Donald Trump’s totemic first 100 days in office have been greeted with brutal reviews. Ironically, the most positive comments involve the neck-snapping series of flip-flops Trump has sprung on signature populist issues. The chattering classes have greeted these with deep sighs of relief.
In their view, the “axis of adults,” as neo-conservative Max Boot puts it, has taken control. The marauding Rasputin, Steve Bannon, has been rebuked. The “corrupt political establishment” that Trump railed against has taken hold.
Rather than relief, this should worry anyone concerned about the future of the country. And Trump’s casual shedding of his agenda makes a fundamental reassessment among Democrats all the more imperative.
Let’s quickly review the promises Trump abandoned. In the campaign, his America First posture declared NATO “obsolete,” but now he salutes it as a “great alliance.” He railed against the $6 trillion wasted on endless conflicts in the Middle East and promised to end our dalliance with regime change. Now he’s doubled down on wars from Afghanistan to Somalia, and his Secretary of State declared that the United States will be dedicated to “holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.” He was going to stay out of Syria, now his Defense Secretary boasts (falsely) that his cruise missile attack took out 20 percent of its air force.
Trump promised to join with Russia to take on ISIS and praised Vladimir Putin; now Trump and relations have reached to a new nadir. He was going to label China a currency manipulator, but now he isn’t. Trump promised to rip up NAFTA, but recently his Commerce Secretary suggests that the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal that Trump scorned might provide a model for changing it.
Domestic populist pledges are also on the cutting room floor. Trump vowed to defend Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; now he embraces the Ryan health care plan that would have gutted Medicaid. He boasted he would cover everyone with cheaper and better health insurance. The Trump-backed GOP replacement plan would instead have deprived an estimated 24 million of insurance. The rich wouldn’t benefit from his tax cut plan, he promised, now they will clean up. He was “ashamed” of Fed Chair Janet Yellin, now he’s open to reappointing her. Mexico would pay for the wall, now it won’t. He’s going to “clean the swamp,” but he’s assembling the most corrupted and conflicted administration since Grant. He mocked both Bush brothers. Now he’s not only hiring former Bush aides, but he’s even embraced Jeb Bush’s signature destructive assault on public schools.
I could go on. But among the punditry, this retreat has been widely applauded. On “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” ABC political director Rick Klein commented “If you look at the way that he has been moving, despite all of the talk about broken campaign promises, he’s actually moving closer to the mainstream of the Republican Party. Maybe even the broader, bipartisan mainstream about America’s role in the world. That heartens a whole bunch of Capitol Hill Republicans.”
Doyle McManus, the excellent political reporter from the LA Times, suggested that Trump abandoned his populist promises because he was mugged by reality:
“Two weeks of head-spinning policy reversals have put Trump squarely inside the chalk lines of conventional Republican conservatism on both economics and foreign affairs.
His impulsive management style and his fact-challenged rhetoric are still intact. But most of his policy positions are now remarkably similar to those espoused by the GOP’s last establishment nominee, Mitt Romney, in 2012.”
This gelding of Donald Trump has occurred with remarkable rapidity. Trump can and will do immense damage to everything from climate policy to deportations, but his populist posturing turns out to be toothless.
The sighs of relief, however, are misplaced. Trump had it basically right when he said in his inaugural address that:
For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered — but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
President Obama’s administration surely represented the best of this establishment, with major reforms drawn, as his hagiographer Jonathan Chait puts it, from a store of Republican ideas. Obama ran a remarkably clean administration, saved the economy from free fall, and called attention to the challenges of climate change and inequality.
But the endless wars without victory or purpose continued. Income inequality worsened. Catastrophic climate change outstripped the reforms. The banks were bailed out and homeowners left to sink. The middle class struggled to stay afloat, and the working class fell further behind. The impoverishment and isolation of our ghettos and barrios worsened. Austerity blocked any effort to rebuild the country. Our politics grew more corrupted by big and increasingly secret money. The best of mainstream politics offers little hope for most of America.
