Friday, November 11, 2016

Aboard the Wonkatania, Entering the Tunnel

There's no earthly way of knowing,
Which direction we are going....

            My brother, a lifelong Republican, posted these words from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to Facebook on Tuesday night, as returns began to suggest that Donald J. Trump had been elected the 45th President of the United States. The sentiment struck me as the most apt among many similar expressions of alarm and dismay from friends, colleagues, and family members that night and the next day. Whatever else might be said about this election, it is undeniably true that Donald J. Trump has left us in a state of profound uncertainty as to exactly what will happen when he becomes the captain of the ship of state on January 20.

Even his victory speech at 3 A.M. on November 9, while reassuring in tone and substance, was an object lesson in the erratic and volatile nature of his public persona. It was gracious of him to declare that, "Hillary has worked very long and very hard over a long period of time, and we owe her a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country." But one could not be blamed for being confused by the contrast this posed to his statements of the previous Friday, when he declared that ""Hillary Clinton is the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency of the United States." If he can swing so wildly in less than a week (and it must be stressed that this is only one of many such examples), we are unquestionably left guessing about what manner of Donald Trump will emerge in the time between now and January 20, much less how many different Trumps we might encounter in the days, weeks, and months after that.

While it is difficult to predict with any confidence exactly which way Trump will steer, a few clear inferences can be made from the substance and tone of his campaign rhetoric. The constant stream of invective that he let loose against Muslims, women, people of color, Latin@s, and others gives millions cause for anger and fear, and has given millions of others license to vent their darkest feelings. 

Thus, while I agree with Secretary Clinton that we owe Trump an "open mind," the best that one can expect from an open-minded citizen at this point is an urgent skepticism about his future actions. This anxiety is corroborated and exacerbated by the clear presence among his supporters, however small a minority of his coalition that they might be, of individuals and groups (e.g. David Duke, the KKK) that cherish racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic ideals.   Precisely because Trump's public persona is such a mercurial and enigmatic entity, the extremist elements of his coalition (who are left in as much uncertainty as the rest of us exactly what he plans to do) will expect and demand for President Trump to translate bigoted words into bigoted policy. 

All of this uncertainty leaves open the question of how those of us in the majority that voted against Donald Trump should respond to his victory. Calls for healing and reconciliation are understandable, but are premature. Trump comes into the presidency under the biggest trust deficit of any president-elect since the Civil War. Unless and until he closes that trust deficit, we must put constant pressure on him to ensure that the most destructive aspects of his campaign do not find their most malignant expression. We must march. We must protest. We must write letters. We must donate to organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, and the ACLU.

But at the same time that we make clear the political price Trump will pay for carrying his bigoted rhetoric into action, we must not forget Rule #1. We must not give way to panic. Violence at this juncture will only make the situation worse. Violence will drive Trump into the camp of the David Dukes and Alt-Right monsters who were so energized by his vicious campaign. 

I sympathize with the protesters carrying signs saying #Notmypresident, but they are being very foolhardy. Our best defense against Trump now is not to deny that he is the president, but to force him to act like one. If he is the president, then he is restrained by the Bill of Rights, and the independent judiciary, and the separation of powers, and a host of other mechanisms that can be used to prevent him from encroaching on and abrogating citizens' rights. If we refuse to acknowledge that he is the president, then he will not feel constrained to act like one, in which case he becomes a bully with an army, a secret police force, and big pile of nuclear weapons. 

Anger and fear are warranted, but panic is not. Civil disobedience should be reserved for use against infractions of the constitutional order and policy goals of the highest priority, and violence should be eschewed entirely. If Trump is determined to use his power in bad faith, the most effective strategy will be to call attention to his transgression of rules on which the security of all citizens, even his supporters, depends. If we begin from the premise that he is so illegitimate that any and all rules might (or should) be broken to obstruct him, we will induce a total collapse of the system through the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

If we assume for the moment that Trump can be persuaded to fulfill his constitutional role in good faith, the question remains as to what the most effective strategy of "loyal opposition" might be. In this respect Democrats should seriously reflect on the lessons of the last election. Though Trump's victory was obviously won, in part, through reprehensible tactics, it cannot be denied that some part of his support derived from a rejection of the neoliberal politics of the last 25 years. Working class and rural voters from states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania threw their support to Trump in the hope that any change to the status quo might improve their quality of life. These were constituencies that used to give their allegiance to the Democratic Party, and the failure to deliver policy solutions to ease the impact of globalization and recession drove these voters to abandon Democrats in this election cycle.

