A political party in motion tends to remain in motion, pursuing a particular constellation of possibilities, until its motion is changed by an external force. The Democratic Party last week got a bruising lesson in inertia. The collision with a complete political outsider has hammered the Republican Party, too.
Until Tuesday, it was possible to regard Donald Trump as an accidental president, but no more. A slim majority of votes in the Electoral College in 2016 was sufficient to elect a president who had promised to change the rules, without anyone quite knowing what that meant.
This year, three million persons more than in 2016 voted for Trump, but they were not enough to reverse the slim margins in various states by which he lost the election in the Electoral College (and was defeated by a wider margin in the popular vote). Republican voters this time had a better idea of the rules he intended to change.
No one likes to think that 70 million Americans cast their votes for an inept reality TV faker who by now could teach his mentor Roy Cohn lessons in bad behavior. Better to take The Wall Street Journal editorial board at its word. Some substantial fraction of those who voted for him may not admire the man, but they like his instincts, and at least some of his policies. What were those policies? Let’s briefly spell them out, foreign and domestic
Start with an easy one, foreign wars and adventures. Trump was against them. . George W. Bush’s interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have proved to be especially unsuccessful. They were preceded by Bill Clinton’s meddling the Balkans and his ill-considered NATO expansion. The interminable wars in the Mideast were followed by Obama’s tampering in Ukraine, Libya and (not quite) Syria. America’s thirty years as global cop have ended. The next president who proposes to get involved in some far corner of the world is going to have a selling job to do.
Then there’s China policy. It was in 1978, not yet Morning in America, that China announced it would follow Japan and the economies of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore into the world market. The Reagan administration welcomed a new trading partner with open arms, a policy both generous and realistic. For the next 35 years China grew and diversified at a furious pace. Obama “pivoted” towards Asia, and by the time Trump put an end to the old, less carefully examined relationship with a trade war, it had turned into a global competition.
On immigration policy, never mind the DACA dreamers, for now, and the other eleven million undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S. With immigrant tides expected to grow around the world in response to the effects of global warming, Trump aimed to change rules decisively to discourage illegal immigration and asylum-seekers. Whether or not you agree with the impulse, or approve of his rhetoric, apparently the impulse to control the flow of immigration, if not pull up the ladder altogether, was widely shared among the voting population.
Trump’s economic policies were a continuation of an approach he inherited from the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush: massive tax cuts for the rich at the outset of his administration to gin up the economy for his re-election campaign. Economically it worked just as expected: respectable growth, record low unemployment, and plenty of happy billionaires. Politically it didn’t work as well for Trump as for his predecessors. Never mind the soaring deficits, at least until the Covid-19 pandemic came along.
Promised infrastructure spending went by the board. The war on the Affordable Care Act continued, with no plan to replace it if it were to be ruled illegal. Trump relied on court appointments and a Republican-controlled Senate to please Christian evangelicals; he moved the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv to bolster Jewish support.
It all worked well enough to support a re-election bid until the virus erupted. For the first three months, Trump intermittently took his public health experts’ advice, then started berating them when the economy tanked and wound up second-guessing himself. A more adroit manager might have steered a middle course. Instead, the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic became just one more self-manufactured crisis to follow the others – the Mueller probe, the impeachment proceedings. When the election campaign finally arrived, whatever political intuition he possessed wasn’t enough.
That brings us to the door of the Department of Cycles of American Politics. A convenient introduction is a 1986 collection of essays by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. In its title essay, Schlesinger borrows Albert Hirschman’s definition of the recurring pattern: shifting involvements between public purpose and private interests, between centralization of national energy and its diffusion, liberalism and conservatism, democracy and capitalism. Differential ambitions among succeeding generations drive the cycle and assure that it unfolds with a period of thirty of forty years. Hirschman recalled Kant’s explanation: “Give a man everything he desires and yet at this very moment he will feel that this everything is not everything.”
Two such cycles have run their course in my lifetime. The New Deal, 1932-1974, during forty years of depression, world war, and Cold War, constructed a new industrial state, more egalitarian and welfare-oriented than before. The project ended with the collapse of the Nixon administration amid the Watergate scandal. (The FBI played a part in that turning point as well as this one.) Almost immediately a new project began. Deregulation commenced with the Ford and Carter interregnums (financial and transportation respectively), just as Trump has now set some part of the agenda for what comes next.
The epoch I am calling Morning in America, 1980-2016, began with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 (though the phrase didn’t surface until his successful campaign for a second term). The optative mood prevailed through the administrations of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, with variations according to the temperament of the leaders more than to the temper of the times. The Cold War was over. Capitalism was triumphant. Markets ruled a unipolar world, with an occasional assist from American military power. Thirty-five years of this “new world order” ended in 2016 with Trump’s MAGA spiel aimed at those who had been left behind.
What might happen next? The Democrats have advantages. They have tackled America’s two biggest problems – health care reform and, prospectively, at least, energy policy related to climate change. Control of the Senate may pass to them after 2022. The Republicans have extensive rebuilding to do before they can hope to address persuasively the problems of the years ahead, but remember: Obamacare was based on a Republican plan, and a revenue- neutral carbon tax is a Republican proposal
Will the Dems have a problem with their progressives? Just wait for the GOP’s Ever-Trumps to take the stage. The party that first finds a candidate capable of attracting a significant fraction of voters from the other side, in 2024 or 2028, will chart the nation’s course for the next forty years. Let’s hope the next involvement involves a little less of everything and a little more sympathy for the views of others.