Trump’s rapid surrender exposes what we all knew to be true: that his populism was a posture, not a policy. He has no interest in or capacity for taking on the establishment to forge fundamental change.
That is why the debate inside and outside the Democratic Party about an alternative course is so vital. Assuming America can survive four years of Trump, Americans will still be looking for a way out.
The threats posed by the Trump and the march of Republican reaction across the states make this debate difficult. Progressive activists want Democrats to unify to resist Trump. The assaults on basic decency demand mobilized resistance. The attempts to roll back all of the progress of the past years force progressives to defend what has been achieved rather than push boldly for what should come next.
And of course, the Democratic political establishment is happy to use the call for resistance to decry any inter-party debate as divisive. Senator Bernie Sanders has joined with DNC Chair Tom Perez to stump across the country to rouse progressives against Trump. But when Sanders argues that the Democratic Party must make a “fundamental reassessment,” when he says it has been losing elections because it hasn’t put forth a bold agenda for change, he triggers a social media storm that he’s destroying the party, dividing it, and isn’t even a Democrat anyway.
Democrats have suffered crushing electoral losses from the White House to the Congress to statehouses and legislatures. Democrats have been clear about what they oppose, but they should also be using this time in the wilderness to debate what they are for.
The fight between the Wall Street wing of the Party and the Sanders wing is, and should be, a big deal. There are fundamental choices at stake.
Do Democrats continue to see the United States as the “indispensable nation,” enforcing our values by policing the world? Or do they warn against crossing the world for “in search of monsters to destroy,” and support spreading our values by example, and by building international law and institutions. Sadly, as was demonstrated when Trump decided to drop 59 cruise missiles on Syria, there is more debate inside the Republican Party than the Democratic Party on military intervention.
Will Democrats continue to champion a corporate-defined globalization policy? Or will they elaborate a new course, combining balanced trade with industrial policy, while curbing piratical corporate behavior? The labor-led broad coalition that torpedoed the Trans-Pacific Partnership before Trump was even elected has set the stage for this reappraisal.
Will Democrats continue to remain defensive about government and wedded to modest reforms? Or will they embrace the modern equivalent of Roosevelt’s Economic Bill of Rights — including the right to a job, a living wage, health care, public education from pre-K through college, and retirement security? The Sanders campaign that featured the call for Medicare for All, tuition-free college, for a $15 minimum wage were the beginnings of this crucial debate.
Are Democrats for sustaining our neo-liberal economic policies or for structural change in our economy: curbing Wall Street, breaking up the big banks, enforcing anti-trust policy, empowering workers and their unions, fostering cooperatives and worker controlled companies?
Will Democrats continue to embrace the corrupted big money politics that they universally decry, or will they not only talk reform but walk it, building a small donor, volunteer, activist party that can challenge big money politics?
This debate can’t be suppressed. Academics and policy mavens should use these years in opposition to generate new and bolder ideas. Political leaders should be defining agenda and message. What the party stands for should be at the center of the DNC’s efforts to redefine itself.
And this will occur only if the impassioned citizen movements roused to resist Trump and Republican assaults demand a bolder agenda from the politicians that seek to represent them. This isn’t an easy path to navigate. Next week in Washington, People’s Action – which I am associated with – will bring together over 1,000 activists from states across the country in its “Rise Up” Convention. Even as they ramp up for the coming battles against Trump, they will discuss principles of a bold people’s agenda and how elements of it can be moved at the state and local level. Similar gatherings and initiatives are vital if this debate is to go forward.
In less than 100 days, the political establishment has tempered Donald Trump. He clearly has neither the energy or the capacity to forge a new populist position and coalition to change our course. But the county still desperately needs reconstruction, and more and more Americans are looking for change. Progressives should use these years to define and drive a vision and agenda to meet that demand.