Jan 15th 2018

Beyond the Madness: Donald Trump and the Resetting of America’s Social Contract

by David Coates

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies

               

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.[1] His mental condition and his narcissism were visible as problems to many even before he was elected;[2] 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.[3]

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.

I

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,[4] 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.

II

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 2020s resembling in all so many ways the America of the 20s a century before.

When former Vice-President Joe Biden went on The Late Show in November 2017,[5] 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.

 

               

               



[1] See, for example, Charles Blow, “The GOP is covering for an Obvious Madman,” available at https://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/charles-blow-gop-covering-obvious-madman

 

[3] The recent gem here is Paul Krugman’s, “The Worst and the Dumbest,” published in The New York Times on January 8, and available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/08/opinion/trump-stable-genius.html

 

[4] On this, see the Washington Post “Fact Checker,” 1950 misleading/false claims in 347 days: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2018/01/02/president-trump-has-made-1949-false-or-misleading-claims-over-347-days/?utm_term=.ada54db2f491

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jan 16th 2019
Consumer studies academics have been picking up on changing habits for a number of years. This includes an increased ambivalence towards consumption itself: people are buying less often and less overall. This is particularly true in the clothing industry, where research shows that millenials are especially unforthcoming – even after you factor in the shift to online retail. A lack of bricks and mortar did not, for instance, prevent online fashion retailer Asos from shocking the City with a profit warning shortly before Christmas. The American car industry is another harbinger of generational change: sales are stalling because younger people seem less interested in ownership. The average age of a new car buyer in the US was 50 in 2015. Or to give one more example, witness Apple’s recent trading problems. People are not only opting for cheaper smartphones, but they are keeping them for longer. If the world’s first company to pass the trillion dollar value mark is showing signs of struggling, we ought to take note.
Jan 15th 2019
[Eurozone] trades mainly within itself, re-invests its own savings, and doesn’t rely on large transfers into or out of other regions. So if another financial or commercial shock sends the rest of the world running backwards, the unloved single currency area may defy gravity as stubbornly as it resists reform.
Jan 11th 2019
Nine years ago, Britain generated nearly 75% of its electricity using natural gas and coal. In 2018, this dropped to under 45% – a remarkable transition away from fossil fuels in under a decade.:
Jan 10th 2019
What would have to happen for this to be a tranquil year economically, financially, and politically? Answer: a short list of threats to stability would have to be averted.
Jan 9th 2019
In the past, the US, despite all its own flaws and criminal conflicts, still stood as a force for good. An ideal of American openness and democracy was still worthy of admiration. At the same time, again as in the case of Western Europe, dependence on US military protection has had a less positive affect. It made Japan into a kind of vassal state; whatever the Americans wanted, Japan ends up having to do. This can have an infantilizing effect on politics. In the age of Trump, America is no longer so dependable. This might at least help to concentrate Japanese minds on how to get on in the world without the Americans. But the US has also ceased to be a model of freedom and openness. On the contrary, it has become an example of narrow nationalism, xenophobia, and isolationism. Japanese nationalists need no encouragement to follow this model. If they do so, Trump certainly will not stand in their way. They will echo the worst aspects of contemporary America – and throw away the best of what the US once had to offer.
Jan 8th 2019
Swedish academic Hans Rosling has identified a worrying trend: not only do many people across advanced economies have no idea that the world is becoming a much better place, but they actually even think the opposite. This is no wonder, when the news focuses on reporting catastrophes, terrorist attacks, wars and famines. Who wants to hear about the fact that every day some 200,000 people around the world are lifted above the US$2-a-day poverty line? Or that more than 300,000 people a day get access to electricity and clean water for the first time every day? These stories of people in low-income countries simply doesn’t make for exciting news coverage. But, as Rosling pointed out in his book Factfulness, it’s important to put all the bad news in perspective.
Jan 3rd 2019
If hardline Brexiteers aren’t willing to do what it takes to maintain a frictionless border with the EU in Ireland, they need to acknowledge the likely consequences. Northern Ireland will then want to choose, in a referendum, whether to remain in the UK or to unify with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.........Such a step would be allowed under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the civil war and included a promise from the UK, Ireland, and the EU to keep regulations aligned across Ireland. Indeed, that deal leaves open the possibility of a reunified Ireland, if majorities in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland decide, by referendum, that that is what they want. In 2016, Northern Ireland voted by a clear margin of 56%-44% to remain in the EU. Though the minority Conservative government is being propped up by the ten MPs representing Northern Ireland’s pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party, an even larger majority of Northern Irish voters would probably choose the EU today..........Last June, when asked about business leaders’ fears over Brexit, Johnson infamously declared, “Fuck business.” If he were honest, he would apply the same crude dismissiveness to Northern Ireland and Scotland. At least then it would be clear where the Brexiteers actually stand.
Jan 3rd 2019

Many years ago, I came across an pre-Islamic Arabic poem describing a camel running across the desert. Suddenly, the camel freezes in mid-stride.

