[Publisher's Note] | Despair, by John R. MacArthur | Harper's Magazine

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A luncheon with the Republican establishment

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on October 3, 2016. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

For a better understanding of the present political malaise in the U.S.—a condition amplified by the battle for the presidency between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—I need only describe the luncheon I attended on Monday, September 19. The event, sponsored by the Economic Club of New York, was held at the Hilton Midtown hotel and featured an address by Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and, after Barack Obama, the nation’s most powerful politician. I went to the luncheon hoping to learn more about this archconservative Republican, whose chief mission is to defend and promote the happiness of the rich and the large corporations. I wanted to see him in person because TV cameras overlook many things, particularly body language.

In spite of the fact that I was sitting next to a rather amusing woman, a bank executive, the mood in the crowd of elite businesspeople and diplomats—among them Henry Kissinger—seemed to me pretty lugubrious. For one thing, the previous Saturday’s terrorist attack in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood and the hunt for the presumed perpetrator hung like a cloud over the proceedings; for another, the invisible presence of Donald Trump, then dominating the debate about domestic security and foreign policy, was a heavy weight. So shocked were the mostly Republican members of the Economic Club by the bellicose billionaire’s “populist” positions and unstable behavior that they were deeply divided between Trump and Clinton.

Furthermore, Ryan loathes Trump, who, as far as Ryan is concerned, is an amateur who is only upsetting the established order. Ryan is critical of “his” candidate’s vulgarity, but he’s even more outraged by Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-free-trade declarations, because the Speaker knows that illegal, badly paid workers and cheap imports are quite popular with the owners of superstores, factory farms, and fast-food chains. Officially, Ryan is supporting Trump, but his main, overriding concern is to protect the incumbent Republican members of the House of Representatives. How would Ryan make his way through this minefield in his speech?

At a certain point during the luncheon, Terry Lundgren, Chairman of the Club and CEO of the Macy’s department-store chain, rose to his feet and made a welcome announcement: the Afghan-American terrorizer of Chelsea—nicknamed “the Bumbling Bomber” by the Daily News due to his ineffectiveness—had been arrested. Applause ensued, but the reaction seemed restrained, for every terrorist act is a boon for Trump, a quasifascist who promises to rid the country of horrible foreigners.

As it turned out, Ryan’s antitax, anti-welfare-state, antiregulation litany left no space for a mention of Trump. He was not even alluded to, unless (perhaps) in the Speaker’s profession of faith—rather odd at this juncture—in “unified Republican government.” As if Trump didn’t exist.

In reality, Ryan knows he can make deals more easily with a President Clinton, who is, like himself, a pure product of the system. Hillary’s current mimicry of Bernie Sanders’s leftism is designed to offer better cover for her rightist inclinations and the cynical politics advocated by her husband during his two presidential terms. Back then, the cooperation between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich (the fiercest Republican of the period and a Ryan predecessor, from 1995 to 1999, as Speaker of the House) was remarkable to behold. Having already supported the passage of NAFTA (the free-trade agreement that accelerated the destruction of American unions) with his “rival” in 1993, when the Republicans were in the minority, Gingrich—after his party gained the majority in 1995 and he became its leader—was able to collaborate with Clinton, not only on making massive cuts in welfare benefits for the poor but also on lowering the capital-gains tax from 28 to 20 percent, a move that redounded to the profit of the rich. Those two projects (cutting welfare and cutting taxes) grew out of the dogmas of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman, ultra-free-marketeer economists whom Ryan cited with great admiration in his address at the Economic Club. Compared with Hillary Clinton, who follows her husband’s example, Donald Trump is unpredictable, even uncontrollable. In short, he represents a threat to Ryan and his circle.

But the most depressing part of the show was the performance by the two designated interviewers, the economist Glenn Hubbard and the investment banker Peter Orszag, who likewise had nothing to say about the possibility of Trump’s election. A Democrat, Orszag preferred to question Ryan about the eventuality of a Democratic presidency, which would mean the continuation of divided government. “No, I don’t want to talk about that,” Ryan replied, tittering like a child.

And so the political situation in the United States degenerates. No one wants to face reality, which is that one of the two main presidential candidates is a phony progressive who wants nothing more than to collaborate with the businesspeople who were present at the Hilton on September 19, while the other is a phony “friend of the people” whose ambitions are downright pharaonic. There’s nothing amusing in this reality. And certainly nothing to laugh about.

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