I’ve written my initial reaction to the news out of Germany that Angela Merkel is stepping down at the end of her terms as party chairwoman and Chancellor. Hit up this link for that story. It’s on nationalism filling the void. And so that naturally leads me to Trumpism, given that Trump now calls himself a nationalist.
I know the title is a bit provocative, but listen to my reasoning below. And rather than trying to figure out who did what and why, let’s make predictions and look at likely outcomes. Now, to do that, let’s first go back to February 2017.
Trump the cultural warrior
Here’s what I was saying just after Trump assumed office:
Early on in President Trump’s new administration, too much of his energy is being placed on divisive ‘cultural’ issues and not enough attention is being paid to economic policies. To the degree Trump has turned to the economy, much of his policy has been focused on issues that will not yield long-term economic benefits but contain considerable risk, like trade with Mexico and China.
…from where I sit I see a Cultural warrior President, who is getting bogged down over divisive and non-economic issues. I also see a President, who when he does turn to economic policy, is at risk of favoring existing businesses rather than promoting markets. And finally I don’t see a President who is focused on the things that will engender more domestic consumption and investment — improving the after-tax incomes of ordinary Americans by lowering middle income tax burdens and increasing wages.
Here’s the thing though: while 2017 was difficult for Trump and it took a while to get the tax cuts, I think my assessment’s tone is now wrong.
When Trump hasn’t been a cultural warrior, he has been looking at the economics by favoring existing businesses and giving out tax cuts, especially to corporations and the rich in red states who don’t have to worry about state and local tax break cuts. So when we look back at my statement from nearly two years ago, we can say that Trump’s cultural warrior mode has been effective in goosing GDP growth and in keeping his base onside.
Trump is bogged down on cultural issues. That’s his connection to his base. That’s how he keeps his base of support. Did you see the latest headline? “Military to Increase Southern Border Deployment to 5,000“, That’s what Trump’s base wants to hear. And it just might fire them up enough to increase voter turnout for Republicans.
Meanwhile, the establishment Republicans get what they want: tax cuts for the rich and corporations, lax regulations, and establishment figures on the Supreme Court. The only thing they’re missing is what Paul Ryan has hinted about: cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
In sum, then, Trump’s playing cultural warrior has been successful, both for him and a Republican Party that now embraces him.
Division is both the animus and the outcome
Democrats don’t want to hear any of this. They see Trump as, perhaps, the worst President in modern US history because he is so divisive. Frankly, I sympathize with that view. But Trump didn’t win the Republican Party nomination by being a uniter. He won by being divisive and shockingly mean-spirited. And since I believe his overriding concern is his own approval, the question since he assumed power has been whether he would continue to divide.
One big limiting factor in that calculus is Obama. Trump hates Obama and has hated him ever since Obama humiliated Trump at the infamous 2011 White House correspondents’ dinner. And so Trump was running in 2016 as the anti-Obama, as someone who was strong and decisive, using America’s power, where he believes Obama declined to do so. And so, Trump also governs as the anti-Obama, taking bold and unilateral actions he claims Obama was unwilling to do. Everything he does is meant to show you that he can “Make America Great Again” because he is bold and decisive while previous American Presidents were weak and conciliatory, especially Obama.
So, how is Trump supposed to be a uniter then? Seriously. I’m not asking how Trump should respond non-defensively to specific questions about his rhetoric’s role in recent political and racial violence. I’m asking about overall tone and comportment. How can Trump shed the ‘hard ass’ persona without becoming like the President with whom he is trying to contrast himself?
I don’t think he can do it. So I see division as part and parcel of Trump’s strategy. That’s because his political agenda is not popular (and never will be popular) with huge sections of the population. And by taking a take-it-or-leave-it approach to governance, he can only lead through division. Trump can only lead his army of supporters to out-will and out-muscle the opposition because that’s how he has defined himself and his role as President.
So I lied. That was a heck of a lot of who did what and why. Whether you agree with me or not though, I suspect you’d be likely to agree that Trump is not going to back down from his role as a divider. There’s no reason to see Trump changing tack and trying to unite the country – not over anti-Semitism or anything else for that matter. He will continue to bat away criticism with attacks. We know that now from watching him in action as President.
And the consequence of that is a coarsening of political debate. As an aside, let me say that I’ve been making the point that Trump now owns the Republican Party, and has recast it in his image as a result. Look at what House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was saying just before the Pittsburgh synagogue attack. It was very much in the mode of Trump. And the fact that Trump belittles opponents, and calls them names, egging his rally crowds to do so too gives other politicians cover for doing so as well. I think we’ve entered a new era where almost anything goes, as long as you do it to win.
Another consequence of Trump’s divide and conquer approach is that it can be copycatted elsewhere. If Trump maintains some modicum of success, we should expect other nationalist or fringe political leaders to try and emulate his approach in order to gain power. And, by the same token, the appeal of the US as a ‘beacon on the hill’ will fade. The Saudi murder in Turkey tells you that. But, going forward, all despots and all nationalists will feel emboldened, even the ones not allied with the US. And that will eventually lead to conflict
A last consequence of Trumpism is a divided political stage on which political action in crisis will be more difficult. I foresee a United States Congress that will not be able to agree on deficit spending, taxation, municipal bankruptcy, bank failure or any of the critical issues likely to crop up in the next recession. That means the crisis is likely to be worse, rather than better.
So, when I look at Trump, I see someone who rose to power and has benefitted from increasing division. I also see enough success politically that the Republican Party has fully embraced Trumpism. And that means accepting a cultural and political divide, but winning anyway, through divide and conquer tactics. Nevertheless, at some point in the future, we are going to hit a rough patch. And that’s when the divide and conquer approach will become a big political liability. We’re not there yet. But I think we will be before the next presidential election.
P.S. – Going back to the last post, if you think about Trump vs Merkel, what you see is a world where Merkel is losing. And though I wouldn’t say Trump is winning, relative to Merkel he is.