The Trump Age: Nobly Save or Meanly Lose?

What can we expect? (inquisitor)

What can we expect? (inquisitor)

Today Donald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States.  He comes into office having lost the popular vote by 3 million to Secretary Clinton, after experiencing the lowest approval rating of any incoming president on record, all while under a shroud of unprecedented allegations of foreign meddling in the election.  He takes the most powerful office in the land with a federal government dominated by his questionably-aligned party, facing a decimated and rudderless opposition, under the confused, delegitimized eyes of the press.  He enters a world stage that is suffering a near universal retreat of liberal values and the rise of ethno-nationalism in the wake of ever-increasing inequality, temperatures, and sea levels. And yet, as of today, many claim not to know what to expect from the man.

Of course there are reasons for this confusion.  President Trump ran a campaign that oscillated wildly between standard Republican positions, shocking hard-right proposals, and incoherent populist rhetoric.  I won’t spend time rehashing the litany of lies, contradictions, or fantasies that spewed from the candidate anymore than I will spend time rehashing the offensive, irresponsible, and dangerous language that he used. 

But we know many things about the Trump Administration based on the Trump Campaign. First, some successes: Mr. Trump has a genius for social media and showmanship, has an ear for the underrepresented voices in America (in media if not government at any rate), and a knack for slaying the sacred cows of our conventional politics.  These were assets for gaining attention in a shallow, media-soaked campaign environment. 

Some of these assets no doubt could be refreshing in government.  Mr. Trump may be a coastal elite who inherited his wealth and surrounds himself with all its trappings and sycophants (which will be a common theme in his cabinet), but he is also clearly outside of the Washington scene.  Questioning long-held assumptions about American domestic and foreign policy is healthy and long overdue.  Expanding debate to include ideas from vast segments of forgotten regions and people is an imperative that could potentially reinvigorate the trust and enthusiasm for our republic’s institutions. Whether he uses his brashness to these ends or not, President Trump will have permanently disrupted the neo-liberal consensus. The electorate has said demonstrably that this consensus has failed and that they want something else. It is about to get what it wants.

Now, the failures: Mr. Trump has consistently proven to be unorganized, incoherent, and disinterested.  These are three attributes that don’t translate into strong governance.  As good as Candidate Trump was at getting attention and throwing (or tweeting) popular bombs at the establishment (and many vulnerable individuals and groups), his campaign was a chaotic mess that fell backwards into a victory that they didn’t see coming just like everyone else. Winning softens that narrative (as it does with any presidential campaign) but it doesn’t mean those trends will change in the White House.  There is little doubt that the Trump Administration will be just as chaotic, if not more chaotic.

This is because, whatever Trumpism represents, it is not a cohesive agenda or ideology, but a cult of personality.  The three axes running through the Trump Administration – orthodox Republicanism, alt-right populism, and retro nationalism – have few areas of overlap and many more areas of direct opposition.  Ugly conflicts will be inevitable.  There are a lot of big egos new to government walking through the door.  The one thing these factions will have in common will be competing for and relying on the whims of the President to choose sides on an issue-by-issue, day-to-day basis. Again, this is not a formula for effective governance (and will do significant damage to the institutions and agencies within this orbit that would normally have some autonomy).  

Instead of a focused, on-message White House, we will see one with lots of noise, lots of backtracking, and lots of blame shifting. However, that circus could (perhaps intentionally) distract the public from what should be a sustained if unsteady unraveling of domestic policy. For all the chaos over the last 18 months, Mr. Trump has held remarkably consistent views on most things for a much longer period of time.

More often than not, President Trump's brand of orthodox Republicanism, one with a messianic hard-right flavor, will dictate the Trump agenda. This will mean dramatic budget cuts to most discretionary agencies, the termination of many smaller programs and departments, privatization and deregulation, and a general sustained federal retreat from many policy fronts. America will become a place with distinctly sharper edges and higher boundaries between its winners and losers.

Housing is a good example. It is unlikely that the Trump Administration believes in many of the goals of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (which is by no means the only federal agency that impacts housing).  Those goals include assisting poor Americans with direct housing costs, supporting affordable housing construction, enforcing fair housing laws, and overseeing the vast agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that subsidize homeownership for millions of middle-class Americans.  Aside from perhaps this final goal, none of the three factions in the Trump Administration will want to continue those policies.

Mr. Trump’s personal interactions with HUD consisted of being sued for racial discrimination. His Secretary of Treasury candidate Steven Mnuchin profited from the housing crash of 2007 and its aftermath.  Candidate Trump’s repeated usage of ‘inner-cities’ and ‘urban renewal’ reveal either a deeply cynical tendency to dog whistle to his white working-class base and/or a persistent ignorance of the changing shape of our cities and the larger spectrum of minority experiences in America. 

His pick of Dr. Carson to run HUD encapsulates this indifference-to-outright hostility perfectly. I, and many others, have already discussed why Dr. Carson is unfit to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  Nothing in his Senate hearing changed that judgment. 

Like his boss, he is unaware of or unwilling to recognize the history of government-sanctioned segregation in our communities that has perpetuated multi-generational poverty for millions of Americans.  Instead, Dr. Carson has spoken of poverty as being a choice.

Like his boss, Dr. Carson is entirely unfamiliar with the majority of activities HUD undertakes or that most of them don’t involve aid to black Americans stuck in “inner-city hell-holes.” 

Dr. Carson also seems unwilling to (or, perhaps more troubling, unaware of the need to) challenge Mr. Trump’s dated and offensive characterizations of urban America. This doesn’t bode well for the priorities of HUD under his watch.  It’s difficult to see Dr. Carson having the stomach for defending HUD’s mission from the White House let alone for budget fights on the Hill. President Trump will have near-free reign to dismantle much of HUD with an affable face at the helm and willing co-conspirators in Congress. This will have an untold impact on millions of struggling Americans.

Because of who Mr. Trump is as a man and what divergent worlds he has rode to power on, we truly don’t know a lot about what will happen over the next four years.  President Trump will have an immense amount of power to impact the lives of billions of people.  His lack of humility and leadership in the face of this responsibility give many reasons for progressives and conservatives alike to fret.

But he is no king.  It will be up to the institutions set up by the Founding Fathers to check his authoritative impulses.  It will be up to the free press to challenge him and to reassert its role as a vital public advocate.  And most importantly, it will be up to us as citizens, regardless of whom we voted or didn’t vote for, to remain vigilant, engaged, and hopeful.  The stakes for our republic, our world, are real and they are high.  To paraphrase President Lincoln, over the next four years, we shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last great hope of earth.