Ted Grimsrud—November 29, 2016
To “break bad” can mean to “go wild,” to “defy authority” and break the law, to be verbally “combative, belligerent, or threatening” or, followed by the preposition “on,” to “completely dominate or humiliate.” [from Wikipedia]
Most of the focus of attention since the election, as it was during the campaign, is on the person of Donald Trump. However, probably in the scheme of things, the resounding success of the Republican Party across the board will have more impact on the nation and on the world. Trump will provide an entertaining sideshow, but I suspect he won’t actually exercise all that much power in relation to the big policy issues or in the day-to-day functioning of the federal government.
So far, it seems that Trump is surrounding himself with prospective cabinet members and top staffers who come from the right side of the Republican world, which is rightish indeed.
What to expect?
We have the precedents of states such as North Carolina and Wisconsin where, when the Republicans have gained a monopoly of power, they have acted quickly and decisively to impose policies that are intended to solidify their power. The “wait and see” talk about the new Trump administration is surely overly naïve. It’s hard to know what could be done to slow the Republicans down, but it seems certain that the changes will be immediate and devastating for democracy and the wellbeing of vulnerable Americans. And it will take a long time for the nation to recover from these actions.
One of the main dynamics to watch will be to see how the new government will work to extend the Republican efforts in recent years to reduce access to voting and to other elements of governmental power. Recent Supreme Court actions related to this that many of us hoped would be turned around with a center-left replacement for the late justice Scalia will instead be reinforced by Trump’s Justice Department. Attorney General designate Jeff Sessions has one of the worst records with regard to voter suppression of any major American politician.
This will happen in part due to the much noted evolution in the demographics of the US that have been seen to favor the Democratic Party—non-white and younger voters tend to tilt more to the left. They will find voting more difficult as the Republicans seek to consolidate their power.
As reactionary policies are implemented and as the Trump administration sets a tone in harmony with those policies, the general standing of the United States will suffer greatly. The reputation of the country around the world will be diminished. The indicators of social health within the country will worsen greatly. In other words, the ability of the United States to be the world’s dominant power will be reduced significantly.
It will not be a totally bad thing for the ability of the United States to dominate the world to come to an end. The American Empire has had many terrible effects globally in the past 70 years. The Empire has been losing its grip gradually in recent years. Probably with a Clinton presidency, that lessening of the grip on domination would have continued. But with Trump, it will be greatly accelerated.
The dynamics of American warism will change. We should be relieved that the likelihood of an intensified deterioration of relations with Russia will seemingly be much less with Trump than they would have been with Clinton (perhaps the one silver lining with the election’s outcome). But overall, our nation’s commitment to militarism will only increase, a dynamic that will accelerate the disintegration of our imperial reach. This diminishment in itself is good, but the concomitant destruction around the world of course will be terrible.
Diminishment of the quality of life
Sadly, the decisive constituency that elected Trump, the white working class in the Rust Belt states, will almost for sure have their fortunes worsen in the next several years. The Trump administration will be committed to destroying the remnants of the union movement, expanding the effort to crush public sector unions. This will have the effect of further depressing wages across the board (note also the opposition by Trump and his minions to minimum wages increases). Pollution will get worse, healthcare worsen, the “commons” (public parks, libraries, et al) will deteriorate, food safety will be lessened. These are only a few of the ways quality of life for working class people (and so many others) will be damaged.
The promise of investing in infrastructure will almost certainly be deceptive—leading to more privatization of public goods, a strong non-union thrust, and massive corruption with Trump’s cronies siphoning off a bulk of the “investment.” One of the main initiatives, it appears, will be to build more privatized toll roads and bridges—the federal government’s roll being to transfer wealth from taxpayers to large corporations.
Environmental protections will be gutted. The national park system will be weakened, perhaps even privatized. Food protection, net neutrality, the remnants of the social safety net, disaster relief, and many more federal government activities will be curtailed or eliminated. We will see a return to cronyism across the broad in federal agencies (we can expect many more “Heck of a job, Brownie” incidents). And given that a large number of states are also under Republican control, it’s hard to imagine state governments filling the breech.
The strong support evangelical Christians gave Trump, along with the presence of one of the political icons of the Christian Right, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, at the center of the new administration, signals a return to prominence of this version of Christianity in the public arena. As during the George W. Bush years, this dynamic will help neutralize one source of a possible counterweight to the viciousness, a reinvigoration of the kind of social gospel message articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr.
All this is to say, we are headed into an unimaginably vicious storm. There will be more suffering in a nation that at least structurally will be much less compassionate. It’s hard to imagine much that will slow down the onslaught. The one branch of government that might be amenable to change, the Senate, is set up for an election in 2018 favorable to the Republicans since most of the incumbents up for re-election will be Democrats and several of those are quite vulnerable. And the Supreme Court may well be set up with a right-wing majority for another generation.
