The Trump Years: Day 74


I regret not writing as much now as I did before the election.  When I ask myself why, I come up with a complicated set of reasons.  Few of them reflect well on me as a citizen or human being.  They range from the situational and emotional (my father having died recently) through the characterological (I hate conflict, so how will I survive the intense political conflicts of the Trump years?) on up to the super-structural (both the parties are defunct and I really think the only way forward is to create a new party).  The thought of how much we will all have to pivot and struggle in order to re-energize, re-organize, and purify our politics overwhelms me.  And, to be honest, I wonder whether we even have it in us as a society, to purify American politics, to cultivate a new generation of moral and responsive leaders, and to keep our nation and culture from sliding swiftly downhill.

After all, the political problems we confront can’t be blamed on a single person.  The creepy manifestations of decline emanating from the Trump White House and from Capitol Hill stem from a dysfunctional culture and institutions no longer organized effectively in support of the noble form of government that we inherited.  To make our politics praiseworthy again is going to take a massive jolt of collective energy.  Just as important, to transform our existing institutions, Americans are going to have to formulate and rally around a newly urgent set of principles and goals.

The burned-over district: In the nineteenth-century, the western section of New York State became known as “the burned-over district,” because of its unusual susceptibility to religious revivals.  Before the rise of the social sciences, Americans were collectively more inclined to see the hand of God at work in human history.  They were more likely to praise “the Almighty” or “Providence” when experiencing prosperity and to see adverse events (such as Trump’s election) as a divine punishment for society’s failings.  In western New York, such a mentality led both to religious enthusiasms and to a forward-looking social activism that fueled Americans’ determination to secure votes for women and freedom for slaves.

While not wholly efficacious in themselves, such movements inspired much ideological ferment and in time impelled major changes in the platforms of the political parties.  Leading Republicans of the Civil War era, like William Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Charles Sumner, were undoubtedly inspired and influenced by the high-minded spiritualism associated with “the burned-over district.”  The United States could use some of that same pure, high-minded fervor today.

Image:
Casimir Bohn’s “View of Washington City and Georgetown” (1849),
from this source.

A Stress Test for the Constitution

Soon after the election, a friend envisioned Trump’s presidency as “a stress test for the Constitution and all of its institutions.”  This is proving to be the case, for reasons that are both collective and peculiar to Trump and his administration.

Collectively, his presidency has halted, and aspires to reverse, the direction American government took under President Obama, a direction decried in some quarters but one charted in careful accordance with the law.  The Affordable Care Act, which some Republicans so revile, was nonetheless “ratified” after a protracted but open struggle by both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court.

In other areas, President Obama’s use of executive power, though politically unwise, was legally defensible.  His approach to reducing carbon emissions, so hated and feared in some quarters, took shape only after a long period of public comment and after his legal team was certain the new guidelines could withstand a Constitutional challenge.  President Obama exercised discretion in whether and how to enforce immigration laws, but, as Richard Lugar, a former US Senator from Indiana, has observed, every president has done the same, since all have lacked the means to see that the laws on the books were fully enforced.  Lugar, a moderate who was one of Capitol Hill’s most influential Republicans before a member of his own party “primaried” him from the right, driving him from office, wrote in the New York Times that, given the howls of outrage over Obama’s immigration policies, one would never guess that his administration had “vastly exceeded the deportations under President George W. Bush,” just as Bush’s had vastly exceeded those of President Clinton.

President Obama sought to move the nation and the Democratic Party in a new direction, but he was not a party leader, and he did not wait for a bipartisan consensus that he knew was never coming to emerge.  In his second term, he focused increasingly on what he could do without Congress–but to the extent that his victories lacked Congress’s active assent they were unsustainable.  They were simply too far ahead of the collective political will.  In the meantime, Obama’s dogged pursuit of his own grand vision hid the senescence of the Democratic Party.

As the first person of color to occupy the presidency, Barack Obama symbolized the America we are fitfully becoming–a nation that is truly inclusive and color-blind.  As a symbol and agent of that change, he aroused a lot of resentment and fear, emotions that candidate Trump and some other Republicans inflamed to their benefit in the campaign.

The stunning political triumph of a charismatic outsider, the shattered GOP’s success at hanging on to power, and the dangerous eclipse of the Democratic party: these are the three huge interrelated events whose consequences are shaking the political community, from the nation’s most powerful institutions to its polarized citizenry, united only in its demand for responsible governance.

Image: “Save yourself”
@2017 Susan Barsy

The Trump Years: Day 32

Panoramic view of Washington City (Courtesy Library of Congress)
Dynamics:
Underneath the Trump presidency are a pair of fragmented and outmoded political parties, contributing to the public’s rightful perception that national politics are inchoate. The Trump presidency itself represents a vertiginous jolt, one that delights those who supported him even while it startles and alarms everyone else.  A nasty political struggle that will take the US in a new direction has begun.

