America At Trump's 100 Days: Now We See What We Can Lose

If there is an upside to the Trump presidency, that is it.

WASHINGTON ― Christopher Ruddy, the Palm Beach publisher who is one of Donald Trump’s closest friends, told me the new president has learned a key lesson during his first 100 days in office: That there is a Congress, and that he does not run it.

“That was a revelation,” said Ruddy.

Congress has power? Really? That was a revelation to others, too ― including Democratic senators and representatives who spend more time hunting campaign donations than thinking about how corporate oligarchs, automation and globalization screw workers.

Most assessments of Trump’s 100 days focus on his long list of misdeeds: the lies, both grand and trivial, the flip-flops, the selling of mere sizzle as substantive achievement, the contempt for the machinery of government, the murky and ever-more-suspect ties to Russia, the lack of transparency about his taxes.

In politics, he has coarsened discourse and made meaning meaningless.

He is the most unpopular new president in modern history for a reason ― for many of them, in fact.

But he is also the ultimate wind-tunnel test for the bulky, complex aircraft we call the United States. Will the bolts hold? Will the thing stay aloft?

In a sense, there are signs that Trump’s multiple challenges to our centuries-old constitutional system ― and to our society as whole ― are having a positive effect. People now know what’s at stake and that law and society itself must not be easily Trumped.

Start with the courts, as any analysis of our system must. Over the years, Trump (or more specifically, the Federalist Society) will have a chance to stack our judicial system with justices who distrust Washington power. But in the meantime, federal judges everywhere from Hawaii to D.C. are asserting the judiciary’s role as a co-equal branch.

Federal judges have blocked Trump’s anti-Muslim immigration move, as well as Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ threat to deny money to “sanctuary cities.” It may take months, if not years, for federal courts to review those cases.

Don’t think that voting for Congress or president is all that important? Consider who gets to nominate and confirm those judges.

[Trump] is also the ultimate wind-tunnel test for the bulky, complex aircraft we call the United States. Will the bolts hold? Will the thing stay aloft?

The media has awakened from its inexcusable campaign slumber. Being called the “opposition” by the president’s political henchman was a wake-up call, as if one was ever needed.

The emphasis now is on incontrovertible reporting and clear presentation. Invective alone is not enough, nor is it even the right approach. Old school is new school in the face of Orwellian leadership.

Activists are looking for new ways to use social networks and platforms that had largely become the purview of personality and performance.

Trump still has the allegiance of many of those who voted for him last year. But the rest of society (including most of consumer-facing corporate America) is moving on, struggling to construct a truly multicultural, multiracial, fairer world.

So far, the backlash to the backlash has been largely cultural. Fox News’ Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly are gone. North Carolina’s anti-trans bathroom rules are gone (sort of). Pepsi’s trivialization of social inclusion is gone.

At the same time, “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah’s ratings are booming. Comedian Hassan Minhaj, who will emcee what’s left of the White House Correspondents Dinner, is Muslim American. 

For too long, Democrats relied on the theory that shifting demographics and the cultural changes that come with them would inevitably vault them into power. President Barack Obama all but said so when he declared, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

But Trump has shown that demographics is not necessarily political destiny. Now that he is in power, he will do everything he can to keep the two apart.

That’s where the Democrats come in. Trump may put an end to a period of the party’s history that started with President Bill Clinton’s partnership with Wall Street. The Democratic Leadership Council, founded in 1985 after liberal Walter Mondale’s shattering defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan, was the key to Clinton’s rise ― and to the party’s accommodating thinking ever since.

Trump is forcing the Democrats to rethink everything. There is no going back to the “big government” programmatic thinking of the New Deal. There is no future in the Wall Street + worker theory of the Clintons and the Obamas. So, where to?

Trump actually provides the starting place. His definition of America is simply too narrow, too negative, too fearful, too xenophobic, too based on mere money as the only social good in America.

That is not what this country is, or only what it is, or primarily what it is.

The Democrats need to define anew what it is to be an American, and build an American society according to what President Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.”

And they’ll need to propose a “sharing economy” in a national sense. Why can’t an idea currently confined to car rides and vacation overnights be applied to wider social issues, with the active assistance of the government?

For now ― but only for now ― this means Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and his fellow Democrats standing in the way of Trump’s constant overreach and allying themselves with the small but crucial band of moderate Republicans in the House and Senate.

But soon enough, Trump’s opponents will have to offer a coherent, upbeat alternative to Trump’s vision of America, deploying better salesmanship in the process.

Trump is the man America’s founders feared: a demagogue who mixes elements of both the monarchy and the mob. If we can’t survive him, we don’t deserve what our predecessors gave us.

But we can, and we do.