Despite having taken a long break from social media and blogging after the election—partly due to having gotten the election so wrong and wanting some time to reflect; partly due to exhaustion—I have written a bunch of pieces on the political situation that may be of interest to folks, particularly as we near the proverbial 100-day mark of Trump’s regime.
Back in December, I wrote an essay for Harper’s on how we ought to think of opposing Trump, of not falling into the trap of resting our politics on the intractable evil of his regime. I trace that kind of thinking back to the liberalism that emerged at the end of the Cold War (really, it extends back further), a liberalism that refuses to posit a good and, instead, grounds its claims on a feared evil or ill. One of the consequences of that way of thinking is this:
A liberalism that needs monsters to destroy can never politically engage with its enemies. It can never understand those enemies as political actors, making calculations, taking advantage of opportunities, and responding to constraints. It can never see in those enemies anything other than a black hole of motivation, a cesspool where reason goes to die. Hence the refusal of empathy for Trump’s supporters. Insofar as it marks a demand that we not abandon antiracist principle and practice for the sake of winning over a mythicized white working class, the refusal is unimpeachable. But like the know-nothing disavowal of knowledge after 9/11, when explanations of terrorism were construed as exonerations of terrorism, the refusal of empathy since 11/9 is a will to ignorance. Far simpler to imagine Trump voters as possessed by a kind of demonic intelligence, or anti-intelligence, transcending all the rules of the established order. Rather than treat Trump as the outgrowth of normal politics and traditional institutions — it is the Electoral College, after all, not some beating heart of darkness, that sent Trump to the White House — there is a disabling insistence that he and his forces are like no political formation we’ve seen. By encouraging us to see only novelty in his monstrosity, analyses of this kind may prove as crippling as the neocons’ assessment of Saddam’s regime. That, too, was held to be like no tyranny we’d seen, a despotism where the ordinary rules of politics didn’t apply and knowledge of the subject was therefore useless.
I pursued this line of argument about the need to view Trump politically in a piece that appeared in n+1 in January, several weeks before Trump’s Inauguration. Like several other scholars—most notably, Jack Balkin and Julia Azari—I deployed Steve Skowronek’s theory of the presidency, exploring the possibilities that Trump’s presidency might turn out to be like Jimmy Carter’s. I had been pondering the Carter scenario as early as last June on Facebook, though as most of you know, using the same broad theory, I wound up making the ultimately mistaken argument (more on this below) that Trump was like McGovern. (NB: This is not a comparison between the personalities or talents or skill sets or ideological agendas of these men; it’s a comparison of the structural positions they find themselves in, as presidents presiding over weak regimes.)
In any event, while the scenarios I set out in my n+1 piece were speculative, I thought there was significant enough evidence accumulating in the weeks after his election to show that Trump’s presidency might be as disjunctive as Carter’s.
THE INTERREGNUM BETWEEN Trump’s election and his inauguration has occasioned a fever dream of authoritarianism—a procession of nightmares from faraway lands and distant times, from Hitler and Mussolini to Putin and Erdogan. But what if Trump’s antecedents are more prosaic, the historical analogies nearer to hand? What if the best clues to the Trump presidency are to be found in that most un-Trump-like of figures: Jimmy Carter?
THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN CARTER and Trump are many and obvious: Carter shyly confessed to having “committed adultery in my heart”; Trump brags about grabbing pussy. Carter was a moralist and a technocrat; Trump, an immoralist and a demagogue. Carter was a state senator and a governor; Trump has no political experience. Carter wouldn’t hurt a fly (or a rabbit). Trump takes pleasure in humiliating others, particularly women and people of color.
The parallels between Carter and Trump are also many, if less obvious.
Though many objected to this piece when it came out, claiming that I was not alert enough to the strongman authoritarianism, even fascism, that Trump was organizing around him, subsequent events, I think, have shown that his presidency is as incoherent, and as weak, as I speculated it might be. Frankly, even weaker: it’s an innovative fascist who, when given total control of the state apparatus, consistently and electively fails to consolidate that apparatus, particularly its security sectors. Or who responds to challenges to his power with a phlegmatic ”I’ll see you in court.” (And, yes, I know about the Leipzig Trial, but that was a response to an alleged criminal act; with Trump, we’re talking about how he copes with challenges to his policies.) Despite the rhetoric and bravado, the tweets and tantrums, Trump remains very much a captive of the institutions he rails against, with little sign, it seems, of being able to do much about them. At least FDR, when faced with challenges from the courts, had the wherewithal to try and pack the Supreme Court; Trump’s greatest threat is…to take it to the Supreme Court.
In any event, the debacle over the repeal of Obamacare fully reveals the extent of the incoherence and disjunction of the regime. I examine some of the deeper, long-term dynamics underlying the disjunction in a lengthy oped in yesterday’s New York Times:
When confronting an enemy that controls the state or the terms of political debate, insurgent movements [like the American right between the 1950s and 1970s] are disciplined by the combination of their ambition and their weakness. Because they are in the minority, the movement’s true believers understand that their primary task is to win converts. That task forces them to cajole and confront, to engage and entertain, the other side. If they win converts, if they see their movement grow, they’ll confidently accept a temporary compromise with their newfound, perhaps softer allies as the price of power — and the promise of greater power to come. The movement thus develops a suppleness, a buoyancy, that enables it to smooth over the inevitable differences and fissures that accompany any expansion beyond its base.
