At the 100-day mark of the Trump administration, progressives have a lot to cheer: The movement moment that preceded the 2016 election proved not only durable but adaptable to a new political reality. We chanted “No ban, no wall,” and despite Trump’s bluster, he has failed to erect either barrier thus far. This is what democracy looks like.
But as we move past the initial months of this presidency—defined by far-right provocation and mainstream outrage—we enter the truly dangerous and far more challenging stretch of the Trump era.
Under the guidance of provocateur in chief Steve Bannon, this White House has offered Americans a series of clear moral choices, and the vast majority of us have reacted as could be expected: Trump’s early approval ratings are among the lowest in US history. But that consensus won’t be as easily won in the debates that lie ahead. The country will still face stark moral questions, but answering them will require an understanding of morality that has been neglected in American politics for decades.
Just weeks into Trump’s presidency, Senator John Thune of South Dakota spoke plainly when asked about the Republican leadership’s strategy for the next four years. “He’s going to say things on a daily basis that we’re not going to like,” Thune told The New York Times regarding whatever scandal Trump had instigated that day. But “the broad legislative agenda and goals that we have…those would be big wins.”
They would indeed, and the cabal of white men who have been trying for decades to unravel the social safety net, undermine democracy, and grant corporations unfettered power over our economy are as steady and determined as Trump is unpredictable. For example, while many of us were cheering the signs of Bannon’s waning influence in recent weeks, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Justice Department’s intention to return the War on Drugs to its Reagan-era pitch, thereby reopening the federal spigot for prison construction and police militarization.
So Thune’s crowd will exploit today’s chaos to move their very old and familiar agenda forward. And the applause that followed Trump’s bombing of Syria is a sign of how well that strategy could work. The pundits and Democrats who howled at Trump’s refusal to help child refugees escape war lost their moral compass when it came to escalating that same war. There is now a consensus that the Bannon wing of the White House is too extreme. But will there be similar outrage when the victims and villains are less obvious than they have been in recent months? What happens when our norms and values are tested not by open provocation, but by the steady manipulation of government into a cudgel against the poor?