To understand what happened last weekend in Helsinki, listen to WIIFM. It’s not a radio station; it’s an attitude, a value system.
WIIFM or What’s In It For Me.
From pioneer days on, our country has valued integrity, individual freedom, helping others, the rule of law, and mutual sacrifice for shared goals. In short, WIIFUS, What’s In It For Us.
After WWII, the rest of the industrialized world was in ruins. But because our mainland hadn’t been attacked, our manufacturing industry was strong and efficient. From aircraft to autos to clothing and food, we had it all. So, we used the Marshall Plan and other programs to help rebuild Europe and Japan.
What was in it for us? Reparations forced on Germany after WWI had not only made it impossible for them to rebuild, they also created Hitler and Nazism. Where we had once happily isolated ourselves from the rest of the world, we now understood that helping others helped ourselves. So, we helped create the UN, supported the formation of the European Union, and embraced globalization. The idea was that, by intertwining economies, by encouraging shared values, we would prevent a third world war.
It has worked for 70 years and counting. The Viet Nam and smaller wars, even the global Cold War, threatened world peace, but never blew it up. WIIFUS didn’t stop competition; it kept it civil. It didn’t stop enmity from Russia or China, North Korea or Iran, but shared values, as embodied in NATO, the EU and other alliances, mitigated both.
After WWII, the middle class arrived and prospered. Two cars in every garage, colleges filled with assembly-line workers’ and farmers’ children, closets and cupboards overflowed. By the 50’s and 60’s the America Dream had become reality.
Then, sometime in the early 1970’s, European and Asian manufacturing caught up. Over the next 4 decades they roared up to and frequently passed us in steel, infrastructure, automobiles, television, clothes, building materials – you name it.
Over the same time we became complacent about manufacturing and, instead, focused on new industries – computers, software, financial services – that required fewer workers. As a result, real wages (wages after inflation) stagnated, resulting now in a shrinking middle class, growing poverty, and an expanding wealthy class.
And the shared values of WIIFUS shrank. Where Jonas Salk in 1955 invented the first Polio vaccine and literally gave it to the world, Marathon Pharmaceuticals recently bought a generic muscular dystrophy drug that cost patients $2000 a year, renamed it, and now charges patients $89,000 a year. Where banks once epitomized trust (“you can take it to the bank”), Wells Fargo steals from its customers. Comcast and Verizon, U-Haul and other retailers across the country – all legally lie. Politicians have always skirted the truth; now they’re putting out fake news stories on their own fake news sites.
Where we were once a nation that valued shared values, it’s now all about money and power. WIIFUS – what’s in it for us, has become WIIFM – what’s in it for me.
Which brings us to Donald Trump.
Ironically, he was elected by WIIFUS people. They remembered the prosperity of post WWII America while struggling with stagnated wages and a rapidly diversifying culture. They felt discarded by the Congress, the Clintons and a Democratic Party that no longer speaks for them. These are people who felt bullied by the new WIIFM values; even so, in Trump they saw someone who said what they feel about big business and big finance, Muslims, illegal immigrants, and “liberal elites”. He promised to bring back the America they remembered. So they backed him, even with his WIIFM values.
He was a bully, but he was their bully.
Last week Trump did something no American President has ever done. He insulted and attacked our closest European allies, just as he had insulted and had earlier attacked Mexico and Canada, our closest neighbors. On Monday he insulted his ownIntelligence community and praised a proven enemy of the US. All in an effort to aggrandize himself – or worse.
Do they stick by him now, even as the rest of the country is stunned, angry, even scared? Do they see the future, in which, between the debt incurred by his mammoth tax cut and the damage incurred by his trade wars, the middle class will continue to shrink?
Or do they peel away, leaving him without followers and thus without power?