"The forgotten men and women of our country," Donald Trump promised on election night 2016, "will be forgotten no longer." It was a key part of his appeal as a political outsider, that the two parties' politicians had failed to shield ordinary people from the cruelties of modern capitalism, but he would be different.
Voters had plenty of reason to be eager for such a promise. The days when you could graduate high school and head right into a good, secure job with good benefits that would plant you firmly in the middle class are gone. The problem isn't that there are no jobs, but that in so many places there are only crappy jobs, jobs with low pay and ill treatment where if you ask for more, the boss will just tell you to take a hike. There certainly won't be a union to protect you, and they can always find someone to replace you — and every worker knows it. As much as conservatives in particular like to talk about "the dignity of work," workplaces have less dignity than ever.
Meanwhile, the country as a whole gets richer and richer yet more and more of the benefits are hoarded by those at the top. So a populist appeal like Trump's — let's stick it to those elitists and put regular folks back in charge — had enormous potency.
Believing it, however, did take an act of imagination. One had to imagine that the Republican Party — an organization almost maniacally devoted to increasing the wealth of the already wealthy and the power of the already powerful — would in the hands of a billionaire celebrity be transformed not just into something it isn't but into the very opposite of what it is.
Millions of people managed that act of imagination, and now they're seeing the result. On Monday, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that allows companies to force employees to give up their right to participate in class action lawsuits, instead pushing them into arbitration to resolve any dispute they have.
So let's say, for instance, that a company is systematically engaging in wage theft, crediting its employees for fewer hours than they're actually working. Instead of being able to join together and file suit, each employee would have to go through arbitration — with an arbitrator who is almost always chosen and paid by the company — to make their case, alone. They wouldn't be able to get a lawyer to represent them, since no lawyer is going to take on a client when there's only a few hundred or thousand dollars at stake. Which means that cases are going to be incredibly rare, and when they happen the company is probably going to win.
That gives the company the green light to engage in all manner of abuse, knowing that there's almost nothing the workers can do about it. Which is why this case, like many others, is at root about power: who has it, and how they get to use it.
And who wrote that ruling? Neil Gorsuch, the Supreme Court justice whose installation Trump counts as one of his proudest achievements. Gorsuch is a full-spectrum conservative ideologue, but like the other right-leaning members of the Court, few things animate him as much as depriving workers of their rights so that corporations and business owners can enhance their prerogatives.
Arbitration clauses have spread rapidly in recent years, affecting not only workers but consumers as well; you've almost certainly agreed many times to resolve any claims through arbitration, when you bought a product, got a credit card, or signed up for internet service. And with this ruling, that trend will only accelerate. Within hours of the decision, the large employer law firm Ogletree Deakins unveiled a software tool companies could purchase to quickly and easily generate arbitration agreements in which employees or prospective employees would be forced to waive their right to participate in a class action.
We see the same principle at work throughout the Trump administration: shower benefits on those who have power, and eradicate any rights and privileges ordinary people might enjoy. They passed a gigantic tax cut mostly for corporations and the wealthy; the ensuing deficits are now being used to justify cuts to safety-net programs. At the Department of Education, scam for-profit colleges no longer have to worry about the government keeping them from defrauding their students; the unit that investigates such fraud has all but ceased operations, perhaps because it is now led by the former dean of DeVry University. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose mandate is to protect consumers from rapacious banks and payday lenders, is being systematically dismantled by its new director Mick Mulvaney, a longtime opponent of the agency's very existence. Congress just passed a bill rolling back a CFPB rule that kept auto dealers from charging higher interest rates to minority customers. President Trump happily signed it.
What all this tells us is that Trump is no different from any other Republican in his fundamental belief about power. Like the rest of his party, he feels that those who already have it should have more, and those who lack it should have even less than they already do. It was always a difficult challenge to get enough people in the latter group to vote Republican, but the way they did it was by shifting the focus, generating anger not at the economic elite but at the cultural elite. The trick is getting people to think that some liberal professor who said something offensive is more worthy of their contempt than, say, the Republican legislature writing rules that allow their communities to be polluted, their retirement to be threatened, and their rights at work to be taken away. Fortunately, they have a large media apparatus, including Fox News and conservative talk radio, devoted to spreading those ideas.
At the more rarefied levels — like at the Supreme Court — Republicans prefer to pretend that power relationships barely exist at all, which is exactly what those who have all the power would like us to believe. "Should employees and employers be allowed to agree that any disputes between them will be resolved through one-on-one arbitration?" asks Justice Gorsuch in his decision, as though these are two equal parties entering into a voluntary agreement for their common benefit, and not a situation in which one side has nearly all the power.
That's the way it is with every hierarchy: The last thing the people at its top want to talk about is the fact that the hierarchy exists. Donald Trump talked about society's hierarchy, but he did it in vague enough terms that people actually believed he was some kind of populist, ready to fight for the little guy against the established order. And now we're all seeing the result.