Pulling the Trump Problem into Sharper Focus and Full Vision
We are becoming so acclimatized to government by crisis that it becomes slightly disorienting when one or two days goes by without a new Trump travesty on which to report and ponder. But the last couple of days have been rather quiet on that front. The President seems to cause fewer waves, the more golf he plays – and of late he has been playing golf rather a lot.
These mildly calmer moments are to be welcomed. They allow us a space within which to reflect upon the totality of what is happening under this Administration, and of what is likely to happen the longer this Administration stays in place. The reflection will not provide comfort – at least not to progressives – but if done properly, it should give us a clearer sense of what exactly needs resisting, and in what order of priority.
We are now over 70 days into the Trump presidency, and already it is clear that we face problems at three distinct but closely related levels in our national politics. We face problems with Trump the man, and with his understanding of the role and decorum of the presidency. We face problems with the advisers and cabinet-heads he chooses to work alongside, and with their views of how an incoming administration should deport itself; and we face problems from the party he purports to lead, and with their policy content and priorities in their moment of unchallenged legislative power.
The problems with Donald J. Trump the man are many and various. Some were clear and evident long before he was elected, and help explain why many of us did not want him elected. By almost any standard, he arrived in office as the most blatantly racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and narcissistic president in modern times. He appears to be a deeply unpleasant man, and he certainly does not appear to have values with which most progressives feel in any way comfortable. That much at least we know.
What we don’t yet fully know, and what we really need to find out now that he has been elected, is whether those social and political views are compounded as problems by deeper issues of personality and mental capacity. This president seems singularly ill-informed on key issues of the day. This president seems singularly prone to say one thing one day, and the opposite the next, without noticing the inconsistency over time. This president seems to make up his own facts (from employment numbers1 and crowd size2 to illegal voting3 and presidential wire-tapping), and to subscribe to a range of bizarre conspiracy theories; and this president seems unusually thin-skinned and prone to rage. This president tweets, particularly at night. No other president has ever done that! We have wondered about the intelligence of Republican presidents before, but now many of us wonder too – some of us in print, others just in private – about whether our president is one or more of the following: an idiot, a charlatan, a dissembler, a peddler of bombast, a liar,4 paranoid, corrupt, authoritarian, or quite simply mad.5 We wonder if he is beholden to the Russians, to the alt-right, to the Israeli lobby, or simply to his own excessive ego. Some of us worry too about the capacity for clear thought by a man with so limited a vocabulary, not to mention the capacity for global restraint by a man equipped with an aggressive view of American nationalism and a powerful military at his disposal.6
The more it is possible to tick the boxes under some or all of those headings, the more the case strengthens for impeaching this president as quickly as possible, and for sending him on his way. An earlier Republican Vice-President (Dick Cheney) justified the invasion of Iraq on the ‘one percent’ principle: that if there was a one percent chance of Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction, then the case for toppling him was made. Well, by that logic, set the bar that low and think of how many WMDs Donald J. Trump commands, and the case for impeaching him as quickly as possible seems made also.
If that was not problem enough, then there is this. Donald J. Trump has been (and remains) very slow to fill key positions in his administration, the slowness being perhaps partly due to the incoming president’s heavy dependence on just a tiny coterie of handpicked advisers, many of whom with ultra-right connections and worldviews.7 Then, when he does get around to nominating people to fill cabinet posts, Donald J. Trump is by modern standards over-prone to pick people who have later to recuse themselves, or to be ejected from their new offices even before they have settled in. Our new president clearly knows a lot of rich and dodgy people, with serious skeletons in their closets. The people he chooses are often selected in spite of either possessing no knowledge of the subject area that their cabinet post will oversee (education and housing both come to mind), or of being on record as adversaries of the very agencies they are now poised to superintend (energy and environment being prime amongst them). This seems to be a president, that is, who prioritizes personal loyalty to him in the choice of cabinet posts, rather than possession of the appropriate skills and experience – and who actually makes a virtue of giving positions of authority to those who have never exercised it before.8 We face, in consequence, what is probably the richest, but also the most closeted and least intellectually-equipped, cabinet since that of Calvin Coolidge.
