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The danger now is that the administration could be facing a series of legislative defeats. Trump has naively embraced the cause of tax reform without realising what a minefield it is: every clause of the tax code has its own special interest group and lobbying will be intense. Above all, Trump risks being undone by the same contradictions which killed his healthcare bill: a reactionary congressional majority and a cabinet full of billionaires, all wanting regressive tax changes at the expense of the poor in general, including just the sort of working-class voters who swung the midwest to Trump. The result could well be the sort of awkward compromise which could again produce revolts both by GOP moderates and the Tea Party Right. If this should happen, the frustration and anger of the right-wing media will know no bounds and the war talk will escalate.

As one surveys this dismal scene one is reminded of two separate before-the-deluge scenes. Some of the excited CEOs corralled by Trump (as a businessman, Trump believes in CEOs, not economists) have talked of this being “the most pro-business administration since the Founding Fathers”. More accurately, we are back in 1928, the era of Hoover, Jay Gatsby and the stock market boom — that is to say, in a pre-New Deal world, an era marked by savage xenophobia and the suspension of civil liberties to deal with “extremists”. But even Coolidge, Harding and Hoover never dared to present a cabinet made up almost exclusively of billionaires and generals.

The other era of which we should be mindful is the 1850s with its growing polarisation, its vilification of individuals (the abolitionist Sumner being physically beaten up in the Senate) and the increasing talk of war and secession. Over and over again men of goodwill sought to halt this slide into civil war, but we know how that ended. In the last decade I have sometimes heard the liberal Democrats who tend to be my ex-students and friends say that perhaps the South should have been allowed to secede, for then the country would have been rid of its most reactionary elements who have held it back on every issue — civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, gun control, and so on. I had never hitherto expected to hear Americans — of any political hue — suggest that the Civil War had been a mistake and the break-up of the union should have been allowed.

If one relied on the right-wing websites and the talk of Democratic Resistance activists, one would indeed conclude that the country was slipping again towards internecine conflict. But in the 1850s the nation was torn by the single great issue of slavery and its extension into the Western territories. Compromises were attempted but they soon fell apart: one way or another that issue had to be settled. There is nothing like that now.

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