Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Why I'm Not Afraid of President Trump

It's May 4 (better known in much of the Nerdverse as May the Fourth) again. Three years ago I published this post talking about how, while I'm a huge nerd and a Star Wars fan, I'm ambivalent about the widespread cultural acceptance of May 4 as a sort of unofficial "Star Wars Day", because in so doing we have lost what little remembrance we had of the much more serious events at Kent State some four and a half decades ago.

In this midst of this Presidential election cycle, with all its unexpected bizarreness, I think that remembering Kent State is more important than ever. As is typical, I've had a blog post floating around in my head for a while with the title "Why I'm Not Afraid of President Trump" - this is as good an opportunity as any to try to get that point across.

What does the Trump campaign have to do with remembering Kent State? In part because remembering the past helps us put the present in some context. There is a pretty widespread #neverTrump movement within the Republican Party, and I have a number of Republican friends who regard Trump as a fascist and a threat to the republic. The former accusation may be true, at least to a degree; the latter probably is not.

Much of the narrative of this election cycle has been about the "angry voter". The success of Trump, and the better-than-expected showing of Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, are held up as indicators that the American voter is "mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore". There is talk of "revolt" and "revolution". All of this because voters are voting for people somewhat outside the usual (rather narrow) mainstream of US politics.

We need to stop for a moment and remember what angry politics really looks like. If you want to see real anger in action, go back and watch footage of the riots outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago (an event that spawned the primary voter system we have today). Or read accounts of the race riots in over 100 American cities that same summer. Find a decent, sober history of the Weathermen (yes, I share a name [sort of] with one of their founders - no relation). And then read accounts, not only of the Kent State (and Jackson State) shootings, but of the divided reactions afterwards.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were suffused with anger so broad and so deep that substantial numbers of people seriously entertained the notion that violence was not only an acceptable tool of social and political change, but a necessary one. Part of this was generational, part of it racial, part based on the sudden collapse of a number of social norms and structures simultaneously. A lot of people were pissed off at other people (on both the Left and the Right), and in that anger were willing to support or at least sympathize with violence directed against their enemies.

Seen in that context, the interpersonal violence that has broken out at Trump rallies seems pale and almost pathetic in comparison. Yes, the candidate himself has at times egged his supporters on to beat up those who disagree with them. This has been directed largely at opponents who have shown up to those rallies - the few who have walked into the lion's den, as it were. Ugly as these incidents are, they are far removed from Nazi brownshirts accosting Jews in the street, much less an organized mass attack like Krystallnacht.

I find Trump reprehensible and completely unacceptable both as a candidate and, insofar as he presents himself in public, as a person. He is unqualified to be President. Being President would also probably drive him nuts, because it is a profoundly limited position. The history of our last three Presidents - all of them serving for two terms each - illustrates this nicely.

Opposition to Bill Clinton appears to have been largely personal, not ideological or political. Though Republicans accused him of being a "tax and spend" Democrat who would blow up the Federal government's finances, he was in fact a centrist who supported conservative ideas in welfare reform and brought the budget deficit down to near zero (depending on your accounting rules). He faced determined opposition in Congress despite his centrism. At the end of eight years, none of the terrible things Republicans feared had come true and the country was, to a substantial degree, much better off than it had been in 1992.

Leftist opposition to George W. Bush centered around both his foreign policies and, for the most committed opponents, his suspected authoritarian/fascist tendencies. His electoral victory in 2000 was questionable, which put his administration under a cloud from the beginning. The neoconservatives he brought into the government responded to the 9/11 disaster by starting major wars which, sadly, are still with us. These were policy failures of a significant order. He also supported a number of centrist domestic policies, with mixed results. One could lay some blame on the administration, perhaps, for the collapse of the financial system near the end of his Presidency, leading to the worst economic downturn in a generation. But in the end, he and his administration walked away from power after the 2008 election, and while the country was worse off the problems were recoverable and the republic still intact.