Worse still, there seems to be an underlying philosophy of vandalism in the construction of the Trump cabinet thus far. We now know, from Steve Bannon’s own voice,9 that he is committed to the deconstruction of the federal administrative state, and that his advice to the President on whom to appoint to cabinet-level positions turns critically on the degree to which those appointments will speed that deconstruction process. Deconstruction does not extend to the military or to homeland security, of course. The military state will grow exponentially under this Presidency, if the tight circle of advisers around the new president has its way. But the rest of the federal state will wither – and at some pace. Rex Tillerson at the State Department, Tom Price at the DHHS, Betsy DeVos at Education, Scott Pruitt at the EPA, and Jeff Sessions at Justice are all already involved in firing senior administrative staff, reducing spending plans and narrowing/reversing policies that were put in place under the Obama presidency. And that is likely to be just the beginning: with the appointment of Mick Mulvaney to head the Office of Management and Budget,10 and of Steve Mnuchin at the Treasury, sending a very powerful signal that this Administration is likely to be one that cuts functions, guts programs, and narrows federal ambition. So too does the recently-published outline of the President’s first proposed budget.11
The more we tick these “administration” boxes, the clearer it becomes that what we face is nothing less than a full-scale deconstruction of the American welfare and regulatory state; and that in consequence, defending that state will require campaigns of resistance across the board, focusing in particular on the big three – Justice, Education and the Environmental Protection Agency – where the propensity for vandalism is greatest, and where the danger of permanent damage is real and growing.
But sadly, the Trump problems do not stop at the edge of the White House. If they did, they could in principle be stopped there. But in many ways, problems thrown up by the Trump entourage act partially as a smokescreen, obscuring the dangers to progressive values and causes that are now developing apace in the Republican-controlled Congress. The one character trait of Donald J. Trump that we perhaps missed in the earlier litany was that of emptiness – the real danger that Donald J. Trump is so policy-lite that his Administration simply becomes a tool, not simply for the paranoid fantasies of a Steve Bannon but also for the determined conservatism of a Tea Party rampant. 12
Donald Trump won his election promising a better healthcare system than that provided by the Affordable Care Act. Congressional Republicans, now with their man in the White House, have their opportunity to strike. Donald J. Trump promised to bring back American manufacturing jobs – partly by renegotiating trade deals (many Republicans might not like that) but also by easing corporate taxation (most Republicans will really like that). The Republicans in Congress now have their chance to pursue trickle-down economics again. They can also pass welfare spending down to the states, where Republican-controlled legislatures and state-houses stand ready to cut Medicaid to the poor and to eliminate abortion-rights for pregnant women. And Donald J. Trump won office blaming immigrants for social problems, and promising both to keep undocumented workers out and to expel those that are already here. This too is meat and drink to the base of the Republican Party. The scene is set, therefore, for the full-scale revenge of white middle-aged reactionary men on the rest of American society – men who feel threatened by the black and Hispanic poor, by emancipated women, by unionized public service workers, and by the entire LGBTQ community. It is not just the reforming capacity of the federal state that will be damaged if the Trump Administration and the Republican Congress have their way. The civil rights of all of us will be seriously depleted.
TAKING STOCK AND MOVING ON
One consequence of this bleak kind of stock-taking is very clear. It is that we have a lot of fights on our hands. 2017 will not be a year for staying home, working on the yard, and keeping clear of politics. On the contrary, 2017 will have to be a year of multiple and coordinated campaigns. And because it will, maybe something else is also clear. No one progressive person can fight all these campaigns personally and simultaneously. We probably all know someone who is so distressed by what is happening now that they are spreading themselves thin, chasing every Trump travesty in turn. But progressives have to survive as well as fight. Prioritizing is not cowardice. It is sanity. What is needed now is focused resistance by each-and-every one of us on the one/two Trump travesties that offend us most – resistance that sees itself as part of a wider struggle, and resistance that links up with other campaigns whenever it can.
We have had our mass demonstration – the one that filled the streets of Washington DC to overflowing, the day after the Trump Inauguration attracted its smaller crowd. That enormous outpouring of opposition to all that the Trump presidency represents was both inspiring and unprecedented. It put an important marker down, demonstrating the degree to which a president who was voted into office on fewer votes than his defeated opponent does not, and will not, speak for the majority of Americans. The demonstrations that swept across America on January 21 were amazing: but as their organizers well realize, the need now – in every community in the land – is for more-focused and smaller campaigns of resistance that, if properly coordinated, can cumulatively block the full implementation of the Bannon vision. The potency of that smaller-scale and more-focused resistance is already evident in the many Town Hall drubbings of Congressional Republicans who continue to defend the repeal of the Affordable Care Act without the simultaneous creation of a superior alternative. Those Republicans are not enjoying going back to their districts to meet their voters right now, and our job is to make sure that this Republican misery continues and intensifies over time.
