Troubling Omens as We Approach the Presidency of Donald J. Trump
These are early days of course. Nothing has happened yet to directly justify a rush to judgment. But enough happened during the campaign, and enough is happening now in the interregnum between the election and the inauguration, to give genuine cause for concern. These three large concerns at the very least.
THE PROSPECT OF BAD POLICIES TO COME
Had Hillary Clinton won, we would now be contemplating the possibilities of extending access to childcare and healthcare, easing the burden of student debt, protecting a woman’s right to choose, anticipating equal pay for equal work, and expecting, among other things, trade union rights to be extended and income inequality to fall. No doubt we would have been disappointed on some of this – but the trajectory of policy emanating from the White House would have been broadly progressive. But it will not be now, for at least the following two sets of reasons.
One is that the men (and occasionally, the women) already selected by Donald J. Trump to join his cabinet, as the heads of key federal agencies, appear to be uniformly hostile to the use of the agencies they will head for any progressive purpose. Indeed, and to the contrary, many of them will enter their new roles determined to reverse some or all of their agency’s recent policy initiatives; and some even have records of actively resisting those policy initiatives in the Obama years. The list of potential cabinet members already available to us is awesome and, from a progressive point of view, truly and consistently terrible.1 The result will be a cabinet dominated by self-made billionaires drawn from the private sector, joined by a set of controversial generals drawn from the ranks of the militarily retired. What could possibly go wrong with policy initiatives and executive actions crafted by a cabinet dominated by ex-oil executives, Wall Street insiders and the military fringe? Arguably, everything!
The second is that, what might have eased conservative worries about Hillary Clinton as President – namely the steadfast resistance to any progressive policies she would have experienced at the hands of a Republican-controlled Congress – is simply not going to be replicated with Donald J. Trump as President. Some of the more populist of his policy promises on the campaign trail – his defense of Social Security, his commitment to ending free trade – may meet a similar fate. But the bulk of his program will not, primarily because he doesn’t yet have a fully calibrated program. What instead is already in place is a Tea-Party dominated Republican Party in control of both the House and the Senate, one which is publicly committed to using its majorities in both houses to, among other things, abolish the Affordable Care Act and ‘reform’ into oblivion vast chunks of the already depleted US welfare state. The Trump decision to appoint a leading Tea Party enthusiast to the Directorship of the Office of Management and Budget,2 and a leading advocate of health privatization to head the Department of Health and Social Security, suggests that this Republican onslaught on what remains of FDR’s New Deal and of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society will be fully embraced by a Trump White House, rather than be blocked by it as it was when Barack Obama was President of the United States.
THE LIKELIHOOD THAT THE WHITE HOUSE WILL DIVIDE RATHER THAN UNITE US
We are currently a deeply divided nation. In fact, the depth of our current divisions is probably one of the few things on which most Americans agree – that, and the undeniable fact that Donald J. Trump did not win in November 2016 either a majority of the popular vote or indeed as many votes as Mitt Romney did when losing to Barack Obama in 2012. Donald J. Trump used the occasion of Hillary Clinton’s phone-call concession to him to announce on election night that he intended to be a president for all the American people. The question, however, is whether he will, or indeed even whether he can, now begin to heal the divisions that his campaign rhetoric so helped to exacerbate. Again, for two reasons at least, that outcome is unlikely.
One is the powerful legacy of the campaign rhetoric itself.3 Donald J. Trump began his campaign, as we all know, speaking unscripted about Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists – and then went on to, among other things, dismiss Megyn Kelly as menstrual, propose a ban on the entry of Muslims to America, and brag about the way in which his fame and fortune allowed him to sexually assault women. At one of his early campaign rallies he mocked a journalist with a serious disability; and at later rallies gave vocal support to the use of violence by supporters whenever dissent manifested itself in the audience. By those means, and by others, Donald Trump’s campaign released into mainstream politics ideas long resisted as “politically incorrect” by decent Americans. He gave political oxygen to groups long marginalized because of their excessive bigotry. These bigoted groups are now empowered by the Trump victory – publicly parading their reactionary ideas and reveling in their new-found legitimacy. Which is why the countless acts of hate that have been perpetrated since November 8 make it imperative – if Donald J. Trump genuinely wants to unite the country – that he establish a large and rapid division between his Administration and the white nationalist fringe. Yet despite his brief insistence in late November that he has no wish to re-energize the alt-right,4 no such chasm has yet been opened- up by either the vocabulary of, or the policy stances laid out by, the President-elect as he prepares for office.
