Last Thursday evening, during an icy and isolating New England storm, my wife and I settled in on the couch to watch “The Big Short,” Adam McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’s great book about the 2008 financial crash. I picked the movie thinking, two weeks into the Trump Administration, that if we weren’t likely to escape the fury and anxiety of the times, then we might at least channel it for two hours into a crisis that was in the past, in which the main menace to the Republic was not incipient authoritarianism but an accumulation of assholes.
One great delight of “The Big Short” is how cloudy it keeps the distinction between the kinds of people who earned many millions of dollars pumping the housing bubble and the kinds of people who earned millions of dollars exposing it. This gives it a whole catalogue of slouch-shouldered heroes, who realized early on that the housing market was crazily inflated and bet on its downfall. In the movie version, there is Steve Carell’s “Mark Baum” (some names were changed in the film), who runs a semiautonomous hedge fund at Morgan Stanley with ferocious self-loathing and staticky hair. There is Christian Bale’s Michael Burry, a socially maladapted Californian savant, whose interactions with others are muted by his headphones. And there is Ryan Gosling’s slick alpha trader, who winds up winning a forty-seven-million-dollar bonus from Deutsche Bank for betting against Wall Street. In the public sphere, insider and outsider—establishment and populist—are fixed categories. Up close, they can look more like a Möbius strip.
“The Big Short” is not exactly ideological: one thing that’s missing is a villain. A few minutes before the montage of bankers carrying their belongings out of Bear Stearns, Carell’s character is called into the office of his boss, a likable young African-American woman named Kathy Tao, who has a Medela breast pump on her credenza. This is, in a sense, Baum’s moment of triumph—he has bet against Wall Street, and his own bosses, and has been proved right—but at the center of the scene is a composite character named Bennie Leibman. On behalf of the bank, Leibman has been on the wrong end of the bets that Baum is winning, only far more of them. Baum wants to know how much Leibman has lost. “Is it three?” he asks. (He means three billion.) “Please say it’s not four.” “Our long exposure,” Tao says, miserably, “is between twelve and sixteen billion.”
Leibman never appears in the movie and is never mentioned again. The real crooks of McKay’s tale are the banks that will be bailed out, the regulators who have been complicit in their bets, the system that forces all of its participants to operate with a governing cynicism. (“They are fuelled by cynicism,” Anthony Lane wrote of the film’s heroes, “by an ardent faith that the system will and must fail.”) Lewis and McKay are such sharp observers that the film can lean on the details they notice, creating an atmosphere of self-assurance and corruption: the calls for bottle service, the flirty way the regulator calls out to the Goldman banker across the Vegas pool. But there is an interesting, dangerous abstraction to a portrait of the financial crisis that is so awash in villainy and so low on villains. It deflects blame onto the culture of Wall Street. It excuses Bennie Leibman. Maybe it isn’t so strange that Donald Trump spent so much of his campaign lambasting Goldman Sachs and then hired, to fill his Cabinet, so many bankers who had worked there. Endless villainy, but no villains.
Elizabeth Warren is part of the populist swell that has consumed American politics, but the élite that she wants to displace has always been precisely rendered. It’s not Steve Bannon’s “swamp” of politicians, or Ted Cruz’s “Washington cartel” of lobbyists and bureaucrats, or the “millionaires and billionaires” who outraged Bernie Sanders. Warren comes for a specific set of C.E.O.s and bank executives. The great national error that she has emphasized is that no bankers were jailed after the financial crisis. “Have you resigned as C.E.O. or chairman of Wells Fargo?” she asked John Stumpf, when he appeared before the Senate Banking Committee to answer for the scandal in which the bank’s executives pressed branch employees to sell customers financial products that they did not need. “Have you returned one nickel of the millions of dollars you were paid while this scam was going on?” Warren asked. Stumpf said that his board was responsible for his compensation. Warren said the question was about personal accountability. “Have you returned a nickel?”
The theatre of these exchanges has created Warren’s public image. Playing Warren on “Saturday Night Live” last week, Kate McKinnon treated the “Weekend Update” anchors’ desk like the Senate dais, reading from a list of questions in order to press the hosts to answer for the crime of allowing Trump to appear on the show. Colin Jost asked if she was always like this. “As a matter of fact, yes,” McKinnon’s Warren said. McKinnon’s voice was perfect, and she captured the disbelief in the “uh-huh,” but she missed what Warren’s tightened jaw reveals: not tension but an elemental fury. Warren is trying to persuade a country that accepts some, but not enough, of her premises, that we are not drifting but being held hostage—and that the villains are the ones she has spotted. There is not as much Tracy Flick in Warren as there is in her public image. There is more Chautauqua.
Trump’s great favor to Warren and the Democrats has been his nomination of a Cabinet that makes her case for her. The economic populism that powered Trump’s Presidential campaign has been quickly obscured, not only by the chaos of his first month but by the plutocrats he has appointed to carry out his agenda. On Thursday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (which includes Warren and the same panel of Democrats that grilled Betsy DeVos last month) was to hold a hearing on the nomination of Andy Puzder, the longtime fast-food C.E.O., as Secretary of Labor. But Puzder withdrew his nomination this afternoon, after it became clear that too many Republican senators opposed his confirmation. So, too, did just about everyone else.
Women’s groups were alarmed that Puzder’s ex-wife had alleged that he abused her. (She made her claims public on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” in 1990, and retracted them eight months later, as part of a child-custody agreement.)
Religious Republicans were bothered by the decade-long, soft-core-porn advertising campaign that he approved for Carl’s Jr. Conservatives were distressed by the disclosure that Puzder had employed an undocumented immigrant as a domestic worker. And labor unions and their supporters were outraged by his treatment of fast-food workers: in 2011, he called his Hardee’s employees “the worst of the worst.” (William Finnegan addresses these problems with Puzder’s nomination, and more.) “Your long record of public comments reveals a sneering contempt for the workers in your stores,” Warren’s letter to Puzder read. She might also have said that they reveal a sneering contempt for human beings.
If Puzder had been a less obviously noxious nominee, he might well have got through. But there was a subtler, deeper drama running through the episode. Populism, the most elemental force in American politics, is in flux. Trump may soon return his attention to trumpeting deals to keep jobs in the United States, to rewriting NAFTA, to ostentatiously celebrating the American worker, to promoting a populism that rails against the abstract and indefensible system. But the Puzder nomination, like the rest of his economic team, made that less credible. It gave the Democratic populists not just villainy but a villain. Trump’s electoral victory was one verdict on the crisis of 2008. The question is whether populism will turn again, and whether the opposition can make the case that it is the Andy Puzders, and the Bennie Leibmans, who matter most of all.