The new year had barely started when the world got new grist for the ‘Trump-is-crazy’ mill, one of the few American industries to experience a boom since Trump became president.
Michael Wolff’s profile of the current White House, “Fire and Fury,” is filled with rumors and backbiting. But the book, and the president’s unhinged reaction to it, provide new evidence that Trump is cognitively and emotionally unfit for office.
Wolff got headlines, even in the august New York Times, for saying Trump has “less credibility… than anyone who has ever walked on earth.” Hard news becomes indistinguishable from hyperbole and high school gossip. That’s understandably irresistible for a lot of people. And a person’s sanity becomes existentially important when they hold a nuclear button, regardless of its size.
But the deeper forces of history move on, and we ignore them at our peril. While the nation obsesses about Trump, he and his fellow Republicans are radically rewiring our political and economic order. The tax bill they passed at the end of last year proves it.
Years are arbitrary divisions, of course, but they’re a useful reminder to note our individual and collective progress – or lack thereof.
There are always end-of-year retrospectives. But how does the Trump era look from a centuries-long perspective on our nation?
200 years ago, at the start of 1818, President James Monroe was about to claim the continent for American military expansion. General (and future president) Andrew Jackson invaded Florida during the so-called “Seminole Wars,” a military incursion against indigenous people and the Spanish colonial government there.
There was a growing belief in the federal government’s ability to accomplish things. Close to my own childhood home, a major infrastructure project was kicked off in 1817 when construction of the Erie Canal began in Rome, N.Y. (I was born in nearby Utica, where the canal has long since been paved over.)
Monroe began promoting his own brand of national unity, based on a political consensus that supposedly transcended party divisions. In some ways, it foreshadowed the “centrist” bipartisanship promoted by Democrats like Barack Obama and the Clintons.
This period came to be known as the “Era of Good Feelings,” a name that could hardly be applied to our own. But then, it undoubtedly didn’t feel good for the slaves, women, native peoples, and poor whites who struggled to survive every day.
The progressive era
A century later, 1917 had just ended. It was an eventful year. The country entered World War I after a German terror attack blew up a naval ship docked in Lyndhurst, N.J. Germans, not Muslims, were the country’s most hated and feared immigrant group in those days, as we noted back in 2016. The Alien Enemy Act was passed, placing immigrants like Trump’s father under the watchful eye of the authorities.
The National Archives tell of German-language newspapers shut down or forced out of business. Bilingual churches were pressured to stop conducting services in German. German-language societies and even choral groups were disbanded as “volunteer watchdog societies reported on… German American gatherings and activities to federal authorities.”
In an echo of Monroe’s wars of expansion, General John “Black Jack” Pershing launched another one of his “punitive expeditions” into Mexico.
In 1917, racism’s structural violence led to African-American uprisings – often called “riots” – in East St. Louis, Houston, and elsewhere.
Feminist heroines were beaten and tortured in Virginia’s Occoquan Workhouse for demanding the right to vote. By January 9, 2018, President Woodrow Wilson had announced his support for women’s suffrage. (The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920.)
The country was still in the so-called “Progressive Era,” named for the coalition of middle-class professionals, labor activists journalists, and socialists that fought for political reforms (and won, sometimes)
“We’ve got to start to make this world over,” Thomas Edison said.
The “like, really smart” age?
Flash forward another century and, as the maps say: You are here. Donald Trump represents a threat to our nation’s well-being. And he, like the “kids” of an earlier time, says “the darndest things.” Who can look away from a wreck like that?
But this moment in history, like any other, takes place at the confluence of larger historical forces. While we ponder Trump’s state of mind, the leaders of his party are busy reshaping the country in their own morally misshapen image.
Their ambitions are big – as big, in their own way, as Monroe’s plans to subjugate the continent. They want to conquer and colonize the public economy, reducing government to an empty shell and turning its activities into profit centers for corporations whose power cannot be questioned. In this way, public good becomes private gain.
The just-passed tax bill illustrates the scope of their ambitions. It throws a few short-term financial crumbs to an American majority that’s under so intense financial pressure. But it’s an enormous tax giveaway to millionaires and billionaires who are already enjoying the fruits of runaway economic inequality. It will make that inequality worse – and in the end, as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent notes, most Americans will pay more in taxes.
