Normative Narratives


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Condemning Trump Isn’t Enough, Impeaching Him Isn’t Enough, Only Addressing the Roots of Trumpism Is Enough

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As his term comes to an end, and we can finally see in totality what “President Donald Trump” has meant, it is pretty clear we cannot afford another President like him. This is true in every possible way–fiscally, psychologically, environmentally–you name it. But President Trump was [ah, that feels great to say in the past tense] a symptom of long term failures in governance the GOP has cynically perpetuated in the name of greed. If it really wants to make amends for how bad things have gotten it is not enough to just condemn or impeach Trump, it must also become a constructive partner in governing for the benefit of the American people.

Ultimately Trumpism can’t come to power in a place like America, which despite it’s problems has a long history of pluralistic democratic governance, unless legitimate grievances go unaddressed. The cavalier lying we saw from Trump is not widely accepted unless its target audience has been desensitized over time by less drastic lies. Americans would not believe an election has been “stolen” unless they have long been led to believe unsubstantiated claims about widespread voter fraud. People who may otherwise just “stick to their own” will fight tooth and nail if they are led to believe illegal immigrants and movements by historically marginalized groups demanding a more just society are the reasons they are falling behind. We saw this in the rise of the Tea Party in the US and the far-right in Europe following The Great Recession.

Economic distress exacerbates tribalism, and long-sewn smaller lies make the ground fertile for bigger ones. The GOP has cyclically governed this way for decades because it is the only way it could convince enough people to support a broken ideology that does little for anyone but the wealthiest.

The GOP have been behaving like addicts, wealth addicts. Like a drug addict, there can never be enough. Like a drug addict, it started with smaller lies that had to get bigger to explain the continued failures; scapegoats were needed (illegal immigrants, “welfare queens”, “socialists”, etc.), and anyone telling you otherwise was lying (“experts“, “liberal media”). Like an addict, the lies led to a deteriorating situation with ever increasing collateral damage. And like an addiction, the situation will not get better until it is met head-on–THIS IS AN INTERVENTION!

It is the height of this cynicism, not to mention sadly ironic, that the “solutions” peddled by the GOP–trickle-down economics, deregulation, and fear-mongering about “socialism”–actually exacerbate the legitimate grievances their supporters have. We should not excuse (but may ultimately need to work with) those who knew better but pushed a regressive ideology for their own benefit. Nor should we excuse those who gleefully followed a political party because it’s divisive message dovetailed nicely with their existing prejudices.

But there are many reasonable people who have been left behind by the global economy, and are simply unable to critically consider macroeconomics and other large-scale social phenomena. Their social circles parrot lies from media outlets and Super PACs financed by the wealthy (who actually do benefit from the status quo), forming an echo chamber. They don’t recognize the straw-man arguments and false equivalencies the GOP has come to rely on.

These people must know they still have a home in the Democratic party, particularly the ones that already support much of it’s policy platform. Being “progressive” isn’t just about the policies you advocate for, it’s also about being understanding, respectful, and able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. History ultimately vindicates and condemns pretty well, but rubbing peoples’ noses in their past mistakes right now jeopardizes a better future. If decent people want off the Trump train, even now, they should be welcomed with open arms.

Part of confronting the truly deplorable elements of the far-right is calling them out—directly, unequivocally, and with a unified voice–whenever necessary. But another part is isolating them from the decent people who understandably feel left behind and believe the GOP, however imperfect, is their only means to a life of dignity. These people need education, not condemnation.

Lets briefly examine how we got here:

  1. An incomplete globalization strategy that doesn’t affordably provide the tools needed to succeed in the global economy increases inequality and reduces economic opportunity for poorer Americans. This hits historically marginalized groups, which have had less time to build wealth, harder, but also hurts poorer white people.
  2. The GOP stonewalls efforts to correct for these errors under the guise of fiscal responsibility and warnings about “socialism”. It says trickle-down economics will solve everything, trust the “invisible hand” of the market.
  3. With legitimate grievances unaddressed, and actual avenues for doing so blocked by the GOP, scapegoats are needed (illegal immigrants, “welfare queens”, changing racial demographics, decline of religion / nuclear family / “traditional values”, you name it). But you can’t fool all the people all the time…
  4. The Great Recession hits and people are sick of trickle down economics. Obama becomes a two-term President, beating weak GOP opponents in 2008 and 2012, and the party’s 2016 field looks weak as well. It seems like the GOP will finally have to reinvent itself as an actual working center-right party if it wants to remain politically viable. Moderate conservatism is on the ropes, but the Tea Party gains political influence.
  5. Enter Donald Trump, who energizes this new base of the GOP. Not enough to win the popular vote but because of voter suppression, gerrymandering, and population distribution, enough to control the levers of power following the 2016 election. The GOP sweeps Congress riding Trump’s coattails.
  6. President Trump continues the old GOP game-plan, just in cruder terms. He “shows trickle-down economics works” by inheriting a strong economy and supercharging it by slashing taxes to a level where we could never introduce the social programs needed to actually address structural issues in our society, and by cutting regulations that protect the working class. It’s all smoke and mirrors but the average person is not an economist, partially explaining why so many people believed in his “economic miracle” and voted for him in the 2020 election.
  7. As soon as he is elected, Trump starts using the bully pulpit to normalize the idea of “fake news” (an expansion of earlier GOP-lying about the economy and voter fraud, now including anything that paints him negatively). In the run-up to the 2018 mid-terms he irresponsibly starts calling anyone who disagrees with him a “socialist” and anti-American. The GOP, sensing maybe it doesn’t have to reform after all, has become the party of Trump. And it probably would’ve worked, at least through the 2020 election, except…
  8. Trump botches COVID-19 preparation, lockdowns, and reopenings, and doesn’t support a second stimulus bill until months after he should have. But there is an election coming up and the GOP is too invested in him, so it continues to embrace his increasingly dangerous rhetoric. Trump calls into question the legitimacy of an election hadn’t even happened yet, and suggests he will not leave office peacefully should he lose.
  9. Trump loses the election in epic fashion, bringing the GOP down with him. Unsurprisingly he acts like a baby. The GOP continues to let Trump do as he pleases, in part because it is morally and ideologically bankrupt, but also because it sees supporting him as important in winning the Senate runoff in Georgia.
  10. The GOP loses both seats in the Senate runoff. Trump incites a mob of his supporters, who storm the Capitol building.

