On January 20, 2017, Donald John Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States to preside over a nation that has not been so divided since before the Civil War. The Republican Party now controls the Executive and both branches of the Legislature. If Hillary had won, the best that Democratic supporters could have hoped for was a simple Democratic majority in the Senate and two-years of deadlock until mid-term elections in 2018, when they could hope to gain ground in the House.
Naturally, just because the Republican Party now holds the White House and both houses of Congress does not mean Trump will get everything he wants; whatever that is. If we recall, when President Obama was elected in 2008, the Democrats were in the same politically enviable position the Republicans are in now. Still, the White House’s legislative agenda was obstructed during the first two years, not as much by the Republican opposition but by conservative Democrats or those whose seat existed in conservative parts of the country.
Looking forward, we can anticipate a Trump administration facing more political pitfalls than did Obama. The first point of conflict is built into the structure of the American government by the Constitution, which pits the Executive and Legislative branches against one another, a role many in Congress take seriously. Second, many, including Republicans, believed Democrats would win in part due to the great divide between different factions within the Republican Party. Now with the election over differences are being papered over in a show of unity, but will break out again once the Republicans settle into the business of governing. Third, many cabinet members heading key federal agencies such as NASA, Department of Labor, Energy, Human Health Services, and so on are openly hostile to measures the agencies have taken if not to their very existence. Believing they have a mandate, the new department heads will push the agencies in directions that many who work within them will disagree with, leading career staff to being replaced, leave or quietly obstructing the new agenda. The fourth factor is Trump himself as a person, who not only employs a superficial “shoot-from-the-hip” management style, but is disliked more than any other holder of the office in modern times.
For all that has been said about how unique this election cycle has been two things stand out. Until this point business has been satisfied to play a ‘behind-the-scene’ role in America’s political arena, being only interested in shaping an environment that is conducive to commercial enterprise. With a Trump administration this is the first time business has overtly taken over the reins of government, blurring the divide between political and economic spheres with the consequence of a greater concentration of political power in the hands of the upper class.
This development is all the more dangerous to the country’s political system given that the new administration already demonstrates tendencies towards autocracy. In general, the conservative impulse, in particular those of social conservatives, are strongly inclined towards dictating to others what they consider to be right or wrong. While it is an open question what Trump himself believes, few of those who have been chosen for cabinet posts could be said to be social conservatives. But a significant number of those who voted for Trump will hold the administration accountable for the promises he made to them. One such commitment is his intention to stack the Supreme Court with justices who adhere to the conservative social agenda. This is more than an effort to promote one’s agenda, but has the consequence of weakening the structure of the U.S. Constitution. Trump has also made clear he has little regard for the democratic process reflected in his admiring remarks about not only Russian President Vladimir Putin, but North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Syria’s President Baar al-Assad, Libya’s former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and Iraq’s former president Saddam Hussein. Even in the management of his own business Trump is wholly arbitrary having chosen not to maintain a Board of Directors, preferring instead to make company decisions his alone.
Given his statements during the last debate about leaving open whether he would respect the outcome if the voters had rejected him, now that he is president what will be his response if he were to lose re-election? Or if he serves two terms, what if Trump is not ready to step down? He has begun making this argument even before becoming president by marshalling a steady stream of fear-encouraging news with the intent of keeping his base overly stimulated and employing threats and intimidation against those who question the veracity of his claims. The steady drumbeat of fear will act as a backdrop for announcements of specific threats presented as imperiling the nation’s survival, even if questioned could leave the American people feeling insecure enough not to want to risk a leadership change.
When viewed within an even larger context, we can see Trump’s ascension to the White House as part of a pattern now sweeping the globe where countries are pulling within and focusing on achieving their own interests at the expense of international cooperation. This tendency has long been observed in China and Russia, but the economic recession of 2008 and the mass migrations from the Middle East to Europe have dealt liberalism’s internationalist spirit damaging blows. Alternating cycles of reclusive or expansive views of ourselves is grounded in our sense of personal and collective security, forming a primary driver for social evolution. Much more than just a rejection of the status quo, the current populous movements in the West in general and the Trump administration in particular, is symptomatic of a social value structure that is deteriorating leading to it to turn to autocracy in the attempt to retain its vitality.
Especially concerning is the fact that negative consequences could be far greater than in any time in the past. Many bemoaning this trend might find solace in believing such mistakes could be rectified, as in the instances of totalitarian regimes such as Germany and Russia. What is different now is authoritarian governments can deploy increasingly powerful technologies for surveillance and propaganda in ways far beyond anything conceived by Orwell in his famous dystopian novel “1984”. This fact puts special emphasis on an often over looked point Orwell also made that it is self-delusional to believe people can and will come together to depose tyranny they find intolerable.
The question now before us is what is our next step to be? The answer to this question is the subject of next month’s post entitled Transitionalism: At the Inflection Point.