But that’s just the beginning. Their goal is to throw state governments, as well as the federal government, into fiscal crises that will allow Republicans to realize their ultimate ambition: the gutting of our shredded social contract and the dismantlement of the modern civil state.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask them.
This is what House Speaker Paul Ryan had to say as his party prepared to pass the tax bill: “We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit.” Ryan also said: “This has been my big thing for many, many years.”
His fellow Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio, said: “You also have to bring spending under control. And not discretionary spending. That isn’t the driver of our debt. The driver of our debt is the structure of Social Security and Medicare for future beneficiaries.”
They’re not “entitlements,” gentlemen, they’re “earned benefits.”
This fixation on debt and deficits is misguided in any case, whether it’s expressed by a Republican or a Democrat. But it’s especially galling when expressed by Republicans whose tax bill adds a projected $1.5 trillion to the deficit. It’s illogical, unless their actual goal is to dismantle government programs that have succeeded where the private sector has failed.
But then, that’s been the Republican ideology since Ronald Reagan said, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” As the old saying goes: When someone tells you who they are, believe them.
Mick Mulvaney, the former Tea Party congressman who now serves as both Trump’s budget director and head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has expressed open hostility to benefits programs and indirect opposition to the idea that the rich should pay any taxes at all.
Republicans are equally hostile to regulations, which is another way of saying they are opposed to letting us protect ourselves from the death, disease, injury and devastation caused by private-sector greed. That’s not just talk. The Trump administration has already dismantled regulations that protect the global economy, the coastline, and the lives of elderly residents in nursing homes. Some of those protections were written after the 2008 financial crisis and the BP oil spill, both of which could reoccur on a much larger scale.
To ensure the success of their dystopian enterprise, Republicans are also engaging in a full-scale war on the democratic sphere of activity, including the fundamentally American right to vote. Liberals who celebrated the death of Trump’s “voter fraud commission” – actually, a voter suppression commission – were gravely misguided. By moving its activities into the Department of Homeland Security, Trump put the entire weight of the nation’s national security apparatus behind this antidemocratic effort.
Republicans are reasserting the racial and gender dynamics and unbridled militarism of the Monroe era, without any of that era’s belief in federal activism. They’re undoing the work begun in the Progressive Era, while returning to the racial and sexual oppression of that time. And they’re oppressing innocent immigrants, echoing the mistreatment of Trump’s father and his community.
While Democrats offer complex proposals that tinker at the margins of multiple crises and fight one holding action after another, Republicans are thinking big. They want to shape the next 100 years. They understand the sweep of history, as former Reagan aide Bruce Bartlett told David Sirota in a recent interview:
“Republicans have been working for at least 40 years to get to where they are now. And one of the ways they did this, is by creating a vast number of institutions and outlets for people who think the way they do to create and echo chamber, and really I call itself brainwashing … There’s nothing like this on the left. They don’t put the resources into long term institutions and programs. They tend to be fireman. We’re gonna rush to put out this fire, and once that fire’s put out, they sit back and relax.
“Meanwhile, the Republicans are setting other fires in lots of other places.”
The Republicans want to dismantle the collective gains of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society. Instead of building on the progress of the past, they want to undo it. They want to radically unmake communitarian society, while turning workplaces, medical facilities, and the landscape into scenes of pollution and bodily harm – a Hieronymus Bosch landscape, but with white men in suits and ties instead of that artist’s more customary demons.
As Bruce Bartlett says, the Republican tax bill has “put fiscal policy to a very large extent, on automatic pilot for many, many years to come.” It will take big ideas and a fundamental reassertion of communitarian values to change that.
Sure, we can continue to talk about Trump revelations to the exclusion of everything else. But what’s the real story here? That Trump is stupid, vain, dangerous, and mean? Didn’t we know that already? By all means, let the investigations continue. And there’s an almost salacious pleasure to be had in having our worst fears about the man confirmed. Stressed-out progressives deserve a schadenfreude break now and then.
But there is a long game to be played here, and it can’t be won by playing defensively.
As the new year begins to unfold, in the face of this all-out assault on civil society, progressives need to ask themselves a question: What do we want the history books to say about our time, 100 years from now?