 As a result, we no longer have divided government. The GOP has control of both Congress and the White House, and we should be prepared for them to use that power to effect policy. Some might counsel that the Democrats should use what little power they have left, in the same manner as Republicans have done for the last six years, to obstruct all policy and prolong gridlock. That would be extremely unwise for several reasons.

Firstly, the Democrats' power has ebbed to such a low nadir that total obstruction is not likely to work. If all that stands between the GOP and the passage of new legislation is a Democratic Senate filibuster, Republicans will eventually eliminate the filibuster altogether. Even if they do not, the concentration of GOP power in the both the executive and legislative branches at both the state and federal level will allow them to steamroller over a Senate filibuster using executive orders, the budgetary process, and other governance "work-arounds."       

Secondly, the attempt at total obstruction is likely to come at a prohibitively high opportunity cost. Democrats will be forced to do triage to see what policy measures can be preserved in the face of the oncoming juggernaut. In that respect, the highest priority should be placed on the concerns and problems with the most severe long-term consequences. The clear winner on those terms is the issue of climate change, as a reversal of the measures taken by the Obama administration will have catastrophic effects for the global environment in the future. Democrats should fight a rear-guard action to preserve the Paris Climate Accord and other environmental measures, horse-trading tacit compliance, however painful and distressing, on other policy goals of the Trump administration (repealing the ACA and Dodd-Frank, renegotiating NAFTA).

Thirdly, allowing for the easing of gridlock is, counter-intuitively, the best strategy for overcoming the political disadvantages now faced by the Democratic Party. Obstruction worked well for the Republicans because they are a party ideologically committed to the Reaganesque dictum that government is always part of the problem, not the answer. Thus hobbling government's ability to improve people's lives reinforced the narrative on which the party mobilized its base. 

But Trump's lopsided electoral college victory was only made possible by drawing in the support of disaffected working class voters in regions that have been impacted by globalization, technological change, and the lingering impact of the Great Recession.  These voters have genuinely suffered, and they have been galvanized and excited by the prospect of change promised by a Trump administration. They will expect results, and like most people swept up in populist movements, their enthusiasm and patience will be short-lived. The only measures that will genuinely improve these poor and lower-middle-income voters' lives are those that have been the mainstay of Democratic policy goals for many years, like a raise in the minimum wage, expanded funding for higher education and worker retraining, and public investment in energy and infrastructure. If Democrats allow the policy machinery to move again, there are thus two possibilities. 

The first is that the Republicans use their legislative mandate to actually enact policies that Democrats have supported for years, hoping to take credit for the resulting good effects. If and when this should be the case, Democrats should join them (as Nancy Pelosi has offered to do with Trump's suggested infrastructure spending bill) on principle, as such policies stand to improve people's lives. Statesmanlike patriotism would not be the only reason to do so, however. 

A move like this on the part of the GOP is almost surely bound to backfire in political terms, or at the very least to have a wildly unpredictable impact at the polls. Voters are not so blindly and non-ideologically partisan that the GOP could get away with doing what it has told its base voters for years would amount to catastrophic malpractice. This would be especially true if GOP lawmakers actually raised the revenues needed to fund such programs. The resulting dissonance in Republican ranks would give Democrats ample opportunity to make gains in 2018 and 2020, especially as this scenario would provide a case study to prove the timeworn Democratic contention that government can be made to work for people.

The second, and more likely outcome of an end to gridlock will be that the Republicans will do what they have promised to do and what they have reliably done in the past: cut social programs, cut taxes (especially for the wealthy), and lower regulations. In the best case scenario, this will have the same results that it had during the presidency of George W. Bush: wage stagnation for the working and middle class, and windfall profits for corporations and wealthy investors. It is possible that Trump will successfully re-institute protectionist barriers to global trade, but without some robust government intervention to ameliorate the disruptive effects of such policies, it is unlikely that they will do much to improve workers' lives (if such robust interventions are undertaken see scenario 1, above). In this second scenario the white-hot enthusiasm of working class voters for the Trump Revolution will most likely transmute quickly to bitterness and disappointment. In either of these scenarios, the most probable political result of allowing the machinery of policy to work again would be to give the GOP just enough rope to hang itself.

