Trump and US Democracy (Looking West #2)

Ted Grimsrud—February 16, 2019

For some months I have been reading about the American Civil War. It’s been fascinating for many reasons, and I expect to be writing about what I am learning and thinking for a long time. One thread will be how sobering it is for me to read about the US past in relation to our current national political stormy waters. One of the premises of the Trumpian proclamation is that America used to be “great.” Well, it certainly wasn’t great in the middle part of the 19thcentury. And, painful as it is to realize this, many of the ways it wasn’t great back then are still with us—white supremacy, economic inequality, warism. And, of course, Trump’s agenda to “make America great again” seems only to exacerbate those problems from long ago.

Surreal, but not necessarily utterly exceptional?

It is surreal to have a president like Donald Trump, likely the most repellant person ever to hold that office. I don’t know of any president whose policies and philosophies I disagree with as much as Trump’s. I know of no other president who was as dishonest, as self-centered, as oblivious to other people’s feelings, as closely linked with the most corrupt elements of the broader American society. But at the same time, I realize that just about every other American president has also had disagreeable policies and philosophies, has been dishonest, self-centered, oblivious, and linked with corruption.

I think it is a mistake to view Trump as utterly exceptional. I get the sense, among people I talk with and read, that Trump is this foreign element in our political system and all we need to do is get rid of him or, at worst, wait him out for two more years, and then things will be ever so much better. I’m not so sanguine about our political system and about the state of democracy here. I wonder if the Trump presidency might be most useful not as a contrast to how things normally are but as a vulgar, veneer-stripped-away exposure of how broken the system has become (and maybe always has been).

Deep-seated problems

Our political problems are deep and long-standing. If there is anything hopeful to emerge from our current dysfunction it’s that the Trump years may be stimulating a creative and democracy-enhancing reaction. I believe that the only way toward a better America is the growth of grassroots, participatory citizen action. There are some signs of this happening. Here in Virginia, we were a bit of a bellwether in the 2017 election with some impressive victories that have born some fruit in state politics. I think the viable presidential candidacies of, say, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are encouraging.

But things are pretty bad. And, mainly, not because of Trump. He essentially helps us see the depth of the problems. For example, the Republican Party’s embrace of a politics of racial exclusion goes back to the Goldwater campaign in 1964. Taylor Branch, in his America in the King Years trilogy, gives us a precise moment that signifies this. A hundred years earlier, of course, the Republicans had been the part of Emancipation. And they retained an openness to black participation, tenuous as it was. Frederick Douglass had been a Republican, as had Martin Luther King, Jr.

However, with the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and the struggles within the Democratic Party over how to respond, some Republican leaders saw an opportunity. Southern Democrats began to abandon their party as it reluctantly gave space to the forces of equality. Goldwater’s campaign reached out to those disaffected Democrats and essentially turned its back on the tradition of black support for Republicans. Branch tells of one specific black Republican Party activist who was excluded from the 1964 Republican convention—with the sense that now the tide had turned.

What followed was Richard Nixon’s successful “southern strategy” of turning white supremacists away from the Democrats—a strategy that reached its apex when Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for president in the heart of the old segregationist South prior to the 1980 campaign. By the end of Reagan’s presidency, the transformation was complete—the racist South had switched en masse and since has become the core of the Republican electorate. Trump, of course, depended on this core for his election and has played to it consistently. But he had nothing to do with creating it.

Democrats and a renewed Cold War?

As an indication of the depth of our political crisis, we only have to look at how the mainstream of liberal America has responded to the horrors of Trump’s election. A key element of the “opposition” has been to trump up (pun intended) Cold War fears and to make enmity toward Russia a core issue. This has led to many Democrats and corporate media pundits criticizing Trump for not being warist enough! And it has also led to stunning credulity regarding key institutions of American Empire such as the CIA and FBI as “defenders of democracy.”

I fear that when the Trump nightmare ends, we will end up with an even more powerful military-intelligence regime. Even Warren and Sanders, as hopeful as so many of their emphases might be, don’t seem inclined to challenge warism very profoundly.

