Under its new president, the United States is becoming increasingly polarised and a debt-led boom won’t help matters in the long run
Donald Trump told dinner guests at the White House on February 26 that his first month in office had “been fun”. As we all know, that month and those that followed were actually chaotic, plagued by a huge legislative defeat over healthcare, by leaks, by scandals and by the invalidation of executive orders by the courts. Adding to this shambles have been the president’s persistent tweets which enable him to shoot himself in the foot over and over again. His tweet exhorting the Justice Department to give General Michael Flynn immunity from prosecution, for example, was an improper intervention in the judicial process which could well rebound on him. Similarly, it is hopeless for the administration to insist before the courts that its travel ban is not a Muslim ban when Trump has frequently tweeted that a Muslim ban is exactly what he would introduce.
In addition, there are literally thousands of unfilled jobs in the administration. Of the 553 senior appointments that Trump needed to get through the Senate by the end of March he got only 21 through and he nominated only another 40. For the other 492 he hadn’t even made nominations. Even the White House — where Trump needs no Senate assent — is badly under-staffed. Part of the problem lies in the fact that Trump likes to micro-manage even junior appointments, with each nominee then being fought over by the contending White House factions. This is an unusual and dysfunctional process.
But these are not normal times. From the word go this administration has operated in an atmosphere of unprecedented polarisation. It was quite abnormal for the inauguration to trigger nationwide hostile demonstrations and, afterwards, for Democrat activists to organise a “resistance” movement to the new president. As many town hall meetings showed, there is a level of popular disquiet and partisan feeling never normally seen in what is usually the honeymoon period of a new presidency. The media have picked up on this excitement and every day has seen breathless reports about every new blunder by the administration.
The White House itself is gripped by this excitement and a sort of threat of violence at one remove. It is not abnormal for presidents to quarrel with the media, but from the very outset Trump and his advisers have said that the media are “the opposition”, that they ought to “shut up” and even that they were “the enemy of the people”. Trump himself denounces the media repeatedly, referring to all the mainstream newspapers and TV channels as “fake news”, “the lying media” and so on, and he has fulminated that various press practices (such as relying on anonymous sources) should “not be allowed”. We have even seen his spokesman Sean Spicer deliberately exclude the New York Times, CNN, the BBC and various other key outlets from a press conference. Trump also refused to attend the usual White House Correspondents’ Dinner — the first time in 36 years that a president has failed to attend.
This has had two results. First, it has facilitated the rise of all manner of right-wing news sources — not just Fox News but Breitbart, Newsmax, Dick Morris.com, Michael Reagan.com and a host of others, plus of course a whole gallery of right-wing radio commentators (“shock jocks”). This enables conservative Republicans to live within their own separate right-wing media universe, another powerful encouragement to polarisation. Second, this universe generates a violent antipathy against its opponents, and the mainline media in turn is gunning for Trump in a way it has for no other president since Nixon.
In many countries war talk of this kind would be the prelude to an actual crackdown on the media. And there seems little doubt that the Trump administration would like to punish the critical media in any way it can. White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told the Conservative Political Action Committe (CPAC) that “It’s going to get worse [for President Trump] as he continues to press his agenda.” Inveighing against liberals and the media, Bannon warned, “As things get better, they’re going to fight. If you think they’re going to give the country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken.” This is dangerous talk: Trump loyalists are being steeled for nothing less than a fight to “get their country back” — at the same time that many Democrats are talking of “resistance”.
A key moment seems to have been the blog post by Dick Morris (a former top Bill Clinton aide and now a major Trump supporter) on March 2 where he argued that the media and the Democrats were aiming at “a coup d’etat” against Trump. This, he suggested, would proceed via leaks from intelligence and other sources inculpating first General Flynn, then Attorney-General Jeff Sessions and then others, with the aim of setting up a special prosecutor to inquire not only into contacts with the Russians but into anything else required in order to drive Trump from office. Morris, in his widely-read blog, specifically suggested that wiretaps and other surveillance would be used to this end.
The right-wing media feeds off itself all the time, so any wild rumour is quickly circulated and soon quoted as fact — “because I saw it on the net/Fox/Breitbart”. Morris’s “coup d’etat” talk was soon recycled (by Steve Bannon, notably) into talk of a “deep state” and Obama administration holdovers who were actively intriguing against Trump. This in turn rapidly led to suggestions that Obama himself was organising a campaign to destabilise and destroy the Trump administration. No evidence was provided and Obama was actually holidaying thousands of miles away. But by now such rumours had a life of their own and quickly metastasised into the suggestion (initially by a right-wing radio host, Mark Levin) that Trump had been bugged by the CIA or FBI. Although Levin was just speculating aloud — he had no evidence — this was immediately picked up by other right-wing news sources, and in no time Trump himself was parroting the story. Despite the flat denials of the intelligence community, Trump, with hideous unwisdom, asked for a Congressional inquiry into the story.
Two figures feature with particular prominence in this peculiar nether world: the right-wing radio host Michael Savage — who is credited with having developed the Trump programme in the first place — and the author David Horowitz. Savage — the author of such epics as Stop the Coming Civil War and Scorched Earth: Restoring the Country after Obama — was banned from entering the UK for his perceived Islamophobia by Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith in 2009, a ban that was confirmed by the incoming Conservative-led government in 2010. His latest book is Trump’s War: His Battle for America. Horowitz, once a man of the New Left, is now treated as the major prophet of the Trump revolution and his book, Big Agenda: President Trump’s Plan to Save America, is pushed as a virtual revelation of the future. Horowitz forecast that the Democrats would try to subvert a Trump administration and is now loud in his declarations that this is happening:
Under the guise of “resistance” — as though Trump was the head of an occupying army rather than an elected president — they have set out to destroy his administration. They are not “sore losers” as many had surmised when their hysterical attacks on Trump as an American Hitler began. They are an army of saboteurs bent on destroying the government the voters preferred. Their general, Barack Obama, is an unrepentant radical who abused the office of the presidency when he was in power, and as ex-president is now leading a war to overthrow his successor.
Horowitz’s book is advertised, moreover, with the claim that “It’s time to beat the Democrats once and for all”. This sort of talk — of destroying the opposition party, perhaps even installing one-party rule — is quite new in American politics. Obama’s gentlemanly help for Trump during the transition is forgotten. Indeed, Horowitz leads off with the headline “Trump in TOTAL WAR with Media, Democrats” and tells us (April 3) that “The war against President Donald J. Trump is burning white hot” and “The saboteurs have managed to drive our president’s approval numbers down to 35 per cent”. Hillary is described as “the wicked witch” and there are occasional “revelations’ of how she intended to cheat her way to power.
As one might expect, there is a great deal more war talk in Big Agenda, although the book looks as if might easily have been written in a week and certainly not more than two. Its 162 pages of text are about everything: the “progressive” movement, Obama, the environment, the “myth of systemic racism”, the Islamic threat, the Democrats’ “wars on men and women”, leftist indoctrination in schools and universities, the evils of public-sector unions, healthcare, sanctuary cities and much more besides. Relentlessly pushed by the right-wing media, the book has been a number one bestseller both on Amazon and the New York Times list. As you read it you feel, yes, there is plenty to criticise about politically correct liberal America, but does the critique have to be so trashy?
It’s a good question, for everything about Trump is trashy. To go from Obama’s rhetoric to his is to fall off a cliff: even his favourite insults (“crooked Hillary”) have no wit or even alliteration. Let’s leave aside the woman-grabbing, the endless schoolboy fascination with beauty contests and his campaign lapses into misogyny: when he was asked whether he’d still love his wife if an accident deprived her of her looks he replied that it would depend on what happened to her breasts. This is real trailer-trash stuff. During his campaign for the GOP nomination I asked someone who knew him well who Trump was relying on as policy advisers. Nobody at all, he told me: in the phrase the French used to use in the days of Giscard d’Estaing, he “consulted his own genius”.
The worrying part of this is not just that Trump is clearly very ignorant (it was a revelation to him that healthcare was an extremely complicated field) but that he didn’t know that he didn’t know and nor did he understand the need for expert advice. Trump makes no secret out of the fact that he doesn’t read books (“much too busy — and since I became president, even more so”.) Indeed, his attention span is too short even for long articles, let alone for complicated pieces of legislation. This was a major complaint of Republican Congressmen whom he lobbied to pass his healthcare legislation. When asked why the bill was so important he would simply say that his administration needed “a big quick win”. When they wanted to discuss particular provisions of the bill he quickly retreated to saying they needed “to look at the big picture”. They quickly realised that he hadn’t even read the bill and knew nothing of its details.
The president’s happy toleration of — indeed, liking for — trash has political consequences. Although he has privileged access to authoritative daily intelligence briefings, he prefers, nonetheless, to rely on Breitbart, Newsmax, Fox and the Michael Savage, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh radio shows. The problem is not just that this suggests a determined triviality of mind. The Obama White House had its lowbrow side too: many people, including Michelle Obama, found the frequent presence there of Oprah Winfrey something of a trial. The point is that the president believes and happily recycles the fake news from the right-wing media, such as his allegation that Obama had been wiretapping him. And it is precisely in these right-wing media outlets that the war talk reaches a crescendo.
It is worth stressing this point. By contrast, most of the war talk by the Democrats — the “resistance”, Californian secession and sanctuary cities — has been defensive and even that has mainly been venting. The early talk of impeaching Trump cheers up Democratic activists but is wholly unrealistic. Similarly, some anti-Trump activists obsess that the Trump forces are bent on a coup d’etat and produce alarming scenarios in which a major terrorist strike leads Trump to lay the blame on the judges (for blocking the immigrant bans), suspend habeas corpus, reinstate torture, create a Muslim register, introduce new restrictions on immigration and take arbitrary powers. None of that is impossible but it belongs purely in the realm of imagination. Even so, most such talk is badly misjudged. American voters will not take kindly to the idea of a Resistance to a duly-elected president, and polls show 80 per cent majorities believing that city officials should co-operate with the federal authorities and not defy them. What is required is dull, slogging work to help swing the key target bloc — socially conservative, white working-class voters — back towards the Democrats.
That said, there is nonetheless no doubting the antipathy of Democrat voters towards Trump. Democratic senators fought every inch of the way against Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court even though his record was blameless and his judgments have almost never been overruled — because such was the hostility of the party’s base to Trump and all his works that voting for any of his nominees was seen as a sort of treason.
The result is an atmosphere quite different from anything normal. Usually, if one has a new president in power already enjoying excellent jobs numbers and a heady stock market boom, one would expect a honeymoon atmosphere and sky-high presidential approval ratings. Instead, the atmosphere is surly, even angry, and Trump’s approval ratings have fallen from the 43-46 per cent range to a spread between 35 and 40 per cent. On the one hand this is very low; on the other hand he has kept most of the Republican bloc. This is what matters to most Republican congressmen, whose first worry has to be that any resistance to Trump’s agenda could bring them a primary challenger from the Right.