President Obama has faced a level of opposition not seen in modern times in our political system, both ideological and personal. His opponents have spread the most absurd of stories (He's a Kenyan! A Muslim! A socialist bent on destroying America!) while working to block nearly any initiative his administration has tried to undertake. Most of those initiatives have been (surprise!) centrist ones - even the much-maligned "Obamacare" is based on health care reform ideas largely drafted by Republicans a decade or two earlier, a far cry from the single-payer or government-run systems preferred by some on the Left. Nearing the end of his eight years in office, the country is somewhat better off, but not perhaps as far along as many might wish. But if he was trying to destroy the nation, he completely, totally, and utterly failed.

The point of these stories is that they all have a sameness. Despite our howls of protestation about the evils of our opponents (whoever they may be), there is a center of gravity in the American political system. That center can (and does) shift over time - since the 1980s it has shifted significantly to the right, which is why repeated Republican protestations about being victims in a country about to collapse into leftist socialism are bafflingly bizarre. The conservative movement has in fact been succeeding in slow, steady increments, yet to listen to them talk you'd think they were Davy Crockett at the Alamo.

And this is why I refuse to be afraid, even if Donald Trump is elected President. Whatever else he does, he will not push the country still farther to the right - he's not a conservative and never has been, which is why he keeps violating conservative principles on the campaign trail. He will not make the country more racist or xenophobic than it already is - all he is doing is drawing out the existing racism, xenophobia, and misogyny in the population. In a way (as some in the NYT have argued) he may be doing us a favor by bringing this nastiness out into the light where it can be more effectively countered.

Trump as President would be confronted with a badly divided and electorally weakened Republican party in Congress, quite likely a Democratic Senate that can filibuster anything he tries to do, and a vast Federal bureaucracy with decades of experience in centrist governance. Washington, DC isn't the Celebrity Apprentice - you can't just fire everybody and start over. If he tries - really tries - to impose his desires simply by force of will, as he has tended to do in his business life, he will rapidly find himself unable to do much of anything, and he might be impeached. His penchant for litigation will get him nowhere - who do you sue when you're the President?

Most of the stuff Americans really care about - that is, the economy - is beyond a President's grasp anyway. The Federal government tends to operate at the margins on the economy. Yes, decisions made today can have significant effects tomorrow. But given the opposing forces battling over those decisions, they are unlikely to drive us off a cliff. On foreign policy, Trump is likely to alienate a number of American allies - but will he do worse than George W?* In the end, international relations (as the Realists remind us) really is based on interests, not on personalities. Europeans and others understand this. They will suffer what they must and do what they can, and they will continue to work with the United States when it suits them, as they always have.

There's a popular saying that every crisis is an opportunity in disguise. A Trump Presidency would represent a crisis of sorts, but it would also present a lot of opportunities to have important conversations about what kind of country we want and how we're all going to get along in it. In the end, his greatest impact could well be to unite the country against him. Whatever happens, in the end the republic will still be standing. And so, while I will vote against him and urge everyone I know to do the same, I am not afraid.

*Some have argued that Trump's foreign policy views in particular need to be carefully examined, because Presidents have absolute power over foreign policy in a way they don't in the domestic sphere. See this piece in Vox today for an example of this view. I disagree with this diagnosis - there are in fact a great number of checks on the power of a President in foreign policy, not least that it is formulated, carried out, and managed by large bureaucracies (State, DoD, Treasury, even to some degree the NSC) staffed by professionals. Most of these organizations are only penetrable by Presidents down three or maybe four levels - everyone else is there whether you like them or not. And there probably aren't enough qualified people who share Trump's views on FP to staff all those Deputy Undersecretary slots. Some senior military officers have even indicated during the campaign that they will disobey orders that contradict US law and the Constitution - as they should. So in the end, I think a President Trump would find foreign policy just as frustrating as domestic policy, perhaps even more so.

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