The daily circus that is the visible face of contemporary American politics keeps our gaze firmly fixed on the character of the ring-master: but it does so to our long-term cost.
Admittedly, it is quite a circus, and one heck of a circus master – certainly a circus and a show of a kind that none of us have ever seen before. So, it is entirely understandable and legitimate for liberal-minded commentators regularly to worry about the fitness of Donald J. Trump for the most important political office in American politics – because it is not at all obvious that he is fit to do anything of the kind. His mental condition and his narcissism were visible as problems to many even before he was elected; and his subsequent behavior has done nothing to abate the fears expressed then. Instead, since January 20, 2017 we have endured a near-daily presidential tweet-storm, a regular flow of inconsistent and ill-conceived presidential statements, and an on-going probe into the connections between this President and America’s leading opponent abroad. Which is possibly why so many words have been expended day upon day in the liberal blogosphere, with a seemingly endless list of public intellectuals wondering about the President’s character, and asking at what point the Republican Party will stop propping up every Trump initiative, and at last join the ranks of the sane – those who actually have the mental superiority and stability that the President claims to be his alone.
The sad truth, however, is that such a Republican Party “Road to Damascus” moment will likely be very slow to arrive: because behind all the bluster and the circus nonsense associated with this President, his Administration is quietly facilitating the full implantation of the Republican Party’s long-term ultra- conservative agenda. It is on that implementation and that agenda, therefore, rather than on the bluster and the madness, that in 2018 we all need our gaze to be firmly fixed.
For these three reasons at least: that
1. The Trump Administration is quietly and effectively resetting the relationship between the privately-run market and the democratically-elected state, pushing back on a half-century or more of regulatory initiatives designed to curtail the worst excesses of unregulated capitalism. The evidence here? The Environmental Protection Agency is now in the hands of a politically-appointed leadership committed to its complete emasculation. The Education Department is in the hands of a leadership committed to shifting resources away from public schools that are answerable to local school boards, towards charter schools provided by democratically-unaccountable organizations with their own private agendas of educational and religious change. The Energy Department is now headed by a politician who, as a presidential candidate, once advocated its total closure; and the Housing Department answers to a leading opponent of publicly-provided housing. Steve Bannon may no longer be flavor of the month in the Trump White House as it begins its second year in power, but his ghost remains fully active. The dismantling of the administrative state is well underway in Trump’s rapidly changing America, and serious damage is being done – and done deliberately – to the ability of the US federal government to regulate anything effectively.
2. The Administration’s Republican allies are rapidly re-establishing the case for “trickle-down economics,” in the process eating away at the last vestiges of an already inadequate welfare net – the one painstakingly constructed by previous generations of more liberally-minded politicians to protect those least able to benefit from the full force of unregulated market forces. Instead of a federally-funded welfare state, Republicans in Congress are entirely focused now on strengthening the American warfare state. In the new orthodoxies swirling in the Washington conservative “swamp” that candidate Trump once promised to drain, money is supposedly impossible to find for the expansion of welfare programs, but not difficult to find at all when the Pentagon calls, or when the donor class require their appeasement. Indeed, if any one tries to find that money, the Republicans’ latest tax reform penalizes the electorate of any state that has the temerity to compensate inadequate federal funding of basic welfare services by raising local taxes for that purpose. So much for the Republican Party’s supposed enthusiasm for states’ rights. Instead of helping the poor, “trickle-down economics” and tax-breaks for the corporate rich are now the order of the day – hailed as a political success by a Republican Party whose main figures are entirely in the grip of the ultra-rich who fund their campaigns.
