Progressives have mobilized ferociously to oppose to President Donald Trump’s unending horrors. But how do we respond when the self-proclaimed “stable genius” gets it right?
For example, Trump outraged the Washington foreign-policy establishment when he announced troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan. “I want to bring our troops back from the endless wars,” he said. “They’ve been going on for 19 years in the area. But I’m going to bring them home from Syria.” (It’s not clear that he actually issued any orders on Afghanistan to the military, despite his public statements.)
Defense Secretary James Mattis immediately quit and released a caustic resignation letter. Neoconservatives from Max Boot to Bill Kristol went into high dudgeon, accusing Trump of destroying American credibility, abandoning our allies, and handing Russia and Iran a victory. Senator Lindsay Graham said Trump was repeating Obama’s mistakes. Editors of The New York Times and The Washington Post joined the condemnations; MSNBC featured a gaggle of neoconservative thinkers and ex-generals who denounced the move. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused Trump of giving Putin a “Christmas gift.”
This outcry helped turn public opinion upside down: Now polls show that Democratic voters are more in favor of sustaining troops in Syria, while Republicans overwhelmingly favor withdrawal.
It’s thus left to progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the Senate, and Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna in the House, to support plans that get the troops out. Progressive movements have long campaigned for withdrawal, and for good reason: We’ve been in Afghanistan for 18 years, at a total cost about $2 trillion, with thousands of men and women dead and wounded, propping up an unstable and notoriously corrupt government, with no end in sight. Our Syrian intervention is a blatant violation of international law and the US Constitution.
Trump’s gambit—declare victory and get out—makes a lot more sense than the generals’ strategy of continuing the wars until the end of time, with no plan for victory.
Then there’s the issue of trade. On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly assailed America’s “lousy” trade deals, and accused China of the “greatest theft in the history of the world.” After taking office, he torpedoed Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, forced renegotiation of NAFTA, and slapped tariffs on China, Europe and Canada. “It’s easy to win trade wars,” he tweeted.
The tariffs precipitated the resignation of his leading economic adviser, Gary Cohn, former head of Goldman Sachs, who apparently found tariffs more morally offensive than Trump’s embrace of white nationalists in Charlottesville. From the Davos crowd to right-wing publicists, the condemnation was near-universal. “You can’t have a trade war and a well-functioning international system,” warned George Soros, the liberal billionaire hedge-fund genius. Trump was denounced as “self-destructive and reckless” by Bryan Riley of the National Taxpayers Union, a right-wing lobby. Again Democrats joined in with congressional candidates across the country railing against the costs of Trump’s tariffs. Once more the effect was to turn public opinion upside down: Three-fourths of Republicans now favor the tariffs on China, while only 10 percent of Democrats do.
But progressives led the revolt against the failed trade treaties of the Republican and Democratic establishment. Obama’s TPP was dead on arrival because of Democratic opposition in the House and Senate, led by Senator Sherrod Brown and Representative Rosa DeLauro, among others. A broad coalition of consumer, environmental, and citizen groups united to demand an end to the NAFTA model. The call for challenging China’s predatory trade policies came from the left.
And for good reason. Our trade treaties have benefited multinationals and Wall Street (which makes sense, since they helped draft them), while contributing directly to the stagnation of wages, the hollowing out of American manufacturing and the growth of obscene inequality. No country in history has ever run anything close to the staggering trade deficits than the United States has racked up with China. China’s predatory trade policies trample every principle of the global trading system, including dumping products at prices below their costs, demanding technology transfers as the price of admission to their markets, stealing intellectual property, forcing US companies to take on Chinese partners to sell in Chinese markets and then routinely fleecing them, and more.
Trump’s approach has been both impulsive and ineffective. Rather than enlisting our allies to take on China, he alienated them. His NAFTA 2.0, as Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach summarizes, has some creative new measures, but protects Big Pharma’s privileges, waives Buy America laws, and lacks real enforcement of labor rights and environmental protections. China countered his tariffs by depreciating the value of the yen by 10 percent. The trade deficit with China has reached new heights, as US exports to China fell dramatically. The choice cannot be between Trump’s populist posturing and the establishment’s corporate “free trade” that savages US workers.
On the Federal Reserve, Trump has similarly found himself close to the right position. “I think the Fed has gone crazy,” is only one of repeated Trump attacks on Jay Powell, a lawyer who made his fortune at the Carlyle Group whom Trump made chair of the Federal Reserve. Trump has damned the Fed raising of its benchmark interest rates as a “much bigger problem than China.” With the snark of a country club lounge lizard, he indicted the Fed chair for having “no touch—he can’t putt.” The White House leaked reports that Trump was polling advisers on whether he should fire Powell.
Wall Street and the financial pages came close to cardiac arrest. Were Trump to be “actually stupid enough” to fire Powell, warned Daniel Alpert, managing partner at investment firm Westwood Capital, “it would trigger a massive reaction from the financial markets…. There will be all sorts of hell to pay.” And “If investors don’t believe the Fed is independent, they’re going to bail,” cautioned Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. Again the Democratic establishment piled on. “Attacking central bank is one more step in what seems like a Presidential strategy of turning the United States into a banana republic,” tweeted Larry Summers, Clinton’s former Treasury secretary.
Yet progressive economists like Dean Baker and Jamie Galbraith led the criticism of the Federal Reserve’s austerity policies. Democratic legislators from the radical Bernie Sanders and the centrist Paul Sarbanes have historically condemned the Fed’s choke hold on workers’ wages. The Democratic platform expressed opposition to the influence of bankers on the Fed.
Since Paul Volker, Fed chair under Carter and Reagan, declared that “the standard of living of the average American has to decline,” the Fed’s restrictive creditors’ bias has contributed directly to the stagnant wages suffered by working people over the last 30 years. Now, because top-line unemployment is low and the economy is growing, the Fed is acting preemptively to counter inflation—and wage hikes—before there’s much sign of either.
Federal Reserve independence fosters the myth that the Fed presides over arcane mysteries that only the druids of Wall Street and banking can divine. In fact, the Fed is making explicitly political choices—deciding how low unemployment can go—how many people can be at work—before it is time to pull the plug, slow the economy and lay people off. Handing this power to an elite committee dominated by bankers—creditors with an interest in a strong dollar and little if any inflation—is both antidemocratic and biased against working people.
The establishment center has failed most Americans. Trump’s right-wing populism stokes racial and nativist divisions and offers populist economic gestures to cover the plunder and sacking of government by special interests and right-wing ideologues. But his provocations cannot be countered by a return to the failed elite policies of the past.
They must be met with a progressive populism that punctures Trump’s populist pretenses even as it demands a fundamental change of course. With Democrats in control of the House and the 2020 presidential race already underway, progressives have major platforms to drive the debate. Congressional hearings can both investigate the failed policies of the past and offer serious alternatives to Trump’s flailings. Presidential candidates can offer alternatives to both Trump’s faltering efforts and the discredited establishment gospel he attacks. Progressives should vigorously oppose efforts by discredited elites to resuscitate their reputations by savaging Trump when he scorns conventional wisdom.