We can expect that there will be creative and effective forms of resistance that emerge. Human beings will remain compassionate and responsive to others’ needs. And I would like to imagine that the difficulties to come will provide occasions for a clarifying and deepening of core humane convictions, including theological convictions such as I mentioned in my previous post: (1) the call to peace (“shalom” in the Hebrew), to wholeness, to nonviolence, to love of all neighbors (including enemies), to overcoming evil with good; (2) the centrality of restorative justice in the social order, where violations are met with efforts to find healing for victims, to respect the humanity of offenders, to find ways to resolve conflicts that actually end the spiral of violence and vengeance; (3) the care for the non-human world, environmental wholeness, sustainability, nurturing of life in all its forms; and (4) the commitment to care for the most vulnerable people in the community, genuine economic opportunity for all, resistance to the profound social stratification and maldistribution of wealth that leads to poverty (what Gandhi called the most profound kind of violence).
What to hope for?
I expect that in the months to come, as the United States government becomes more obviously less caring and compassionate internally and more obviously aggressive and self-seeking externally, the veneer of a genial Pax Americana will be stripped away. More people, both at home and abroad, will have their illusions about American greatness ended.
This deterioration of the nation’s image will be tragic in that its cause will be actual violence and hardship. At the same time, the United States has never been a benign force in the world. To have more people realize that might facilitate a greater resistance to the Empire, a greater willingness to break free from the comfort and smugness of seeing this as the world’s one “essential, exceptional, and indispensable nation.”
A more accurate and realistic sense of the actual nature of the United States of America, in turn, will hopefully lead to less willingness, for example, to grant the state a blank check to go to war. Maybe fewer people will turn over their souls to the military. And, in general, there might be more willingness to exercise the one kind of power that could stop the Empire in its tracks: the refusal to give consent to the state.
It is difficult at this time to imagine enough people refusing consent actually to change the course of a Trump administration. However, it is also difficult at this time to imagine just how destructive the policies of that administration will be. There surely will be a correlation between the brokenness fostered by our government in the days to come with the refusal of more and more people to support that government. Who knows what kind of transformative dynamics might be loosed by such a refusal should it reach a critical mass.
We have seen a gradual increase of the power of the presidency in controlling national security related dynamics. George W. Bush (and Dick Cheney) ratcheted up that power a great deal in the aftermath of 9/11 and, tragically, Barack Obama only extended it. It is truly frightening to imagine Donald Trump following up on these openings toward a more authoritarian state. However, it is also possible that a Trumpian overreach will delegitimate such centralized control in a parallel fashion as the downfall of Richard Nixon did a generation ago.
While I think it is possible to hope for self-destructive dynamics to reign in American imperialism and authoritarianism over time, it is more urgent that people of good will devote their energies to “creating space to be human” (using the language of central European resisters to Soviet domination during the 1970s and 1980s) however we can. We may hope that the hard times to come will also elicit creativity and compassion, along with a more thoroughgoing critique of the ways of empire.
The shape of resistance
In contexts of strong centralized power that is not responsive to the general population, there are two crucial ways for the “weak” to exercise power—actively to disbelieve the picture of the world presented by those in power and actively to draw together as communities of creativity, respect, and resistance.
Christianity in our current context in a general sense may be more a part of the problem than part of the solution. Christians who are committed to Jesus-like compassion and rejection of domination might have to accept that they are a minority of American Christendom. By breaking from a loyalty to institutional Christianity over loyalty to the message of Jesus, though, such minority Christians may be freed to see their faith and their faith communities as centers for resistance to the powers that be. And free to affirm their commonality with other centers of resistance who adhere to other faiths or no explicit faith at all.
For Christians, such resistance will need to be unapologetically gospel-centered. We may hope that in the difficult times ahead a deeper commitment to Christian pacifism might emerge, along with a greater appropriation of what we could call the people-power (or “anarchistic”) inclined biblical political message in general.
Such an anarchistic message has two main components that happen to be the same two ways for the “weak” to exercise power: (1) profound suspicion of the powers that be, of centralized state dominating power, of “benefactors” who rule over the people (see Jesus’s words in Mark 10:42-44) and (2) an affirmation of the potential regular people have to join together in face-to-face communities and organize their common life in ways that enhance human wellbeing.
I hope for a growing sense of the value of pacifist and anarchistic convictions as ways to provide inspiration and clarity for transformative action in the face of authoritarian and non-compassionate power dynamics that seem certain to grow in the days to come. We likely will enter into a time of increased confusion, propaganda, something akin to what has been called “the fog of war.” We will need the clarity of thinking and responding that depends on self-awareness of and trust in core convictions of pacifism, restorative justice, care for the non-human world and inclusion of vulnerable people,
So, we certainly may (and must) hope for expanding advocacy, activism, and concrete acts of resistance. I would suggest as well that we may hope that with effort we might also experience growing clarity of conviction about what matters most in life and the necessity to understand better how to see the world in accurate and life-affirming ways.
[This is the second of a series of six posts reflecting on the election and its aftermath. The first post was “What happened?” The third post is “The book of Revelation and America’s election.” The fourth is “The book of Revelation on living in empire.” The fifth (“On being informed”—focusing on news and commentary websites) and sixth posts (“Ten books for a radical Christian sensibility”) will provide lists of resources for proceeding onward.]