The Donald in the Rearview Mirror
by Andrew Bacevich
Donald Trump’s tenure as the 45th U.S. president may last another few weeks, another year, or another 16 months. However unsettling the prospect, the leaky vessel that is the S.S. Trump might even manage to stay afloat for a second term. Nonetheless, recent headline-making revelations suggest that, like some derelict ship that’s gone aground, the Trump presidency may already have effectively run its course. What, then, does this bizarre episode in American history signify?
Let me state my own view bluntly: forget the atmospherics. Despite the lies, insults, name calling, and dog whistles, almost nothing of substance has changed. Nor will it.
To a far greater extent than Trump’s perpetually hyperventilating critics are willing to acknowledge, the United States remains on a trajectory that does not differ appreciably from what it was prior to POTUS #45 taking office. Post-Trump America, just now beginning to come into view, is shaping up to look remarkably like pre-Trump America.
I understand that His Weirdness remains in the White House. Yet for all practical purposes, Trump has ceased to govern. True, he continues to rant and issue bizarre directives, which his subordinates implement, amend, or simply disregard as they see fit.
Except in a ceremonial sense, the office of the presidency presently lies vacant. Call it an abdication-in-place. It’s as if British King Edward VIII, having abandoned his throne for “the woman I love,” continued to hang around Buckingham Palace fuming about the lack of respect given Wallis and releasing occasional bulletins affirming his admiration for Adolf Hitler.
In Trump’s case, it’s unlikely he ever had a more serious interest in governing than Edward had in performing duties more arduous than those he was eventually assigned as Duke of Windsor. Nonetheless, the 60-plus million Americans who voted for Trump did so with at least the expectation that he was going to shake things up.
And bigly. Remember, he was going to “lock her up.” He would “drain the swamp” and “build a wall” with Mexico volunteering to foot the bill. Without further ado, he would end “this American carnage.” Meanwhile, “America First” would form the basis for U.S. foreign policy. Once Trump took charge, things were going to be different, as he and he alone would “make America great again.”
Yet the cataclysm that Trump’s ascendency was said to signify has yet to occur. Barring a nuclear war, it won’t.
If you spend your days watching CNN or MSNBC or reading columnists employed by the New York Times and the Washington Post, you might conclude otherwise. But those are among the institutions that, on November 8, 2016, suffered a nervous breakdown from which they have yet to recover. Nor, it now seems clear, do they wish to recover as long as Donald Trump remains president. To live in a perpetual state of high dudgeon, denouncing his latest inanity and predicting the onset of fascism, is to enjoy the equivalent of a protracted psychic orgasm, one induced by mutual masturbation.
Yet if you look beyond the present to the fairly recent past, it becomes apparent that change on the scale that Trump was promising had actually occurred, even if well before he himself showed up on the scene. The consequences of that Big Change are going to persist long after he is gone. It’s those consequences that now demand our attention, not the ongoing Gong Show jointly orchestrated by the White House and journalists fancying themselves valiant defenders of Truth.
Trump himself is no more than a pimple on the face of this nation’s history. It’s time to step back from the mirror and examine the face in full. Pretty it’s not.
The Way We Were
Compare the America that welcomed young Donald Trump into the world in 1946 with the country that, some 70 years later, elected him president. As the post-World War II era was beginning, three large facts — so immense that they were simply taken for granted — defined America.
First, the United States made everything and made more of it than anyone else. In postwar America, wealth derived in large measure from the manufacture of stuff: steel, automobiles, refrigerators, shoes, socks, blouses, baseballs, you name it. “Made in the USA” was more than just a slogan. With so much of the industrialized world in ruins, the American economy dominated and defined everyday economic reality globally.
Second, back then while the mighty engine of industrial capitalism was generating impressive riches, it was also distributing the benefits on a relatively equitable basis. Postwar America was the emblematic middle-class country, the closest approximation to a genuinely classless and democratic society the world had ever seen.
Third, having had their fill of fighting from 1941 to 1945, Americans had a genuine aversion to war. They may not have been a peace-loving people, but they knew enough about war to see it as a great evil. Avoiding its further occurrence, if at all possible, was a priority, although one not fully shared by the new national security establishment just then beginning to flex its muscles in Washington.
Now, by twenty-first-century standards, many, perhaps nearly all, Americans of that era were bigots of one sort or the other. Racism, sexism, and homophobia flourished, lamented by some, promoted by others, tolerated by the vast majority. An anti-communist political hysteria, abetted by cynical politicians, also flourished. Americans worked themselves into a tizzy over the putative threat posed by small numbers of homegrown subversives. And they fouled the air, water, and soil with abandon. Add to this list violence, crime, corruption, sexual angst, and various forms of self-abuse. Taken as a whole, American society, as it existed when Trump was growing up, was anything but perfect. Yet, for all that, postwar Americans were the envy of the world. And they knew it.