The press:  It is a particularly difficult time for them.  Journalists, opinionators, and social-science experts have just been through an experience that established the limits of their influence and damaged their authority.  The vote showed how much of the nation is indifferent to their views.  A majority of the states are inclined to reject the intellectual establishment’s worldview and its prescriptions regarding what is good for the US.  The nation’s need for a vigilant, balanced, and discerning press remains urgent. Unfortunately, some previously reliable figures (e.g. David Brooks) are wild-eyed and near hysterical post-election.  Is the nation heading toward a Constitutional crisis?  Toward tyranny?  If so, we need journalists who are calm and can help the public focus constructively on matters susceptible to its influence.  The public can do nothing about Trump’s personality.  Move on.

Chinks in Trump’s armour (my sister’s approach):  What aspects of the political situation offer leverage for averting national shame and moving the nation in a positive direction?  Strangely enough, the present constellation of power, which pits an outsider against all officialdom, may give rise to more unity of purpose across party lines.  Trump has made a few sound cabinet picks and shown some willingness to delegate to them.  We need more people like Mattis and Tillerson to stay in the mix.

Image: Panoramic view of Washington City from the new dome of the Capitol, looking west.
Drawn from nature by Edward Sachse. 1856.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Know Your Fears

know-your-fears-2

My husband told me he plans to write out a list of what he fears from a Trump presidency.  It makes sense, given how much fear is in the air.  Until each of us gets a bead on the nature of our fears, chances are it won’t matter much what we do.

We are exhausted from a long and tortuous election season.  Our nerves are wracked, our moral compasses are twitching.  Our guts are writhing from a roller-coaster ride that isn’t over but barely beginning.

The presidential contest was close, but it was more than that: it was polarizing, salacious, and unedifying.  It was omnipresent and momentous, hauling us all in together in a stinking net of civic obligation.  Then it ended with an ugly surprise, revealing that the nation’s ‘leading citizens’ don’t deserve their reputation as a leading class.  Today, American minds are still traumatized and reeling.  People are depressed, resentful, angry, disapproving.  Most of us sense further calamity brewing. 

Who likes the feeling of powerlessness that sets in after ‘the people have spoken’?  We, the electorate (yes, we’ll all complicit) have tipped the political order upside-down.

So, instead of bringing relief, the outcome of the election brings a new host of worries.  Americans must continue to be attentive and mitigate the various forms of damage Trump’s presidency may cause.  Fissures have opened up in both political parties; they, too, are divided and dangerously weakened.  The next few years will see ongoing tumult and crisis, making it all the more urgent to clarify goals and conserve energies.

American politics requires stamina and organization.  No one person or organization can fight every battle.  So know your fears; name the nature of the danger as exactly as you can.  Let the list you write define the wisest course to pursue.

Feel free to state what you fear most from a Trump presidency
and what you think people who share your fear should be doing.
If you’re viewing this on a laptop, the comments link is in the left sidebar at top.

On the verge (Election Day)

The shadow of a man and woman standing under a tree in autumn along the shore of Lake Michigan.
Today is Election Day, and we are each and all on the verge of something new.  Something unknown.  The campaign has been a time of trial—a time of bad dreams, friction, and more than a few out-and-out breakdowns.  Charisma, in the form of Donald Trump, has ruptured fault lines in the Republican Party and the nation that existed already.  Because of his candidacy, we as a nation and as individuals have gained some self-knowledge the hard way, which is how self-knowledge is always gained.  He has tested us, exposing our weaknesses, our normally veiled resentments, our various gnawing dissatisfactions.

Americans need.  Some truly live in a state of want, but others are fearful of the future, sensing decline and the increasing challenge of securing work and access to opportunity.  Others, not in need, want something other and better than what they already have, and, for that, they’re ready to trade something away.  Certainly, this is true of Republicans who have enjoyed considerable political power but insist the political order should be delivering something better than what it has managed to create so far.

Twitter sometimes delivers thought-provoking jewels, such as a tweet this morning quoting Gerald Ford: “Truth is the glue that holds governments together. Compromise is the oil that makes governments go.”

Hillary is not an innocent, but someone who has winked at the order herself and at acts within her province that are immoral or unseemly.  She is a tarnished political heroine, this ‘First Woman’—the other choice that all our earlier choices have made.  Many will vote for Hillary as a symbol of something she doesn’t really stand for, then expect her to wring something better from federal government and the political establishment.  She is the good-enough candidate, particularly in the eyes of those who feel no urgency about political change, whose hearts may have stopped bleeding some time ago.

 Whatever we stand on the verge of, it is best to acknowledge our complicity.  Whichever future we’re on the verge of, it will feature a world of political work that the republican model calls on ordinary people to perform.  My hope is that the election will usher in a period of broad ideological ferment and political reorganization, necessary precursors to restoring what is unifying and wholesome in American culture.