Finally, refraining from total obstruction is the best long-term course, both for ameliorating the recent damage done by Trumpism to the larger political culture of the nation, and for laying to rest a political strategy that the GOP has used successfully for more than four decades. Trump scraped together his minority coalition through a combination of reality-TV shock antics and a deployment of the venerable "Southern Strategy" first developed by Lee Atwater and Richard Nixon. Constant successive breaches of the bounds of good taste, conventional courtesy, and even standards of moral decency kept people entertained and distracted during the 2016 campaign, preventing them from focusing on Trumpian liabilities like total ignorance and a complete lack of specific policy plans. Meanwhile, Trump exploited floating white anxiety about the election of the nation's first African-American president to sell voters a doomsday picture of an America vastly worse than empirical reality would attest, seizing upon anecdotal episodes and incidental data to confirm whites' suspicions that, with Barack Obama in the White House, something must be deeply wrong. This is not to minimize the very real pain of Rust Belt workers and rural farmers that have continued to suffer, but the flames of their discontent were further fueled, in part, by seeing their distress reflected back to them in middle- and upper-middle class white voters passing along the meme that, in spite of their own experience of recovery and regrowth, the country had "gone to hell."

Though these paired strategies delivered Trump a shocking electoral college victory, they are not likely to work again if gridlock ends. By placing such high-stakes bets and employing such hyperbolic rhetoric, Trump has written a loan note against the political good will and credulity of his working class supporters that will be very difficult to cover with actual results. If positive change is not swift and tangible, it will discredit Trump's claims that Barack Obama was uniquely responsible for recent hardships. 

Moreover, if the gridlock ends, Trump and his party will not be able to use the same reality-TV stunts to the degree he has in this cycle. It will be impossible to avoid a discussion of policy once the GOP has had a chance to put its preferred policies into effect. Even if, to the good fortune of the American people, the GOP chooses to enact policies that bear some good fruit, Democrats will be the clear winners in any return of the national discourse to matters of policy. The GOP will need some Democratic votes to clear ideological hurdles in search of policy success, thus Democrats will be able to take some credit for any successful measures. And once voters are reminded of the good that government can do, Democrats will be able to argue for further policy initiatives eschewed by the GOP that would be appealing to workers, like laws to support union membership and strengthen collective bargaining power.

There is no way to sugar-coat the moment of peril at which we stand on the eve of Donald Trump's inauguration. Through his reckless and unthinking use of hateful and irresponsible rhetoric, he has corroded the basic bonds of trust that a president-elect must foster and protect if he is to have any chance of successfully fulfilling his constitutional role at home and abroad. His defenders dismiss his attacks on women, Muslims, Latin@s, LGBTQ citizens and others as "bluster," but now that he is about to assume a mantle of enormous power every word he said is of course being taken deadly seriously by everyone concerned. His constant flow of invective and profanity was entertaining and made for good television, but in political terms it was the equivalent of playing with matches next to an open barrel of gasoline. Trump will have to tread very carefully if he is to overcome the obstacles he has put in his own way. If he fails, not only his own administration, but the entire constitutional system upon which he has put such egregious strain, could collapse catastrophically.

However Trump conducts himself, it is the responsibility of all of us who voted against him to hold him accountable and to monitor his moves. This election has changed many things, and we should be prepared for that. But it has not changed our rights and responsibilities as citizens. We will have to engage the political sphere under different conditions than most of us expected, but the basic task remains the same: guide the ship of state so that it ultimately takes us all to a better place for ourselves and our children.


Jonathan Dresner said...

Very clarifying. Thoroughly wrong, though.

Madman of Chu said...

Jonathan, As always you have my gratitude for having taken the time to read my thoughts. I am dismayed, not by the fact that you disagree, but by the finality of your farewell. I infer from this that I have finally so offended you that I can not count you among my readership anymore. If this is the case I am genuinely saddened, and not merely because my readership is so small that I can't afford to lose any :). I would only protest that though those of us opposed to Trump are bound to disagree about how to respond to him, we should endeavor to make common cause and avoid the kind of "circular firing squad" so common among political movements that suffer serious setbacks and disappointments. That being said, I wish you well, and will miss your feedback if this is, in fact, goodbye.