Monday, December 31, 2018

2018 - Year 2 of the Trump Drama

Recently, we have all been reminded that it was at Christmas 50 years ago, at  the end of that traumatic and dispiriting year 1968, that the world received an unanticipated uplift, when the Apollo 8 Astronauts, the first humans to orbit the moon, read to the listening world the Creation account from Genesis on Christmas Eve and then sent us that amazing photo of the earth rising above the barren moonscape. After a year of military and political disasters, assassinations, and riots, it was a true tonic for the nation.

Alas, this Christmas season has offered no comparably edifying image to close out the second year of the Trump Show. On the contrary, if the "earthrise" photo further inspired an appreciation for our common humanity and a commitment to care for our fragile earth, both those commendable post-1968 developments have suffered significant setbacks in this more recent era. And, while a "partial government shutdown" isn't quite what it used to be and this current one has had seemingly modest impact on most citizens who are not government employees, still the symbolism (if not the reality) of total political dysfunction, fueled by one man's whim, makes for a sadly pathetic year's end. 

And, of course, a "government shutdown" is just the icing on the cake - the poisoned cake we have been consuming so gluttonously all through 2018.

Writing about the departure of Defense Secretary Mattis and President Trump's decision to abandon our (admittedly less than completely coherent) Syrian policy, Susan Glasser wrote on December 20 in "The Year in Trump Freakouts" in  The New Yorker: "all the chaos at year's end is a powerful reminder that the manner in which the president operates is so outside of any normal parameters for governing, so disdainful of process, and so heedless of consequences that his decisions don't resolve crises so much as create them. ... This debacle has all the elements we have come to associate with Trump's Presidency: the imperious twitter decree; the reckless and untrue claims; the snubbing of advice from experts, allies, and his own staff; the transparent effort to distract form one set of scandals by creating another."

All true enough and valid causes for legitimate concern, but all emblematic of a dangerously personalized politics that seems to be becoming increasingly apocalyptic.

For all the inevitable media focus on one individual, however, it is important to recall that the current crisis is about more than one individual, even if he is the President of the United States. Our collective anger, hatred, and ill will (deliverance from which we routinely used to pray for in the Litany of the Saints: Ab ira et odio et omni mala voluntate, libera nos, Domine) did not start suddenly with Trump's presidency or with his election or even with his campaign. Rather, he appreciates (as many others apparently hitherto have not) and has successfully exploited the genuine social, economic, cultural, racial, and ethnic fissures in an American society increasingly divided into winners and losers. Meanwhile, the political foundation for our present malaise has been methodically laid by the anti-communitarian divisiveness which has long been central to his political party's program, simultaneously exploiting and widening those fissures now for decades.

Each year at this sacred season, I like so many Americans enjoy watching Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life. It is, in fact, a particularly appropriate film for our time, for it presents a thoroughly dispiriting and despairing portrayal of an American society of winners and losers - a fate from which the town in the movie is only saved by angelic intervention. As American society in the reign of Trump and his party increasingly comes to resemble that film's "Pottersville," an intervention is indeed called for - in this case, however, less angelic than political.

Which brings us to the Democrats, who had an excellent year in 2018, and face promising prospects - but also potential perils - in 2019 and 2020.

In a year when virtually every week - if not day - seemed to feature some real or simulated crisis accompanied by real or simulated outrage, perhaps the biggest news of the year was the voters' remarkable reaction against the source and cause of all this crisis and outrage. Despite Republican gerrymandering and voter-suppression efforts, the Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives by a substantial margin and won several other key statewide races. To translate this swing of the pendulum into a more successful policy agenda and a more favorable political culture, however, will require the Democrats to focus forcefully and strategically on certain goals. Despite the distraction of the partial government shutdown, there is every reason to hope that the House leadership will wisely start out on a strong note and attempt to pass some serious legislation. The first challenge will be to keep at that, regardless of  anticipated obstacles from the Senate and the White House. While they were supposedly in charge of Congress these past two years, the Republicans at times seemed paralyzed, afraid to pass anything unless absolutely certain that their unpredictable President would sign it. Hopefully, the Democratic leadership understands the importance of laying out a serious agenda for the nation, regardless of Republican obstruction.

The second likely challenge, however, will be more difficult, for it will come from within the party itself. This is, after all, the same party, some of whose members wanted to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by seeking to unseat their House Leader - one of the most, if not the most, effective Speakers in history - in favor of no one in particular! This is, after all, the same party that rode a tidal wave of victory with all sorts of quality candidates in moderate districts but some segments of which persist in pining away for a charismatic celebrity candidate. This is, after all, the same party that 20 years ago watched the Republicans' irresponsible, partisan overreach in the Clinton impeachment fiasco, but which now has some segments actively agitating to repeat that mistake themselves! 

The Democratic party's interest and the national interest could coalesce in a strategy that would focus first of all on legislating a positive agenda on issues we know the voters care about (e.g., salvaging the ACA), thus offering the voters a clear alternative to the other party's "Pottersville" program. Trump got to where he is in large part because he appreciated how we have degenerated into a nation of increasingly wealthy winners and increasingly hopeless losers. If the Democrats are convinced that the answers Trump and his party have offered are bad ones, then the challenge for the Democrats must be to offer good - or at least better - answers.

Simultaneously, the Democratic House needs to resurrect real oversight - not with the goal of impeachment - but rather to demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt the damage this Administration is doing to traditional democratic and constitutional norms of governance. Rather than going down the precarious path of impeachment, which would either fail in the Senate or, if successful, would leave half the voters convinced their 2016 victory had been illegitimately taken from them by a partisan clique, the Democrats would be better advised to focus on winning the 2020 election by a decisive and indisputable margin, which would give the next president the democratic legitimacy that no partisan impeachment effort could ever produce.

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