Dec 28th 2018
Extract: "..........the eruption of the Yellow Vest protests [in France] was less about the fuel tax than what its introduction represented: the government’s indifference to the plight of the middle class outside France’s largest urban centers. With job and income polarization having increased across all developed economies in recent decades, the unrest in France should serve as a wake-up call to others............To be sure, France, like a number of other European countries, has its share of impediments to growth and employment, such as those rooted in the structure and regulation of labor markets. But any effort to address these issues must be coupled with measures that mitigate and eventually reverse the job and income polarization that has been fueling popular discontent and political instability."
Dec 27th 2018
A fog of political uncertainty hangs over Britain after Christmas. Only four things seem clear. First, the Conservative Party will have growing difficulty accommodating its fanatical English nationalist wing. Second, to save the UK from disaster, Parliament will have to get a grip on the process. Third, life outside the EU will, in any case, leave Britain poorer and less influential in the world. And, lastly, whatever the outcome, Brexit will be a divisive issue for years to come. The Brexiteers lied. The costs of leaving the EU were always destined to outweigh the benefits. Alas, the responsible, imaginative, and inclusive political leadership needed to minimize the damage is nowhere in sight.
Dec 19th 2018
Over the centuries, Jews have been blamed for all sorts of ills in Christian and Muslim societies, from the Great Plague of the fourteenth century to the financial crashes of modern times. In 1903, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, produced by Imperial Russia’s secret police, “exposed” a diabolical Jewish plot to achieve world domination by promoting liberalism – and became a pretext for anti-Semitism in Europe. These narratives endure to this day, only now they are being projected onto a single Jew: George Soros............A disciple of the philosopher Karl Popper, Soros has promoted open societies as the ultimate guarantee of freedom from tyranny and religious or ideological indoctrination.....
Dec 17th 2018
Theresa May has survived a vote of no confidence in her leadership but to quote the prime minister: “Nothing has changed.” The Conservative Party remains just as divided as it was before. While divisions over Europe have been very prominent recently, they have been a thorn in the side of the party leadership for many years now. That said, looking at the situation today it’s hard to imagine how these rival ideologies have managed to coexist within the same party for so long.
Dec 11th 2018
WASHINGTON, DC – Though he rarely admits even the slightest discontent with the job he schemed for in unprecedented ways and somewhat accidentally fell into (thanks to the vagaries of the Electoral College), Donald Trump’s presidency hasn’t been what Americans would call a bowl of cherries. Yet no other week of his presidency so far has been filled with such problems and so many dark omens for him.
Dec 10th 2018
This Human Rights Day (December 10) marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sadly, events over the past few years show that the world is failing to uphold the commitments enshrined in that document, particularly when it comes to protecting children. For example, in separatist-controlled parts of Eastern Ukraine, where more than 200,000 children are receiving their education in militarized areas, bullets have struck kindergarten windows. In April, the Afghan air force, backed by US-led NATO coalition advisers, reportedly killed 36 students, teachers, and parents, and wounded 71 others, at a graduation ceremony. And in August, the Saudi-led coalition that has been waging war against Houthi rebels in Yemen dropped a bomb on a school bus, killing 40 boys between the ages of six and 11.
Dec 7th 2018
Figures like Boris Johnson, with his Churchillian pretensions, or Jacob Rees-Mogg, who resembles a minor character in a P.G. Wodehouse novel, are anachronisms. In earlier times, they might have run an empire. Now they are mere politicians in a middle-ranking state. Brexit for the likes of Johnson or Rees-Mogg is more like a deluded grab for power, undertaken in the name of the common people, supposedly in revolt against the elites of which these politicians are themselves conspicuous members. Their nostalgia for grander forms of rule has already done great damage to the country they claim to love. This is all the more reason, now that the potential catastrophe of Brexit is so plain to see, why those common people should have a second chance to vote for a way to avoid it.
Dec 4th 2018
The argument against a second referendum is that it would be deeply divisive, especially if it leads to a reversal of the first referendum. But this rather misses the point. The hardline Brexiteers will reject any compromise with the EU. As ideological purists, they will not be satisfied until the UK is fully out of the EU, even if it means jumping off a cliff. Happily, the British public is unlikely to accept that option. So, whatever happens, the Brexit debate will rumble on. In the meantime, we Britons should apologize to our friends around the world. Our national spectacle of self-harm must be growing tiresome.
Dec 1st 2018
.......since last summer, Putin’s approval ratings have again dropped precipitously, to 66% in October and November. Beyond “making Russia great again” on the international stage, Putin was supposed to improve Russians’ standard of living. Instead, after four years of falling real incomes, the government announced deeply unpopular pension reforms, which included an increase in the retirement age.
Nov 30th 2018
The Senate slapped the Trump administration around on Wednesday, voting 63-37 to bring to the floor a proposal to end US involvement in the Saudi-led war on Yemen. I should declare my own interest by saying that I was one of 50-some Middle East experts and policy-makers who signed a letter to the senators urging them to take this step........The vote was the most significant bipartisan measure to come out of the senate in ages, and fell just short of a veto-proof two-thirds majority.
Nov 23rd 2018
Vibrant capitalist economies have always depended on a carefully calibrated balance between government policy and private competition. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s significantly extended the previously minimal role of the US federal government. But, rather than holding back growth and destroying private enterprise, it was followed by 30 years of spectacular capitalist development, spreading prosperity as never before and dramatically expanding the ranks of the American middle class. Ayn Rand’s free-market utopia, so beloved by climate-change deniers, is as detached from real-world complexities, and as likely to produce social and environmental disaster, as simplistic Marxist faith in the inevitable efficiency and incorruptibility of the state.
Nov 22nd 2018
Trump’s statement on his policy toward Saudi Arabia in the wake of the murder in Istanbul of dissident Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi brought a profound shame on the United States that will, as FDR put it, live in infamy. Trump began by saying he was putting America first, but that was the last thing he was doing. He was putting his own personal predilections and policies, and perhaps profit, above the interests of the United States. Here are the ways he put America last: