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Beyond the madness: Donald Trump and the resetting of America’s social contract
The daily circus that is the visible face of contemporary American politics keeps our gaze firmly fixed on the character of the ring-master: but it does so to our long-term cost.
Why? Because all the bluster and circus-nonsense associated with this President draws our attention away from the extent to which his Administration is quietly facilitating the full implantation of the Republican Party’s long-term ultra-conservative agenda. It is on that implementation and that agenda, therefore, rather than on the bluster and the madness, that in 2018 we all need our gaze to be firmly fixed.
Right now, at least three things of importance are currently underway in contemporary America.
First, the Trump Administration is quietly and effectively resetting the relationship between the privately-run market and the democratically-elected state, pushing back on a half-century or more of regulatory initiatives designed to curtail the worst excesses of unregulated capitalism.
Second, the Administration’s Republican allies are rapidly re-establishing the case for “trickle-down economics,” in the process eating away at the last vestiges of an already inadequate welfare net – the one painstakingly constructed by previous generations of more liberally-minded politicians to protect those least able to benefit from the full force of unregulated market forces.
Third, even the Trump bluster is helping the Republican cause, alienating ever more frustrated American voters from the existing political class, and by discrediting them making it ever harder to persuade a new generation of American voters to put their faith in politicians willing to deploy state-power for progressive purposes.
The bluster that is daily created by a supposedly crazy President is throwing a smoke-screen over the implementation of a Republican Party project that is now up and running as never before – a project designed to remove the last vestiges of twentieth-century liberalism from twenty-first century America. The privatization of FDR’s Social Security is now fully in the Republicans’ sights. So now is Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid, and not just Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
This President, and this Republican-controlled Congress, are collectively set on nothing less than the complete re-specification of the basic relationships at play in contemporary America. They are set on redesigning the underlying social agreement now in place between the healthy and the sick, between immigrants and the native-born, between men and women, between Americans of differing sexual orientations and religions, between the rich and the poor, and – most of all – between those who own capital and those who do not.
In every case the direction of change now being proposed by Trump and the Republicans is not simply conservative. It is also radical: a reassertion, in a new age, of older notions of patriarchy, of homophobia, of nativism and of anti-intellectualism in all its forms.
Before 2016, mainstream America was –– incrementally, if somewhat reluctantly – dragging itself in the direction of welfare programs based on compassion, environmental policies based on science, and – even to a modest degree – foreign policies based on diplomacy as military options failed to deliver desired outcomes. All that is off the table in Washington right now, and if Trump and his Republican friends have their way, it will stay off the table for a very long time to come: leaving the America of the 2020’s resembling in all so many ways the America of the 20’s a century before.
Which is why the big threat to a civilized America is not just one maverick individual. The big threat is a Republican Party rampant with reactionary ideas. What is at stake in contemporary American politics is not simply the Trump Presidency. It is the character of the society that Donald J. Trump and his allies want to leave in place when they are no longer in office. They know what they are about – they are building an America for the rich and privileged. It is time, therefore, for their political opponents to make clear what they too are about – building an America for all Americans. Whether the Democratic Party is capable of providing that counter-challenge has thus become the progressive question of the day.
This piece was first published on the SPERI blog on 19 January 2018.
David Coates is Professor of Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University, North Carolina. His Reflections on the Future of the Left was published in September by Agenda Publishing. His book Flawed Capitalism: The Anglo-American Condition and Its Resolution is published in April 2018. You can read a longer version of this blog at www.davidcoates.net.
Note: Professor David Coates sadly passed away in the summer of 2018, after this article was published. You can read the announcement of his passing on our website here.
Image: Gage Skidmore CC BY-NC-ND