in Newport, but there was something there. And though what I’m about to say is merely conjecture, I think if both my parents had faced a temporary layoff, we’d have survived for more than a month without having to make heart-wrenching life-or-death decisions. They'd already survived the Great Depression.


Of course the post-war 1950s underscored the ascent of the middle class, but that trend would not last. Through a series of legislative and societal changes, most of them beginning in the 1980s, we have arrived where we are today: the shutdown with millions of Americans facing ill health (no money for insulin), eviction (no money for rent), and starvation (no money for food), many of them after missing but one paycheck, and countless more after missing two. Maybe now we can dismiss the "debate" over income inequality.


It’s easy to blame Donald Trump for the shutdown, especially when he willingly accepted the blame, but the problem goes far beyond a cruel and ignorant master. A merciless conservatism—begun in the 70s, given a Hollywood face by Reagan in the 80s, and culminating with the wingnut Tea Party a decade ago, has left us where we are today. That same merciless conservatism (an insult even to the mainstream Republican party) has finally shown its stripes: all those demands that people pull themselves up by their own bootstraps ring hollow when there's no money for boots.


The Democrats cannot solve this problem. They didn't cause it. Until the Republicans regain consciousness and remember the precepts for which their party stood—strong defense, judicious spending, a high moral ground— the deterioration of our democracy will continue. The hallmark of that democracy—the belief that by dint of hard work (work neither brutal nor demeaning, but steady and efficient) all Americans can rise above where they started—has vanished. The proof lies before us as educated professionals frequent food banks and public servants visit pawn shops.


If the embarrassment we call Donald Trump has done anything, he has exposed the lie of the American Dream, a belief he never held anyway. That ideal has been usurped by greedy con artists and arrant thieves. Trump is their archetype and their hero, but his legion is small and diminishing. When the revolution comes—and it will—the next mantle he wears may not be the orange jumpsuit he deserves, but something just as ignominious: the mantle of abject failure.


In the meantime, though, America pays the price.

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