By 2016, when Trump was elected president, America had become an altogether different country. Without actually disappearing, racism, sexism, and homophobia had — at least for the moment — gone underground. Attitudes toward people of color, women, and gays that a half-century earlier had been commonplace were now largely confined to a pathological fringe. Hysteria about communists had essentially disappeared, only to be replaced by hysteria over Islamic terrorists. Pollution, of course, persisted, as did violence, crime, corruption, and sexual angst. New and more imaginative forms of self-destructive behavior had made their appearance.
Yet little of that turned out to be central. What had truly changed in the decades since Trump was a babe-in-arms were those three taken-for-granted facts that had once distinguished the United States. New realities emerged to invert them.
By 2016, the U.S. was no longer by any stretch of the imagination the place that made everything, though it bought everything, often made elsewhere. It had long since become the ultimate consumer society, with Americans accustomed to acquiring and enjoying more than they produced or could afford. Accounts no longer balanced. The government lived on credit, assuming that the bills would never come due. So, too, did many citizens.
By 2016, the U.S. had long since become a deeply unequal society of haves and have-nots. Finance capitalism, the successor to industrial capitalism, was creating immense fortunes without even pretending to distribute the benefits equitably. Politicians still routinely paid tribute to the Great American Middle Class. Yet the hallmarks of postwar middle-class life — a steady job, a paycheck adequate to support a family, the prospect of a pension — were rapidly disappearing. While Americans still enjoyed freedom of a sort, many of them lacked security.
By 2016, Americans had also come to accept war as normal. Here was “global leadership” made manifest. So U.S. troops were now always out there somewhere fighting, however obscure the purpose of their exertions and however dim their prospects of achieving anything approximating victory. The 99% of Americans who were not soldiers learned to tune out those wars, content merely to “support the troops,” an obligation fulfilled by offering periodic expressions of reverence on public occasions. Thank you for your service!
The Way We Are
But note: Donald Trump played no role in creating this America or consigning the America of 1946 to oblivion. As a modern equivalent of P.T. Barnum, he did demonstrate considerable skill in exploiting the opportunities on offer as the strictures of postwar America gave way. Indeed, he parlayed those opportunities into fortune, celebrity, lots of golf, plenty of sex, and eventually the highest office in the land. Only in America, as we used to say.
In 1946, it goes without saying, he would never have been taken seriously as a would-be presidential candidate. By 2016, his narcissism, bombast, vulgarity, and talent for self-promotion nicely expressed the underside of the prevailing zeitgeist. His candidacy was simultaneously preposterous, yet strangely fitting.
By the twenty-first century, the values that Trump embodies had become as thoroughly and authentically American as any of those specified in the oracular pronouncements of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Roosevelt. Trump’s critics may see him as an abomination. But he is also one of us.
And here’s the real news: the essential traits that define America today — those things that make this country so different from what it seemed to be in 1946 — will surely survive the Trump presidency. If anything, he and his cronies deserve at least some credit for sustaining just those traits.
Candidate Trump essentially promised Americans a version of 1946 redux. He would revive manufacturing and create millions of well-paying jobs for working stiffs. By cutting taxes, he would put more money in the average Joe or Jill’s pocket. He would eliminate the trade deficit and balance the federal budget. He would end our endless wars and bring the troops home where they belong. He would oblige America’s allies, portrayed as a crew of freeloaders, to shoulder their share of the burden. He would end illegal immigration. He would make the United States once more the God-fearing Christian country it was meant to be.
How seriously Trump expected any of those promises to be taken is anyone’s guess. But this much is for sure: they remain almost entirely unfulfilled.
True, domestic manufacturing has experienced a slight uptick, but globalization remains an implacable reality. Unless you’ve got a STEM degree, good jobs are still hard to come by. Ours is increasingly a “gig” economy, which might be cool enough when you’re 25, but less so when you’re in your sixties and wondering if you’ll ever be able to retire.
While Trump and a Republican Congress delivered on their promise of tax “reform,” its chief beneficiaries will be the rich, further confirmation, if it were needed, that the American economy is indeed rigged in favor of a growing class of plutocrats. Trade deficit? It’s headed for a 10-year high. Balanced budget? You’ve got to be joking. The estimated federal deficit next year will exceed a trillion dollars, boosting the national debt past $21 trillion. (Trump had promised to eliminate that debt entirely.)
And, of course, the wars haven’t ended. Here is Trump, just last month, doing his best George McGovern imitation: “I’m constantly reviewing Afghanistan and the whole Middle East,” he asserted. “We never should have been in the Middle East. It was the single greatest mistake in the history of our country.” Yet Trump has perpetuated and, in some instances, expanded America’s military misadventures in the Greater Middle East, while essentially insulating himself from personal responsibility for their continuation.