Look, maybe initially there were true believers in trickle-down economics’ ability to deliver social progress, but over time that has proven not to be the case. This is when good governance demands you try something different. As FDR famously said during the Great Depression: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

Instead, when their platform didn’t work, the GOP doubled-down. They lied, and scapegoated, and then lied some more, because their platform did work for some people–the wealthy. Until we treat the root causes of Trumpism (1-3 above), it will keep coming back. People have long warned the GOPs cynical game may lead to the beginning of the end of American democracy, but until January 6th it was possible for them to deny this—not anymore.

I understand what I am calling for, the wholesale revamp of the GOPs policy platform and governing philosophy, is no small ask. But as recent history has proven further delaying the inevitable doesn’t really help them in the long run, but can be incredibly costly. The GOP can now redefine itself or solidify itself as the party of Trump. Disgusted Americans should not let it off the hook merely condemning an already-enfeebled Trump, while going back to the “business-as-usual” that paved the way for his rise in the first place.

It will never be easier for the GOP to rebrand itself. No grand admissions of guilty are needed, it can be done in a completely face-saving, politically-friendly way. All that it needs to say is that the current context demands a different approach, not blindly obstruct Biden and the Democratic party, and going forward embrace a platform that isn’t so unpopular it relies on misinformation for support.


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Trump’s Strategy: Possible Short-Term Gains, Definite Long-Term Pains

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There is always a lag between when a policy is enacted and when its true long-term consequences are felt. This reality often works against societal wellbeing, as politicians pursue policies that are damaging in the long-run if they make them more popular here and now.

This shortsighted behavior is reinforced by the electorate. The combination of more pressing issues in their own lives, imperfect memory, and a lack of technical knowledge result in the voters not holding politicians accountable for the long-term consequences of their policies. When things come crashing down on someone else’s watch they are considered the fault of the person currently in charge, regardless of the root cause. One does not have to look far back to find two prime examples–President Obama inheriting the Great Recession and the turmoil in the Middle East.

The most obvious example of President-elect Trump’s shortsightedness is his stance on Climate Change. Trump has called Climate Change a hoax. He has stated he wants to overturn Obama’s signature environmental policy, the Clean Power Plan, which is also central to meeting America’s commitments under the Paris Climate Accord (the 194 nation pact covering all major emitters, which Trump has vowed to drop out of). His pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is a climate change skeptic–the fox is guarding the hen house.

Leasing public lands to private companies seems cartoonishly short-sighted. In the most extreme scenario, imagine a National Park being turned into a natural gas field, depriving future generations of its beauty. Unfortunately, this may be what the G.O.P is planning.

Trump’s War on Climate Change toolkit also features intimidation. His Department of Energy transition team asked the DoE for a list of employees who work on climate change related issues, to which one employee (who declined to comment for fear of reprisal) remarked “This feels like the first draft of an eventual political enemies list.” The DoE, for it’s part, has rebuffed the request, but who knows what will happen once Rick Perry is running the show. As a self-proclaimed “jobs President”, Trump should not do anything that could compromise America’s position as a leader in the emerging clean energy economy (a position coveted by a country Trump has promised to be tough on–China).

While environmental considerations are the most obvious example, they are far from the only shortsighted policies Trump has embraced. If he does not change his campaign promises, his fiscal and national security policies will prove equally as shortsighted.

Trumped-Up Trickle-Down Economics

While damaging in the long-run, Trump’s policies will not necessarily lead to an immediate recession, a point made in a recent article by Paul Krugman. As Krugman points out, even poorly designed fiscal stimulus has a positive impact on short-run growth.