But it is extraordinary and unprecedented that Trump enjoys none of the give-him-a-chance tolerance from the centre ground that an American president can usually rely upon. Ordinarily American political culture prompts an initial respect, even reverence, for the president — he is the head of state, after all, not just the head of government — and many Americans feel that after any election they lost they should reach out towards their fellow Americans who have voted differently. Now, all this is absent and the damage to the legitimacy of the institutions could be long-lasting. Hence the ever deeper polarisation of American politics. This is not just a matter of partisan attachment. For a generation and more the Democrats have been consolidating in the large cities and megacities while the Republicans have been winning more and more of the rural areas and small towns. Thus, more and more people live in politically segregated communities. Moreover, especially in the South, the Republicans have gleefully embraced polarisation, using their majorities to gerrymander congressional seats so that (say) ten marginal seats become three Democrat and seven Republican safe seats. The way to do that is to group all black voters into a few districts. This in turn guarantees that the Democratic party in the South is represented mainly by blacks and is thus viewed by most whites as “the black party”. The result, at the end of the day, is a strong pro-GOP bias and little chance that a swing can make much difference. Instead, black and white congressmen appeal to their own racially segregated constituencies against one another and polarisation grows. Previous American presidents have lamented this polarisation and many have appointed at least one cabinet member from the opposite party. Trump has scorned that. His thumping defeat over healthcare seems to have given him some second thoughts, but it is a bit late for that.
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.
What is predictable, however, is that the increasing inequalities in American life that lie at the heart of the populist Trump rebellion are only going to be exacerbated by Trump. This is not just do do with the usual reasons why a Republican administration allows inequalities to increase: it is more dramatic than that. Just look at the speed with which Trump happily cancelled his campaign promises to protect Medicaid, boost spending for opioid abuse treatment and ensure that everyone has health insurance cover. After less than a month in office he announced “100 per cent support” for a health bill providing for sweeping cuts in Medicaid and for health coverage being reduced by 24 million people over the next decade. These cuts would have enabled tax reductions of $165,090 a year for families earning $3.75 million a year, but no tax cut at all for those earning $208,500 a year or less. In other words, Trump was happily backing a huge transfer of wealth away from those deprived of coverage (the poor) towards the wealthiest 0.1 per cent.
The stock market boom has been predicated on the assumption that Trump will turn out much like Reagan, who came to power saying he wanted to cut the debt and balance the budget, but also promising tax cuts and increases in defence spending. In practice, this meant that under him the debt could only grow. The director of the Office of Management and the Budget, David Stockman, had the difficult job of drawing up a balanced budget every year. To do this he was asked to make absurdly high assumptions about economic growth and thus the level of tax receipts in each upcoming year. Stockman knew this was pure fantasy but had no option but to comply. His conclusion was that “in Washington at budget time you realise afresh every year that the most popular girl in town is Rosie Scenario”. The overall result was a huge Keynesian boom. Reagan increased the national debt by 186 per cent in eight years but nobody really minded because the result was a long economic boom, a soaring stock market and a general feelgood factor.
The assumption is that under Trump it will be much the same: sweeping tax cuts, hugely higher expenditure on defence, homeland security and veterans, tax cuts for the rich, and a huge public works programme for the decaying infrastructure. Ryan feels the same need to present balanced budgets but the market is already betting on a debt-led boom. There is, though, a major problem with that. Under George W. Bush the debt increased by 101 per cent in eight years. Under Obama the debt rose by another 68 per cent in his eight years. But the key difference is that thanks to the magical workings of compound interest, whereas Reagan inherited a debt of $998 billion, Trump inherits a debt of $19.574 trillion. That figure is enough, quite reasonably, to scare not only Paul Ryan but many others and it sharply limits the possibilities of another debt-led boom. If these realities puncture the Wall Street boom there will be anger and burnt fingers in many quarters.
It is difficult to see how America’s current trajectory can end well. The generation-long process of political polarisation has been deeply damaging but it seems only likely to continue. It has become almost a conventional truism to say that the US political system is “broken”. Indeed it is. Trump himself is a sign of that. America has always had a good supply of crude, ignorant rednecks but they seldom got higher than governor (George Wallace, Lester Maddox, Orval Faubus). Now we have one as president. Whatever isn’t already broken, he will surely break. But there seems no appetite for another constitutional convention to sort things out. The only alternative is continued polarisation until that produces a crisis that nobody can ignore.