I’ve been meaning to weigh in on the latest raft of pieces about the decline of American democracy, the decline of Western liberalism, the decline of globalism, and the decline of everything else in the era of Trump. In a nutshell, I’m far more optimistic than most of the people writing about this. Unfortunately, I haven’t really thought the whole thing through rigorously enough to make a little essay out of it.
Actually, you might consider that good news. However, I do want to lay down a few markers. Here they are:
- Globally, there’s no question that there’s been a backlash against immigration. But this is hardly the first time that’s happened, and the vast influx of refugees into Europe makes it unsurprising that there’s been a response. Given the size of the refugee crisis, I’m frankly surprised the reaction in Europe has been as restrained as it has been.
- Brexit is not a harbinger. Britain has had a fraught relationship with the EU from the very start, and there’s always been a large contingent of people who oppose British membership. Nor is this some kind of exclusively working-class thing. Conservative Party elites have been euroskeptics for a long time. Brexit is mostly the result of a stupid tactical decision by David Cameron, not a sign of a huge upsurge in xenophobia.
- In the US, there’s no real indication that Donald Trump is a sign of the future rather than an anomaly. His victory was a result of growing polarization and a couple of weird lucky breaks, not a massive backlash against PC culture and NAFTA.
- Republicans aren’t “falling into line” behind Trump. They’re just being Republicans. As long as the subject is conservative judges and tax cuts for the rich, they’re on board. When the subject is a border wall or cozying up to Russia, they’re about as divided as they’ve always been.
- Would Trump like to be a dictator? Sure. Every president would probably like to be a dictator. But aside from lots of dumb tweeting, he’s done virtually nothing to seriously break the norms of liberal democracy. He’s issued lots of executive orders, just like Obama did. Courts have overturned some of them, just as they always have. He hasn’t fired Robert Mueller. He hasn’t declared martial law. His judicial nominations have been standard issue Republicans. His Fed nominee is a standard issue Republican. And appointing wingnuts to head the EPA and Interior is standard issue Republican behavior. (Those of us of a certain age have sharp memories of James Watt and Anne Gorsuch Burford.)
- The worst norm-busting thing Trump has done is firing the director of the FBI because he wouldn’t abandon his investigation of Michael Flynn. But this hardly passed unnoticed. It resulted in the hiring of Robert Mueller as a special prosecutor, something that has turbocharged the investigation of Trump and his buddies.
- Republicans are refusing to seriously investigate Trump, but what’s new about that? Congressional investigations have always been partisan. You may recall that Republicans declined to investigate George Bush but went after both Bill Clinton and Obama hammer and tongs. There’s nothing new here.
- Trump is not gaining popularity. Just the opposite. He’s even lost popularity among Republicans. GOP candidates recently supported by Trump have lost, and generic congressional polls suggest a big Trump-inspired backlash in the 2018 midterms despite a healthy economy acting as a tailwind.
- Every scrap of evidence suggests that most of Trump’s staff think he’s an idiot. Many of his cabinet members think he’s an idiot. Congressional leaders think he’s an idiot. And the big difference between Trump and, say, Mussolini, is that Trump really is an idiot. Nor has this changed over time. If anything, this view of Trump has become even more widespread over the past 12 months. This is not a portrait of a man who can take over the country.
Trump is still plenty dangerous. But I don’t really see any kind of fundamental change in the country. Working class white men are susceptible to grievance mongering and racially-coded attacks, but that’s been true for a long time. Trade agreements aren’t all that popular among workers, but again, that’s been true for a long time. Remember Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton competing in Ohio in 2008 over who could pretend the hardest that they hated NAFTA? Nor has there been any kind of serious cultural backlash. College kids are still doing dumb things, same as always. Marijuana is being legalized despite Jeff Sessions’s best efforts. Gay marriage is here to stay. There’s been little change on the abortion front.
Probably the biggest danger we face from Donald Trump is the question of what he’ll do if a crisis hits. A big terrorist attack, for example, could serve as an excuse for some serious hits on democratic rule. So far, that looks unlikely, but it’s a real danger.
There’s also the chance that he could start a nuclear war, but I now consider that less likely than I used to. Trump has allowed North Korea to make progress on its nuclear technology without doing much about it, and North Korea now has—or is very close to having—a genuine deterrent capability. This will, almost certainly, deter Trump.