3. Even the Trump bluster helps the Republican cause, alienating ever more frustrated American voters from the existing political class, and by discrediting them, making it ever harder to persuade a new generation of American voters to put their faith in politicians willing to deploy state-power for progressive purposes. The tweet-storm that Donald J. Trump regularly inflicts upon us does more than release a series of rabbits to endlessly chase. It also consistently challenges the reliability and credibility of serious political journalism, of serious science, and of serious moral reflection. By seeking to create a world divided between the facts he cares about and the facts he dislikes, by endlessly denigrating the journalists and scientists who produce information that contradicts his assertions of truth, and by endlessly and blatantly lying, Donald J. Trump as President daily corrodes the quality of the political discourse vital to maintain the integrity of our national democratic conversation. And yet more worrying in this regard, in its anti-statist and anti-democratic stance the Trump presidency is regularly reinforced by his Republican Party allies – allies who are prepared to gerrymander their way to power, and to hang on to that power by suppressing the progressive vote by every legal means at their disposal. All of which suggests that the Republican Party will not dump Donald J. Trump so long as his Administration services their long-term goals, and so long as supporting him does not cost them large-scale electoral support.
For there is the rub. Donald J. Trump thinks he is leading the Republican Party – that he is the one making the great deals – when in reality it is the Republican-controlled Congress that is playing him! The bluster that is daily created by a supposedly crazy President actually throws a smoke-screen over the implementation of a Republican Party project that is now up and running as never before – a project designed to remove the last vestiges of twentieth-century liberalism from twenty-first century America. The privatization of FDR’s Social Security is now fully in the Republicans’ sights. So now is Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid, and not just Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. This President, and this Republican-controlled Congress, are collectively set on nothing less than the complete re-specification of the basic relationships at play in contemporary America. They are set on redesigning the underlying social agreement now in place between the healthy and the sick, between immigrants and the native-born, between men and women, between Americans of differing sexual orientations and religions, between the rich and the poor, and – most of all – between those who own capital and those who do not. In every case the direction of change now being proposed by Trump and the Republicans is not simply conservative. It is also radical: a reassertion, in a new age, of older notions of patriarchy, of homophobia, of nativism and of anti-intellectualism in all its forms. Before 2016, mainstream America was –– incrementally, if somewhat reluctantly – dragging itself in the direction of welfare programs based on compassion, environmental policies based on science, and – even to a modest degree – foreign policies based on diplomacy as military options failed to deliver desired outcomes. All that is off the table in Washington right now, and if Trump and his Republican friends have their way, all that will stay off the table for a very long time to come: leaving the America of the 2020’s resembling in all so many ways the America of the 20’s a century before.
When former Vice-President Joe Biden went on The Late Show in November 2017, he explained to Stephen Colbert that his return to full-time campaigning was a product of his growing conviction that more was at stake right now in contemporary American politics than the detail of this particular policy or that. What was at stake, he said, was the very soul of America. He was right. That is exactly what is at stake. The basic contract between Americans is being rapidly reset by highly reactionary forces – a resetting that in the process is making America an uglier society – to such a degree, indeed, that those of us who believe in the underlying beauty of this place need to challenge Trump and the Republicans at every level of this resetting. So yes, we do need to regularly question the President’s sanity, and query his intellect: but we need to do so much more as well. We need to call his Republican allies to account – the ones that will still be in power in Congress even if impeachment removes Trump from office – and challenge them on the kind of America that they are seeking to create. The big threat to a civilized America is not just one maverick individual. The big threat is a Republican Party rampant with reactionary ideas.
For what is at stake here is not just the Trump Presidency. It is the character of the America that Trump and his allies want to leave in place when they are no longer in office. They know what they are about – they are building an America for the rich and privileged. It is time, therefore, for their political opponents to make clear what we too are about – building an America for all Americans. That building has happened before – in Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society. There were elements of it in Obama’s stalled domestic programs. It is time for the Democratic Left to forge a new and compassionate society – a New Deal for the twenty-first century that will make America genuinely great again. And it is time too for the Democratic Left to tell America that this is exactly its purpose. This is no time to triangulate with the devil. It is time to say to Trump and the Republicans that their day is well and truly done. America can be so much better than that!
First published, with full citations, at www.davidcoates.net
David Coates’ Reflections on the Future of the Left was published in November by Columbia University Press.