The other is the pattern of appointments and public pronouncements that so far have come from the Trump camp. If social unity was Donald J. Trump’s goal, and a transition from campaign mode to governing mode was his intention, then it is hard to understand why Steve Bannon – the arch conspiracy theorist and previous regular peddler of misogynistic and bigoted by-lines on Breitbart News, should now be firmly ensconced within the White House as chief strategist and senior counselor. It is also very hard, if building fences back to the 54 percent of American women who did not vote for him is part of his intention, that Donald J. Trump should have appointed so few women to senior positions in his in-coming Administration; and it is very hard to make sense of the pattern of content and silences in the tweets through which he daily communicates with us. The slightest criticism of Trump himself gets an immediate and heavily-negative Trump tweet response. Ask the cast of Saturday Night Live, or that of Hamilton, if you want further evidence of that. But when the man who co-directed his campaign in New York state, Carl Paladino, last week issued a horrendously racist set of slurs against both Barack and Michelle Obama, only to attempt later to attempt to laugh them off as a sophisticated joke,5 there was no equivalent tweet from the President-elect: no tweet condemning either the racism or the sense of humor said to produce it. Donald J. Trump seems not yet to have realized that, as President, what he doesn’t say, and doesn’t prioritize, can be as politically significant as the things that he does say and do. It is a lesson that he needs quickly to recognize and to heed.
THE SUBLIMINAL THREAT TO THE CONTINUANCE OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY
Then there is this even more profound worry on which we would all do well carefully to reflect. Donald J. Trump comes to the presidency from the world of business, as he regularly reminds us. So too do many of his inner circle and senior advisers, not least other members of his family. The world of business is not a democratic one; and the world of family-business can often be more like the Godfather than Capitol Hill. In the world of business, hiring and firing is the prerogative of senior management, with everything justified in terms of the bottom-line and the fiduciary duty to shareholders. In the cut-throat world of family business, trimming ethical corners can be vital for survival, and a culture of dog-eat-dog very easy to consolidate. Bringing those kinds of business habits and practices to the role of US president can be incrementally corrosive of the very foundations of American democracy: because that democracy rests on the inalienable rights of citizens that no executive can simply ignore, and because those rights are grounded in a system of laws that no executive can disregard. So the question arises again. How great and permanent a rupture with the practices and ethics of vulture capitalism can we expect the incoming Trump Administration to make? And once again, for the following two reasons at least, the omens are far from reassuring.
First, there is the matter of the Trump entourage itself, and of the managerial philosophy flowing through it from the top. From outside, it is hard to judge of course, but what we know of the Trump temperament, and what we have seen from people like Kellyanne Conway when senior Democratic Party figures criticize her boss, it doesn’t look good. Maybe Donald J. Trump himself will develop a thicker skin over time, as he remembers with what ferocity he challenged the basic legitimacy of his predecessor as president, and as he comes to realize that he has actually achieved his life goal – he is now President of the United States. But even if that mellowing occurs – and many commentators, struck by the possibility that the new President may have serious character flaws over which he has no control, doubt that it is even a possibility – we can expect no such mellowing from his entourage. For their hold on power turns critically on their boss’s credibility in the wider electorate. Their status and privilege critically depends on the credibility of his; and at least some of them bring to their new role some particularly ethically-challenged business practices from their own past. Donald J. Trump may yet prove to be a leading example of “poacher turned gamekeeper,” but we are unlikely to see an equivalent turn from many of his poacher friends.
In fact, just the reverse so far. There seems to be genuine fear in parts of the civil service of an impending witch-hunt against supporters of climate change and women’s rights – the fear of a new McCarthyism in American public life, with anti-Trumpism replacing anti-communism as its driving motif.6 The most disturbing story that I saw this Christmas was that about the death threats and abuse heaped on a Californian professor who had the temerity to criticize Donald J. Trump in a lecture filmed (and then disseminated) by a Republican student member of her audience. There has been no Trump tweet condemning this, as far as I know: and it needs condemning. It needs condemning partly to offset the right-wing media’s echo chamber – the one that blows every tiny liberal transgression into a major threat to American democracy while remaining entirely silent on the much more dangerous conservative abuses of power. It is touching, after all, to see Fox News outraged at this apparent misuse of a teaching position, when their regular misuse of their position to spread false information, or distort by over-emphasize, is such a defining feature of what they are and do on a regular basis. And if you doubt that, check out Fox News latest contribution to the debate on welfare reform.7
But the danger to the strength of democratic institutions here in the United States runs deeper than just this one case. The danger is this. If double standards are routinely applied by the conservative media – with them throwing every verbal slur they can at Administration critics while turning a blind-eye to Administration excesses – the quality of the electoral process will be quickly undermined by the systematic flow of distorted information to would-be voters. Moreover, if people cannot dissent without being exposed to the threat of violence, civilized discourse in a functioning democracy will quickly become impossible. And if the academy cannot be a place in which ideas are freely discussed and critical thinking actively encouraged, then the civil society surrounding the democratic state will be irreparably damaged. The incoming Administration and its supporters are enthusiastic advocates of the Second Amendment. Yet over the last eight years, they have also enjoyed the full protection of the First Amendment – even when pushing the lies of the birther movement – which is why it is now time for them to recognize their responsibilities to honor both Amendments with equal determination and force.