For the potency of those Town Hall meetings already reminds us that we must not lose sight of the first key general target that we all share: namely that of breaking the stranglehold of Republicans on both Houses of Congress in November 2018.13 Donald Trump will help us in that, by regularly reinforcing the gap between promise and performance, and by daily demonstrating his unsuitability for office. And the Republican Party in Congress will do the same, as their much-vaunted ‘reform” of healthcare makes access to medicine and doctors more-and-more difficult for more-and-more Republican voters. Trump will likely be the easy target, and healthcare the easy issue, for progressives seeking to reconnect to disaffected Republican voters. But the real damage will quietly go on in the agencies that the Trump appointees now head, unless we do all that we can to stop it, by using every legal instrument at our disposal to slow down and to block the deconstruction of the administrative state. The maxim that “liberty is eternal vigilance” has never been more relevant than now – fighting reaction from the departments of justice, education, and environment at the very least, and from state legislatures who feel empowered to erode still further the limited rights that remain for the poor to vote, for workers to unionize, and for women to control their own bodies.
When our children and grandchildren ask us, in years to come, what did we do during the Trump years, our answer needs to be that we used every opportunity, and every ounce of our energy, to keep America safe for the values we love. Resisting the worst excesses of Trump and the Republicans is going to be both a vital and an uphill struggle. It is also going to be one that – for the good of those who voted for Trump as well as for those who didn’t – we must eventually win. Going forward the mantra must therefore be; resist now, impeach soon, reject at the ballot box later.
David Coates’ commentary on the second Obama term is now available as The Progressive Case Stalled.14
For something entirely different, and much more fun, see Lying Close to the Sky.15
1 Paul Krugman, “Facts Are Enemies of the People,” The New York Times, March 13, 2017: available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/13/opinion/facts-are-enemies-of-the-people.html?_r=0
2 See Editorial, “Can Donald Trump Handle the Truth?” The New York Times, January 28, 2017: available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/28/opinion/sunday/can-donald-trump-handle-the-truth.html
3 Christina Wilkie, “White House: Donald Trump Believes Lie That Millions Voted Illegally,” Huffington Post, January 24, 2017: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-sean-spicer-illegal-voters_us_5887aa44e4b0441a8f714d28
4 Ed Pilkington, “’Trump lies all the time’: Bernie Sanders indicts president’s assault on democracy,” The Guardian, March 10, 2017: full transcript available at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/mar/10/bernie-sanders-interview-full-transcript
5 Jim Hightower, What should We Do About a Mentally Ill President? posted on Alternet.org, March 9, 2017: available at http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/mentally-ill-president-trump
6 Ruth Marcus, “Will Trump make a real crisis worse?” The Washington Post, March 10, 2017: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/will-trump-make-a-real-crisis-worse/2017/03/10/5fa9bc74-05c8-11e7-ad5b-d22680e18d10_story.html?utm_term=.12e5c34f3ae4
7 Jennifer Rubin, “A president without an administration,” The New York Times, March 13, 2017: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2017/03/13/a-president-without-an-administration/?utm_term=.a5027b008d14
9 Philip Rucker, “Bannon: Trump administration is in unending battle for ‘deconstruction of the administrative state’,” The New York Times, February 23, 2017: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2017/02/23/bannon-trump-administration-is-in-unending-battle-for-deconstruction-of-the-administrative-state/?utm_term=.ab3e0ae393cf
10 Steven Rattner, “An Extremist Holding the Purse Strings,” The New York Times, January 26, 2017: available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/26/opinion/an-extremist-holding-the-purse-strings.html
11 Damian Paletta, “Trump budget expected to seek historic contraction of federal workforce,” The Washington Post, March 12, 2017: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/through-his-budget-a-bottom-line-look-at-trumps-new-washington/2017/03/12/29739206-05be-11e7-b9fa-ed727b644a0b_story.html?utm_term=.d40e787eabf1
12 Steven Rosenfeld, Donald Trump Looks More and More Like a Rubber Stamp for a Radical Congress, posted on Alternet.org, January 25, 2017: available at http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/donald-trump-looks-more-and-more-rubber-stamp-radical-congress
13 E.J. Dionne, “Next steps for the Trump resistance,” The Washington Post, March 12, 2017: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-next-steps-for-the-trump-resistance/2017/03/12/94fb9a42-05db-11e7-ad5b-d22680e18d10_story.html?utm_term=.0d57fce4310b
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.