As commander-in-chief, he’s a distinctly hands-off kind of guy. Despite being unable to walk, President Franklin Roosevelt visited GIs serving in combat zones more often than Trump has. If you want to know why we are in Afghanistan and how long U.S. forces will stay there, ask Defense Secretary James Mattis or some general, but don’t, whatever you do, ask the president.
On Not Turning America’s Back on the World
And then there is the matter of Trump’s “isolationism.” Recall that when he became president, foreign policy experts across Washington warned that the United States would now turn its back on the world and abandon its self-assigned role as keeper of order and defender of democracy. Now, nearing the mid-point of Trump’s first (and hopefully last) term, the United States remains formally committed to defending the territorial integrity of each and every NATO member state, numbering 29 in all. Add to that an obligation to defend nations as varied as Japan, South Korea, and, under the terms of the Rio Pact of 1947, most of Latin America. Less formally but no less substantively, the U.S. ensures the security of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and various other Persian Gulf countries.
As for obliging those allies to pony up more for the security we have long claimed to provide, that’s clearly not going to happen any time soon. Our European allies have pocketed both Trump’s insults and his assurances that the United States will continue to defend them, offering in return the vaguest of promises that, sometime in the future, they might consider investing more in defense.
By-the-by, U.S. forces under Donald Trump’s ostensible command are today present in more than 150 countries worldwide. Urged on by the president, Congress has passed a bill that boosts the Pentagon budget to $717 billion, an $82 billion increase over the prior year. Needless to say, no adversary or plausible combination of adversaries comes anywhere close to matching that figure.
To call this isolationism is comparable to calling Trump svelte.
As for the promised barrier, that “big, fat, beautiful wall,” to seal the southern border, it has advanced no further than the display of several possible prototypes. No evidence exists to suggest that Mexico will, as Trump insisted, pay for its construction, nor that Congress will appropriate the necessary funds, estimated at somewhere north of $20 billion, even with Republicans still controlling both houses of Congress. And in truth, whether it is built or not, the U.S.-Mexico border will remain what it has been for decades: heavily patrolled but porous, a conduit for desperate people seeking safety and opportunity, but also for criminal elements trafficking in drugs or human beings.
The point of this informal midterm report card is not to argue that Donald Trump has somehow failed. It is rather to highlight his essential irrelevance.
Trump is not the disruptive force that anti-Trumpers accuse him of being. He is merely a noxious, venal, and ineffectual blowhard, who has assembled a team of associates who are themselves, with few exceptions, noxious, venal, or ineffectual.
So here’s the upshot of it all: if you were basically okay with where America was headed prior to November 2016, just take a deep breath and think of Donald Trump as the political equivalent of a kidney stone — not fun, but sooner or later, it will pass. And when it does, normalcy will return. Soon enough you’ll forget it ever happened.
If, on the other hand, you were not okay with where America was headed in 2016, it’s past time to give up the illusion that Donald Trump is going to make things right. Eventually a pimple dries up and disappears, often without leaving a trace. Such is the eventual destiny of Donald Trump as president.
In the meantime, of course, there are any number of things about Trump to raise our ire. Climate change offers a good example. And yet climate change may be the best illustration of Trump’s insignificance.
Under President Obama, the United States showed signs of mounting a belated effort to address global warming. The Trump administration wasted little time in reversing course, reverting to the science-denying position to which Republicans adhered long before Trump himself showed up.
No doubt future generations will find fault with Trump’s inaction in the face of this crisis. Yet when Miami is underwater and California wildfires rage throughout the year, Trump himself won’t be the only — or even the principal — culprit charged with culpable neglect.
The nation’s too-little, too-late response to climate change for which a succession of presidents share responsibility illustrates the great and abiding defect of contemporary American politics. When all is said and done, presidents don’t shape the country; the country shapes the presidency — or at least it defines the parameters within which presidents operate. Over the course of the last few decades, those parameters have become increasingly at odds with the collective wellbeing of the American people, not to mention of the planet as a whole.
Yet Americans have been obdurate in refusing to acknowledge that fact.
Americans today are deeply divided. There exists no greater symbol of that division than Trump himself — the wild enthusiasm he generates in some quarters and the antipathy verging on hatred he elicits in others.
The urgent need of the day is to close that divide, which is as broad as it is deep, touching on culture, the political economy, America’s role in the world, and the definition of the common good. I submit that these matters lie beyond any president’s purview, but especially this one’s.
Trump is not the problem. Think of him instead as a summons to address the real problem, which in a nation ostensibly of, by, and for the people is the collective responsibility of the people themselves. For Americans to shirk that responsibility further will almost surely pave the way for more Trumps — or someone worse — to come.