Giving historical context to the Trump presidency

Predicting, even imagining the future of the Trump presidency is a fool’s errand. “Unprecedented” was used repeatedly to describe Donald Trump’s candidacy, and the word has kept appearing as he has pivoted from campaigning to governing. “Unprecedented” leaves a lot of room for speculation and not much to ground that speculation on. Will the narcissist show up every day in the Oval Office, driving the administration into constant, self-defeating dysfunction? Is there a craftiness at work that observers may still underestimate and that may produce significant achievements? Will the new president preen and strut and leave the real governance to his uneasy coalition of conservative Republican politicians, businessmen, and white populists?

While history can’t tell us which Trump will show up over the next four years, it can identify the context in which he will be operating. There are two long-term developments which not only helped elevate him politically but also are now likely to constrain him. Both might fairly be described as part of a tectonic shift dating back to the 1970s.

The first is the crisis of U.S. nationalism. (A previous post has dealt with the important aspect of this crisis related to citizenship.) The consensus about collective purpose and identity has eroded over the past several decades. As the nationalist formation that dominated much of the twentieth century has come into doubt, a three way debate has taken shape over the American future.

The debate began in the 1960s with a conservative challenge to the dominant nationalist point characterized by an activist state, a commitment to international leadership, and a multi-cultural conception of citizenship. The challenge was inspired by the growing appeal of neo-liberalism with its faith in the role of markets freed from state intervention and regulation both at home and internationally. By the time of the Clinton presidency Democrats had joined the neo-liberal chorus even as they defended old progressive government programs. To confuse matters much of the public seemed to side with the small government cause with its irresistible promise of lower taxes, yet that same public was not prepared to give up the government programs that provided a modicum of security.

Further destabilizing the nationalist consensus has been the recent revolt of the marginals. They included whites who felt displaced in an increasingly diverse society and put off by a black man occupying the White House. They were disproportionately found among older Americans who dreamed of restoring an idyllic 1950s America. They were workers with limited education and thus limited access to the job market and stagnant or declining wages. They were residents of backwater counties where manufacturing and mining jobs had dribbled away, where population was shrinking, and where longevity and other indices of welfare have pointed downward. They became politically relevant with the appearance of the Tea Party in 2008 and helped power an insurgent candidate to victory in the 2016 presidential contest. As the ostensible champion of the marginals, Trump has scrambled the old left-right debate by questioning free trade and overseas commitments, both cornerstones of the old nationalist faith, while also exploiting the resentments of whites who felt ignored and left behind.

What is now in broad terms a three-way division over national identity will not be soon resolved. Along the way there will be a lot of intense division and discord much as in the past when U.S. nationalism has moved from one phase to another.

The other tectonic shift has been playing out globally since the 1970s. U.S. policymakers after World War II had rescued globalization much battered by war and depression by promoting supportive values and institutions. For their commitment Americans were repaid in international leadership, world-wide prestige and influence, and economic prosperity. By the 1970s globalization under U.S. auspices began to accelerate with consequences that have since shaken U.S. dominance. New powers in regions around the world emerged resistant to U.S. direction. International institutions and organizations have multiplied and wielded increasing authority, thus further eroding U.S. clout. A more open international economy has prompted U.S. corporations to move abroad, leaving rust belts behind. As it went into financial overdrive, that economy demonstrated a tendency toward instability, first evident in regional crises in the 1980s and 1990s and then in the 2008 meltdown that shook the United States and spread to Europe.

In general, free movement of goods and capital brought not good GDP numbers but a growing inequality that spelled stagnant income for most and a rising fear that a system that was supposed to produce for each generation a better life than the one before was broken. Americans fell prey to political alienation evident in voter turnout and to distrust of institutions and the elites who run them, resulting in democratic dysfunction and sharp political contention. Here we see the connection between the inroads of globalization and the loss of nationalist consensus. A society disrupted by global forces has good cause for domestic disagreement about the way forward. The more profound the disruption, the deeper the disagreement.

Until Americans face the pervasive effects of globalization and decide how to find a fresh accommodation with it, the problems noted above are likely to persist. Building walls, renegotiating trade agreements and putting America first are good bumper sticker solutions, but they are not likely to either restore comfortable small-town values or “make America great again.” No matter what the Trump administration does, globalization will remain a potent force technologically, economically, and culturally.

The task engaged Americans now face is formidable. On the one hand it involves understanding the global influences now deeply embedded in their lives so they can figure out how to channel them. On the other hand it involves coming to some kind of agreement on the kind of society they want they want to create and protect in a dynamic, globalized world. All the evidence to date suggests that Donald Trump lacks the sophistication to address either the challenge of figuring out how to live with globalization or how to resolve the contradictions disrupting the national consensus. But the troubles likely to attend his presidency may well help clarify for many of his fellow citizens and even some of his supporters the hard choices before us. The road is likely to get rougher before there can be any hope of smoother going.