Now, however, is not the time for progressives to panic. Now is the time to prepare, to organize and to be ready to resist, planning to use only (but to exhaust fully) all the legal rights of opposition guaranteed to citizens under the Constitution. White racist misogynistic America reared its ugly head on November 8th, to the nation’s lasting shame. Progressive candidates were beaten by a tidal wave that Donald J. Trump released but did not originate, as the Trump people organized themselves against a woman for president and against an inclusive coalition for America. Tragically, they got away with it: which is why the struggle before us now is such an enormous one. It is also why that struggle must begin with a clear insistence from progressive Americans that the opposition to the new Administration will make no concessions at all to racism, to sexism, or to xenophobia. There must be no chasing votes on the terms on which Donald J. Trump won them. Votes must be won back on progressive principles, not on reactionary ones, if those votes are going to be worth winning back at all.
There are many political battles to come; and initially many of them will likely be lost. But only initially; for as the gap opens-up between what Donald J. Trump promised he would deliver as President and what he actually delivers, the space for successful progressive politics will reappear. Indeed, it is likely to reappear even more rapidly than it would if Donald J. Trump was its only recruiting sergeant. For he is not. The Republican Party is also now in government. In 2017, it too will now have to put its policy proposals where its mouth has been. There can be no hiding by Republicans behind an anti-Obama blame sheet this time round. There can be no more pointing the finger elsewhere. What happens now will be entirely on the Republican Party’s watch; and they will be judged accordingly. We can therefore expect a rapid learning curve there too, as many Republican voters find their health coverage cut and their Social Security threatened by the “reforms” that Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell jointly oversee. And in the meantime, as we wait for these pennies to drop, we can take some comfort from the thought that one of Donald J. Trump’s earliest responsibilities as President will likely be to record a message of welcome to immigrants newly naturalized as citizens. I well remember my own naturalization ceremony long ago – welcomed by George W. Bush. A Republican President welcomed all of us that day without any mention of criminality or rape. Donald J. Trump will need to do the same – or if he can’t cope with the volte-face required, will need to ask Mike Pence to stand in for him…. or perhaps Alex Baldwin if neither the President or Vice-President fancy the task. Of the three, of course, Alex Baldwin would undoubtedly do the best job!
1 It’s quite a list: ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to State; Goldman Sachs’ Steve Mnuchin to Treasury; billionaire and bankruptcy czar Wilbur Ross to Commerce; climate denier Scott Pruitt to the EPA; fast food CEO and minimum-wage opponent Andrew Puzder to Labor; anti-ACA leader Tom Price to Health; oil-sensitive Rick Perry to Energy; border-security hawk Ryan Zinke to Interior; plus Mchael Flynn as National Security Adviser, Donald McGahn as White House Counsel, and Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Women: just Elaine Chao To Transport, Betsy DeVos to Education, Linda McMahon to Small Business, and Nikki Hayley to the UN.
2 Abby Philip, “Trump names Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a fiscal hawk, to head budget office,” The Washington Post, December 17, 2016: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/12/17/trump-names-rep-mick-mulvaney-a-fiscal-hawk-to-head-budget-office/?utm_term=.ecb669bf4d93
3 “Mr. Trump campaigned against migrants, and against Muslims, insulted black and Latino Americans, launched ads that some saw as covertly anti-Semitic, and was cheered to victory by every white racist in the land. His voters will want him to deliver.” (Editorial, “The Guardian view on President-Elect Donald Trump: a dark day for the world,” The Guardian, November 9, 2016: available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/09/the-guardian-view-on-president-elect-donald-trump-a-dark-day-for-the-world
4 Karen Tumulty, “Trump backs away from some of his strident campaign promises,” The Washington Post, November 22, 2016: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/trump-says-he-could-continue-to-run-his-company-in-theory-from-the-oval-office/2016/11/22/935745da-b0e3-11e6-be1c-8cec35b1ad25_story.html?utm_term=.42f2f07b9acb
6 Sarah Lazare, Alarm over ‘Witch Hunt” After Trump Demands List of Civil Servants Who Worked on Climate Policy Under Obama, posted on Alternet. org December 10, 2016: available at http://www.alternet.org/environment/alarm-over-witch-hunt-after-trump-demands-list-civil-servants-who-worked-climate-policy
7 See this, as the latest and most troubling example. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/12/28/fox-news-wonders-if-we-should-cancel-food-stamps-since-0-09-percent-of-spending-is-fraudulent/?tid=sm_tw&utm_term=.57fdf3af1f27
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.