It’s important to remember, though, that the future is not determined, so we can’t know what life-affirming creativity might emerge from our current difficulties. However, right now I can’t envision many positive outcomes. I agree with the pessimism of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as they edge the clock of obliteration closer to midnight than it has even been. Trump is certainly a major reason for this pessimism. However, I think we need to recognize that on many issues (e.g., unquestioned increased military spending, use of drones, hostility toward immigrants, inaction in relation to climate change, refusing to hold corporate criminals accountable), he has only continued trajectories already present during the Obama years.

The lesson to be learned from the Trump years, I suggest, is not mainly “no more Trumps!” but more “transform the system root and branch!”

[This is the next in a series of blog posts under the rubric of “Looking West” that will include reflections on numerous issues of our current day—politics, theology, memoirs, spirituality, and what not. An index for the series may be found at “Looking West.”]

8 thoughts on “Trump and US Democracy (Looking West #2)

  1. Glad to see a more reasoned perspective than what I generally see from my anti-Trump friends. They don’t like it when I point out things like you do here – that much of what’s wrong under the Trump Administration is a continuation from prior Administrations (including Obama’s), and that the Democrats have become increasingly hawkish.

  2. Thanks, This rings of sobering truth to me. I’m sure that the Girardians among us can contribute more understanding of our current situation

  3. Thanks, Ted. It’s so important to not get caught up in fantasies about the past (even the recent past) if we are to continue the work of creating a more perfect union.

  4. Amen! Thanks for your insight. The “sacred” constitution of the USA has some good aspects to it, but when one understands the historical compromises to slave owners during the crafting of it, it is not surprising that racism is foundational to the nature of the state. It has been extraordinary, not essential, to extend “rights” to all. When I hear D candidates say, “This is not who we are!”, I wonder if they know of their own history. The “progressive” D candidates, even in the Green New Deal, don’t mention the effects of militarism, and empire maintenance on the economy and the planet. Few politicians are willing to speak-up in support of poor people and those oppressed by economic forces. The estimate is that there are over a half million people in the USA without homes. That is a public health crisis and national emergency. Rarely, is this mentioned by the Left or Right in this country. The progressive D’s are paying more attention to the middle class, these days.

    1. Good points, Gary. Our only hope is decisively to turn from militarism—there’s no resolution to problems such as climate change, corporate domination, or poverty without it.

  5. “I wonder if the Trump presidency might be most useful not as a contrast to how things normally are but as a vulgar, veneer-stripped-away exposure of how broken the system has become (and maybe always has been).”

    Yes, and very much so, Ted. Yes and but.

    Even with the blood-drenched claws of governments, including our own, the international and national “norms” the U.S. and other thick and thin democracies have developed and perpetuated (and consistently violated) since 1945, have functioned as buoyancy compensators to humanity’s worst instincts.

    What Trump is doing is not only stripping away the veneer of the failures but re-calibrating, southward, the norms, which gives dark-acquainted creatures projected voices and empowered behaviors.

    I am too old to hope, nor even wish, for perfection. I do, though, for norms that can be witnessed for in what they aspire to and rail against in who they afflict.

    1. Challenging comments, David. They may touch on a crucial philosophical issue. Has the US since 1945 indeed “functioned as [a] buoyancy compensator to humanity’s worst instincts”? I more tend to think that the opposite is true, that the US has embodied the “worst instincts” (as in wars such as Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq and as in setting the pace for the arms race).

      At the same time, I will grant you point that Trump is making things worse. But I think he is able to do that because of his predecessors. To say they (and I mean especially the Republicans but also most of the Democratic leadership) set the stage and created and sustained a corrupt system is not to excuse or minimize Trump’s evils.

      But it is to suggest that we gain little by focusing our ire on Trump if that means lessening our opposition to the larger system and rejecting the efforts to renew the Cold War and to valorize the “intelligence community”. Trump may indeed be “recalibrating the norms southward,” but if so only slightly—and it’s the entire “southward” trajectory that needs to be resisted.

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