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

Mar 19th 2019
Last week, a far-right extremist killed at least 50 people – including a three-year-old child – worshiping at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. Neither white supremacy, nor racially motivated terrorist attacks carried out in its name, are new phenomena. Yet the response to far-right terrorism remains thoroughly insufficient.
Mar 12th 2019
Allegations of Russian meddling in the affairs of Western countries have been a persistent feature of Western politics since the Cold War. Claims of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election are only the most recent in a long series of suspected conspiracies across the past century or so. But Russian political discourse is also riddled with conspiracy theories. Everything bad that happens in Russia is traced back by some to one or another anti-Russian plot hatched in the West.
Mar 10th 2019
My Soviet school built a mesh fence around its yard. Every week, tardy kids who wanted to cut through the yard tore a hole in the fence. Every weekend, the administration fixed it. But the hole would reappear the morning after. This went on forever. I wish US President Donald Trump, the fence builder of the West, had gone to my school. The Soviet Union was a country of fences, barriers, and walls. Everything was prohibited, locked, and guarded. Warning signs were phrased in no uncertain terms: “Do Not Enter: Death!” “Strangers Are Forbidden.” “The Border Is Closed.” Barriers didn’t stop people from ignoring the warnings. But they complicated things.
Mar 8th 2019

 

WASHINGTON, DC – It seems that every time I write about Donald Trump’s presidency, I pronounce it to be in more trouble than ever. This time is no different: he and his presidency are indeed in more trouble than ever. And yet that may not prevent him from winning again in 2020.