Movements on the rise are also forced to shape and sharpen their ideas, to formulate and test their policies in the news media and academia, or out of the spotlight in local precincts and party primaries. The philosopher and economist Friedrich A. Hayek, whose writings helped shape the modern right, said the free-market ideal most “progressed” when it was “on the defensive.” That encounter with reality, of trying to proselytize and govern amid an enemy more powerful than you, is a vital teacher. In that classroom, movements learn what to think, what to do, and how to do it. Once they graduate, they’re ready not only to seize power but also to exercise it.
Movements long ensconced and habituated to power — such that when their leaders are out of office, their ideas still dominate — get out of that practice. They lose touch with that external reality of their opponents. The impulsion outward disappears; they grow isolated and doctrinaire, more sectarian than evangelical. Arguments their predecessors had to sweat their way through soften into lazy nostrums or harden into rigid dogmas. The free-market ideal, Hayek says, “became stationary when it was most influential.”
It’s no surprise, then, that the Republican Party should now find itself uncertain about what to do. After 40 years in Zion, it has lost the will and clarity it acquired while wandering in the desert. The movement has lost the constraint of circumstance.
After my oped appeared yesterday, I speculated a little further about what the defeat means going forward, as we start examining the question of tax cuts and the debt ceiling, the second and third point of what what I call the “Bermuda Triangle” of Trump’s regime.
If you go back to the best reporting on this issue, it’s clear that repealing Obamacare was never, simply, about an ideological antipathy to government-provided or government-subsidized insurance—though that of course played a role. What really was driving the repeal—and why Ryan insisted it had to be done first (that was no duping of Trump, as some are claiming, nor was it Bannon setting up the Freedom Caucus, as some are even more fantastically claiming)—was the tax cuts: not only the massive tax cuts that the repeal contained within itself, but also, and more important, the permanent tax cuts that repeal would make possible down the road this year (in a way that George W. Bush’s tax cuts were not permanent, much to the chagrin of the right). There was, in other words, a very rational reason to take on healthcare first; in some ways, given the ultimate long-term goals of the GOP (where cutting taxes has always proven to be the most tried and true method for keeping entitlement spending under control), they had no choice but to move on healthcare first.
You’ll recall that this issue dogged Obama like the plague: whether you think it was the GOP that controlled him on this issue or he who allowed himself to be controlled by the GOP, it was a real constraint on his presidency from 2010 onward. So as soon as Trump was elected I began to wonder to myself whether this same GOP, and particularly these meshuga Tea Partiers, would allow Trump simply to increase the debt ceiling without exacting some sort of price from him, the way they did with Obama.
Leftists alarmed by Trump tend to think the GOP will naturally fall in line with him and with Bannon’s vision of a different kind of GOP. So the debt ceiling from this perspective won’t even be an issue. I myself really didn’t know what would happen: would these Tea Party types really have the gumption to oppose Trump on the debt, to force him to come around to their priorities? I was dubious.
After what happened this past week, I’m no longer dubious. I still have no idea what the GOP will do, but I think it not impossible that the Unfreedom Caucus and their allies (a much wider group in the GOP) will replay with Trump what they did with Obama: demand concessions from Trump on taxes and spending in order to justify their voting to raise the debt ceiling. The difference this time around is that unlike Obama, Trump has far less room to maneuver: Obama had the entire Democratic Party vote and only needed a certain number of GOP votes; Trump has an uncertain number of GOP votes and will almost definitely have to reach out to the Democratic Party.
As I mentioned, I took a long break from the internet after November, in which I thought a lot about what and why I got wrong in the election. I wrote about that here.
Part of my failure, of course, was that I didn’t read the polls carefully enough. A lot of the polls, as my more attentive readers pointed out, showed Clinton’s margin over Trump, particularly in key states, to be well within the margin of error. That should have been a warning.
But to be honest, I wasn’t so much influenced by the polls as I was by two other things: first, my understanding of conservatism as a reactionary movement of the right; second, my understanding of the presidency as an institution.
One possibility is that I was wrong about the weaknesses of the Reagan regime. Rather than being weak, perhaps it was strong, which would make Trump an ideal candidate for election. In support of that possibility, people will point to the widespread control the Republicans have over state legislatures today, though as I said at the time this McGovern issue came up, the Democrats also had widespread control over state legislatures in the 1970s, and their control over Congress, particularly the House, was legendary and long-standing.
Another possibility is that I wasn’t wrong about the weaknesses of the Reagan regime but that I was wrong about Trump. Unlike conservatives or Republicans, he was doing something different: he was populist, he was revanchist, he was racist, he was outrageous, he was a demagogue, he reached out to the white working class. He was, in other words, the expression of an utterly new formation, not captured by the nostrums of conservatism. For a thousand different reasons, most of which I explore in my book, I think that argument couldn’t be more wrong. Virtually all the things that people point to that supposedly make Trump not like your typical Republican or conservative are, from my point of view, the emblematic features of what it means to be a conservative. And nothing anyone has said has convinced me otherwise.
But there is still another possibility: I wasn’t so much wrong about Trump or the Republicans; what I got wrong was the Democrats….
Since the election, I haven’t been posting at Crooked Timber. It’s difficult juggling so many conversation threads on social media, at my blog, and here. But you can always catch what I’m saying on Facebook (I’m maxed out on friends, but most of my posts are public, so you can sign up to follow them), on Twitter, or on my blog.