Even if Trump’s policies do result in short-run growth, this does not mean the average American will benefit. In fact, if recent history is any indicator, Trump’s reliance on trickle-down economics to improve the lives of average Americans is all but sure to fail. If wages continue to stagnate (Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Labor has opposed anything resembling a livable minimum wage or expanding overtime pay), or if consumer prices rise dramatically due to Trump’s inflationary fiscal and protectionist trade policies, people may well feel the pain sooner rather than later.

Perhaps Trump, in all his deal-making brilliance, can buck the lessons of recent history and somehow make trickle-down economics work–I am highly skeptical. Even if he can, there are still the long-term ramifications of his economic agenda, which would outweigh any immediate benefits.

By greatly increasing the deficit—a certainty if his economic vision is implemented–Trump is pursuing the tried and failed “starve the beast” strategy. “Starve the beast” is a political strategy to cut taxes to deprive the federal government of revenue, in a deliberate effort to force it to reduce future spending.

Starving the beast is very dangerous; reducing “fiscal space” compromises the Government’s ability to respond to future economic downturns with stimulus spending to offset lower private sector demand. It also does not work–critical, broadly popular programs end up being financed through increased deficit spending. When push comes to shove, politicians will not risk losing support and widespread social instability in the name of fiscal responsibility.

But starving the beast can lead to underinvestment in certain areas by artificially creating a budgetary squeeze. Public R&D and investments in human capital development / productivity improvement are generally not considered “critical”, in that there are no immediate consequences for cutting them. Therefore, when budgets are tight, these are often the first programs on the chopping block. Such cuts erode America’s innovative capacity, compromising long-term economic growth.

National Security: Syria, the Islamic State and Beyond

No one knows exactly what course of action Trump will ultimately take with Syria, but we can make an educated guess based on his past comments. Trump has praised Saddam Hussein for being “good at killing terrorists“. He looks to improve relations with Vladimir Putin, Assad’s strongest backer. Most tellingly, Trump has said he will prioritize fighting the IS over fighting Assad. Taken together, these factors strongly suggest Trump will stop opposing Assad, if not directly support him in the fight against the IS.

In the short-run, backing Assad could make America safer by bringing stability to Syria, allowing the international community to focus on defeating the IS. Of course this strategy could also backfire by giving more fuel to anti-American parties in region, attracting more international terrorist attacks and inspiring domestic lone-wolf attackers.

But let’s just say, for arguments sake, that the IS already considers the U.S. its primary enemy, and is already doing all it can to attack America. Even if this is true, Trump’s strategy is still flawed. By failing to consider the root causes of the current instability of the Middle East—poor, unaccountable governance—Trump’s strategy will exacerbate the regions problems and create new ones.

In the long-run, not opposing Assad will embolden others to follow his playbook for staying in power at any cost. Rollbacks in human rights and governance will create future civil wars, resulting in power vacuums. From these power vacuums new terrorists groups will emerge, threatening America’s safety (with even more fodder for anti-U.S. propaganda). The only people this strategy will ultimately benefit are those who profit from the military-industrial complex. Humanitarian spending will also continue to rise from already historic levels if Trump abandons preventative peacebuilding through trade, development aid, and democratic capacity building in favor of aligning with dictators.

To be fair, when it comes to the Syrian Civil War, there are no good options. There are, however, worse options. Based on what he has said, and who he has nominated to be his national security adviser, Trump seems primed to pursue these worse options.

The Marks of a True Leader

All politicians must balance short-term needs with longer-term considerations. Focus too much on the long-run, and people will suffer in the short-run–to quote John Maynard Keynes, “in the long-run, we’re all dead”. But when it comes to Donald Trump, who has shown himself to be especially thin-skinned (constantly alleging media bias, demanding apologies from Broadway actors, attacking comedic parodies on SNL), whose main consideration has seemingly always been status and popularity, one can only imagine how greatly he will discount any future damage his policies might cause in order to look good now.

It is one thing to have policies not meet their intended long-term goals due to unanticipated consequences or unforeseeable changes in the world. But in the case of Trump’s proposed policies, the writing is right there on the wall. It is not that the Obama administration did not consider these “fixes”, it is that their negative consequences were deemed to be too great.

The other shoe will drop–it is a question of when, not if. Trump is counting on the negative consequences occurring on someone else’s watch, when they will be someone else’s problem. But what if they occur sooner than expected, while he is still in power? Well, there’s a scapegoat for that, and Trump has already proven himself to be a master scapegoater.

True leadership requires finding the right balance between short-term needs and longer-term considerations. It requires thick-skin, and the willingness to do what is right even when it is not popular. A good leader owns up to their failures and learns from their mistakes–there is not an ounce of accountability or introspection in Donald Trump.

Leaders can also benefit from a strong team with diverse opinions—people who challenge their views in order to create more robust, sustainable solutions. Throughout his campaign, Trump said he would appoint the best team possible to make up for his lack of governing experience. Looking at Trump’s current Cabinet nominees, I see mostly self-serving yes-men.

Based on these (and most other) definitions of leadership, President-elect Trump seems to be the furthest thing from a true leader imaginable.

It is important to identify and call out Trump’s shortsighted strategy now. People will point to immediate successes, should they come to pass, as vindication of his policy choices and governing style. Such celebrations would be premature.