Mar 7th 2019
The Brexit process has exacerbated many of the disunities within the UK’s territorial constitution................polling in England suggests that many people think breaking up the UK is perhaps a price worth paying to deliver Brexit.......... At the referendum, only two of the four component parts of the UK – England and Wales – voted to leave the EU. This was enough to swing an overall UK-wide majority in favour of leave, but it went against the will of the Scottish and Northern Irish electorate. In both these parts of the country, significant majorities voted to remain – 62% and 55.8%, respectively.
Mar 6th 2019
Watching Michael D. Cohen, US President Donald Trump’s former lawyer and self-described “fixer,” testify to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform was a remarkable spectacle to behold. Here was a man who was hired by Trump to behave like a gangster. And he did that to perfection. When The Daily Beast was about to report on allegations by Trump’s first wife, Ivana, that her husband had raped her, Cohen barked at the journalist working on the story: “So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?” That journalist was hardly alone. Cohen’s job was to threaten anyone who got in the way of his old boss. He lied to congressional committees, paid off prostitutes to stop them from talking about their affairs with Trump, and much else. Cohen, who will soon begin serving a three-year prison sentence, has become what Mafiosi (and Trump) call a “rat.”
Feb 27th 2019
Extracts: "Some political catastrophes come without warning. Others are long foretold, but governments still walk open-eyed into disaster. As the possibility of a no-deal Brexit looms, most analysts agree that there will be severe economic and political consequences for the UK and the EU. And yet a no-deal Brexit still remains an option on the table....." ".......Although the consequences of a no-deal Brexit will be much less terrible, there are similarities in certain patterns of thinking and political behaviour, from the few who embrace disaster to the systemic pressures which prevent compromise. Avoiding disaster in 1914 would have required framing the stakes of the July crisis in less zero-sum ways and refusing to rationalise a general European war as an acceptable policy option. It required leaders with enough courage to compromise, even to accept defeat, and for states to offer rivals the prospect of long-term security and future gains in exchange for accepting short-term setbacks."
Feb 25th 2019
US President Donald Trump’s administration has underestimated China’s resilience and strategic resolve. With the Chinese economy slowing, the US believes that China is hurting and desperate for an end to the trade war. But with ample policy space to address the current slowdown, China’s leadership has no need to abandon its longer-term strategy. While a cosmetic deal focused on bilateral trade appears to be in the offing, the sharp contrast between the two economies’ fundamental underpinnings points to a very different verdict regarding who has the upper hand.
Feb 21st 2019
Extracts: "......after three years of referendum-induced turmoil, there is finally a new move, a brave move, by the eight Labour MPs and three Conservative MPs (and counting)......There are no policy announcements, no real statement of principles, and there is no leader or political platform. And yet, this policy-free political movement is of incredible political importance........this is an act of direct action, based on the concept of prefiguration. That is, the actual policy statement at the heart of the formation of this movement is the formation of the movement itself. There is no need for grand policy statements right now."
Feb 21st 2019
There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity.
Feb 20th 2019
From Trump’s very inauguration day speech, written for him by the fascist gadfly Steve Bannon and man still without a prom date Stephen Miller, it was apparent that the 45th president was a constitutional crisis waiting to happen. And now, without our realizing it for the most part, the constitutional crisis is here.
Feb 11th 2019
The first step to defending Europe from its enemies, both internal and external, is to recognize the magnitude of the threat they present. The second is to awaken the sleeping pro-European majority and mobilize it to defend the values on which the EU was founded. Otherwise, the dream of a united Europe could become the nightmare of the twenty-first century.
Feb 7th 2019
Watching a sophisticated democratic society knowingly walk into a predictable and avoidable national disaster is a rare and alarming experience. Most British politicians are well aware that leaving the European Union with no agreement on the post-Brexit relationship will cause enormous damage to their country. They are not sleepwalking into the abyss; their eyes are wide open. A minority of deluded ideologues doesn’t mind the prospect of Britain crashing out of the EU with no deal. A few chauvinist dreamers on the right, egged on by sections of the press, believe that the bulldog spirit of Dunkirk will overcome early setbacks and Great Britain will soon rule the waves again as a great quasi-imperial power, albeit without an empire. Neo-Trotskyists on the left, including Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, seem to think that catastrophe will spur the British people to demand true socialism at last.
Feb 4th 2019
We’re off to the races - the 2020 presidential races, that is. Since the beginning of the year, at regular intervals, new candidates have been coming forward to announce their intention to compete for the presidency. Some are interesting and/or exciting, while others frankly leave me scratching my head and asking “What are they doing? How on earth do they think they’re going to be elected?”      
Jan 29th 2019
Extract: "As it happens, on that Friday night when Trump buckled, I was at a restaurant where Pelosi and her husband, Paul, were dining with another couple. When the House Speaker left her table, customers and staff alike applauded her. A waitress standing beside me was nearly in tears. She choked out, “We need someone who will fight for us.” "
Jan 28th 2019
Recognizing that opinion in Parliament is moving strongly against leaving the EU on the terms proposed by May, with a growing number of members even in favor of a second referendum to test whether we should leave at all, some right-wingers have flirted with the idea of trying to close down the House of Commons for a time. They want the government to be able to get its own way without any democratic opposition. It is a sign of their desperation to get Britain out of the EU whatever the constitutional or economic cost. Is May prepared to get to grips with this? If she runs away from the task, despite growing Parliamentary unease about the path we are on, Britain is in big trouble.
Jan 25th 2019
At the end of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had completed final testing of an “invincible” new hypersonic nuclear-capable missile, the “Avangard,” calling it “the best New Year gift” for his country. With Putin seeming to up the ante on his increasingly frequent doomsday rhetoric, should the world be bracing itself for a nuclear conflict?................In recent months, popular support for Putin in Russia has declined sharply, with his approval rating falling from over 76% to 66% in the second half of last year. At the same time, a kind of neo-medieval thinking, focused on the restoration of autocratic monarchy and the supremacy of the Orthodox Church, has been gaining prominence in Russia. Putin’s fire-and-brimstone rhetoric may actually reflect the mindset of these fundamentalists, who view nukes as a “practical solution” to the world’s problems.
Jan 24th 2019
Over the past three decades I wrote more than two hundred articles about Israel, envisioning it to be a democratic state, independent and free, a champion of human rights, a force of unity for world Jewry, united in its citizenry, admired by its friends, envied by its detractors, and above all at peace with the Arab states and especially with the Palestinians. My vision about Israel was founded on my deep sense of the Jews’ turbulent and tragic history and their yearning for a home of their own in which to live in peace and security. As the years went by, I became increasingly disillusioned with Israel’s endemic political disunity, its inability to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, the growing public complacency, the loss of the country’s unity of purpose, and the abandonment of its moral responsibility.
Jan 22nd 2019
China’s strategy for economic growth has been a work in progress since Deng Xiaoping launched the country’s “reform and opening up” in 1978. While the last 40 years of reform have been far from error-free, the government has displayed a willingness to adapt, as well as a capacity for navigating complex transitions, supported by a healthy internal policy debate. But how is China’s development model likely to evolve in the future, as external conditions pose new challenges to economic growth? A defining feature of China’s four decades of reform has been the state’s evolving role in the economy, about which there is still significant domestic disagreement. Some argue that the state – and, by extension, the Communist Party of China (CPC) – must retain a prominent role, in order to uphold the social stability needed to sustain economic development. Others claim that spurring the innovation needed to reach high-income status requires the state to be less like a market participant and more like a referee, regulator, and arbiter of economic and social priorities.
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.