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Columnists

Trump Was a Historical Necessity – We Must Learn from It

December 30, 2020
By Ambassador Patrick N. Theros

The liberal economic order made America the most powerful, richest, and freest country on the face of the Earth. We all believe that, no? And yet by running against the liberal economic order Donald Trump mobilized widespread resentment to win the Presidency once and almost won a second time. Trump exploited the fact that a lot of Americans did not share equally in that world-leading progress in the 20th century. Trump also figured out that scapegoating ‘outsiders’ – pick one: blacks, immigrants, Hispanics, ‘moral deviants’ however described – makes for better campaign slogans than pitching solutions.  He followed a playbook written by demagogues throughout history to upend democracy and grab power. In fact, Trump outdid those demagogues; he persuaded voters to fear healthcare programs that keep their families healthy and out of the poorhouse. We are lucky that, as a wannabe dictator, Trump proved incompetent at pulling it off.  If we leave these issues unaddressed, we might not be so lucky when (not if) the next demagogue comes along.

We were raised on the mantra of ‘up by your bootstraps’ and America as the ‘land of opportunity” but never noticed that it no longer works the same way as when my Dad disembarked at Ellis Island in 1913. We have morphed into toxic individualists who reject responsibility for the well being of our fellow citizens and listen to economists who glibly argue that a 60-year-old guy who had been working 25 years at an auto assembly line in Ohio could pick up and take a job as a computer programmer in California. We have no real social safety net. Our social safety net actually produces worse outcomes. For example, U.S. income redistribution through taxes and transfers to reduce income inequality – the great boogeyman of the right wing – actually makes it worse. In 2018, the US ranked 8th in poverty levels among the 35 richest countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) BEFORE taxes and transfers and 25th AFTER taxes and transfers. 

That message resonates loudest when the person heading down the economic ladder sees others heading up. Seeing that your kids do not have much of a chance to move up the ladder only deepens the resentment. The United States has no effective program to retrain workers displaced by change. We spend more on education per capita than any other country in the world yet score in the bottom fifth of OECD countries in educational achievement. This, of course, does not apply to wealthy kids who can afford private education from K to 12 and prestige universities (or middle class kids who risk bankruptcy for a chance to get up the ladder). Once upon a time, we led the world in social mobility (the likelihood that young people will be better off than their parents), now, we rank 27th among OECD countries.

On January 20th President Biden will assume responsibility for a country devastated by a plague whose horrific costs in deaths and ruined lives was made worse by an incompetent demagogue. Biden also inherits a fractured society riven by that same demagogue’s campaign to fan hatred and convince a significant population that he was cheated out of a win. Trump has tried to wreak as much damage as possible to foil Biden’s attempts to rebuild the economy and the country in hopes that this will facilitate his comeback in 2024. To pull it off Trump needs his partisans in the Senate led by Senator Mitch McConnell to make Biden fail. If McConnell and his caucus choose the Tea-Party Infused Trumpican route they can certainly sabotage any economic recovery even if the Democrats flip the two seats in Georgia. With a small majority, McConnell can block any bill or appointment the Democrats move to the Senate. Even with a fifty-fifty split, McConnell can use the filibuster or other procedural tricks to block progress. He could force Biden to take unpopular actions such as ending the filibuster for good or wielding executive orders that might not survive McConnell’s handpicked Supreme Court. McConnell may legitimately fear that cooperating with Biden could undermine Trumpican base support and hand the Democrats a real majority in the 2022 off-year elections and a victory in 2024.

On the other hand, McConnell knows that Biden has a couple of cards of his own to play. Biden could easily take a page out of Truman’s 1948 campaign running against the ‘do-nothing’ Republican Congress that ended with Truman handing the GOP its lunch across the board that year. McConnell also is well aware that with thirty-two years in the Senate, Biden knows where every skeleton is buried, who slept with someone other than his wife and every trick in the parliamentary book. If anyone can subvert a Republican senator who desperately needs to fix bridges in his state, Joe Biden can. Furthermore, does McConnell really want another Trump Presidency considering the way our current Leader just humiliated him?

Much of the burden for ensuring success rests in the capacity of the younger elements of the Democratic Party to show patience. They must recognize that while their demands are legitimate and for the good of the country, they have a better shot of achieving them if they give Biden a chance to work the Senate. They must also consider that social equality walks hand in hand with economic equality and work to achieve both. They should not forget that counties that prospered during Trump’s administration voted for Biden while those that got poorer voted for Trump. Trump opened our eyes by exploiting our mistakes and vulnerabilities; we need to show that we have learned that lesson.

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