It is now nearly ten months since Donald Trump took up the reins of power in Washington. It is fair to say that this has been the oddest, and perhaps the most disturbing period since Watergate. Mr. Trump and his associates have been busy philosophizing with hammers, speaking as if they were making the word of their agenda flesh, but governing with a mixture of bluster and indecision. Even their Republican colleagues have not been insensible to the twilight that has fallen on the idols of American politics. But those willing to speak out on the topic have done so in the process of departing either political life (Senators Corker and Flake) or this mortal coil (Senator McCain).
The vagaries and vicissitudes of the Trump era, as in all periods of tumult, have brought forth power feelings of nostalgia. These are not limited to one particular segment of the political spectrum. Rather, there is a general feeling abroad in the land that, much as Americans have been wont to talk about the situation of their country in apocalyptic terms, the situation even recently was distinctly better than they are now. In just what way they were better is in the eye of the beholder, and whether they, in fact, were this way at some point in the past remains an open question.
From the rightward end of the spectrum, one often hears the view that Mr. Trump’s great failing is his insistence on dividing the American people. Senator Flake, the erstwhile junior senator from Arizona complained (in a speech heralding his departure from the Senate), that Mr. Trump’s exaltation of Americans’ worst impulses is “glorifying things which divide us.” While these things are true of the current administration, Senator Flake’s assertion that these things are new conveniently overlooks the degree to which these have been, to one extent or another, the characteristics of his own party roughly since the end of Eisenhower’s presidency.
Mr. Flake too easily forgets that his party’s response to Mr. Obama, the bulk of whose legislative agenda would not have seemed out of place during the Reagan administration, was steadfast refusal of the “here I stand, God help me, I can do no other” variety. Indeed, the Republican party has been devoid anything approximating a positive political agenda since at least the days of Clinton when, their policy proposals having been appropriated (or perhaps expropriated) by an Arkansas Democrat, they resorted to a strategy of scandal-mongering and impeachment flimsy and contentious even by the normal standards of political calumny in this country. The level of contumely directed by Republicans at Mr. Clinton’s frankly repugnant conduct toward women now seems particularly ironic given their willingness to pass over Mr. Trump’s paeans to sexual assault.
From the other end of the political spectrum comes an even more peculiar project of rehabilitation: that of the Bush Dynasty. There are few presidents of whom Americans were so glad to see the back as George W. Bush. On September 12, 2001, popular opinion so favored Mr. Bush that he could have called the country (and the world) together in a unified crusade against practically any political, social, or economic problem, or any of the shocks to which human flesh is heir. By the time of his departure from office in January 2009, with the financial crisis in full swing and the US economy on the verge of cratering, the electorate was ready to see him ridden out of town on a rail inscribed with the word “hope”. In between, Mr. Bush and his associates contrived to bungle the hunt for Osama bin Laden, engage in an invasion of Iraq that was (in terms of dollars but more importantly of lives) both wholly needless and fantastically costly, and erode or destroy much of what remained of the privacy of American citizens and their right to oversee the security apparatus of their own government.
Now, at least according to one recent poll, 51% of Democrats hold at least somewhat favorable views of the younger Bush. Indeed, the family has been much in the news. Bush the Younger betook himself to deliver a speech in which he decried “nationalism distorted into nativism” and “discourse degraded into casual cruelty,” for which Mr. Trump (although not mentioned by name) was responsible. It was one of those speeches of the political afterlife that can be delivered without the slightest political cost and with no prospect whatever of concrete political effect. Not to be left out, Bush the Elder managed to involve himself in the sexual harassment scandal rippling outward from Harvey Weinstein.
The latter, not surprisingly, rather worked at cross purposes with the former. Still, it did little to slow the return of Bush the Younger into the comity of civilized American political life. There is an important difference between someone who evinces clownish tendencies and someone who is actually a clown. While faces may have descended into palms at Mr. Bush’s warnings not to “misunderestimate” him, this is still a world away from disgorging louche party stories in front of a Boy Scout Jamboree, or engaging in persistent, ill-tempered Twitter spats with the passionate intensity of a caffeine-addled adolescent.
The era since the Second World War has all too often disproved F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous line about there being “no second acts in American lives.” The history of these decades, both in the United States and elsewhere, is studded with instances in which those once fallen and discredited have reemerged little the worse for wear. If Joe Strummer exaggerated somewhat when he wrote that, “If Adolf Hitler flew in today / They’d send a limousine anyway,” it was nonetheless the case that Hans Globke hardly broke a sweat finessing his work on the Nazi-era Nuremberg Laws on his way to a position in Adenauer’s postwar government. More recently, Hillary Clinton certainly showed no undue squeamishness in courting Henry Kissinger for the role of éminence grise, even though a man with his record might more reasonably have been expected to be answering for his conduct before the ICC in the Hague.
This is a clear illustration of the widening ethical gyre of the modern Democratic Party. It is currently experiencing one of those moments specific to mass political parties that do not represent a particular class fraction. There is a movement afoot to try to move the party in what some are pleased to call a “progressive” direction. By the current standards of American politics, the weak beer socialism of Bernie Sanders gives the appearance of a truly radical departure from the status quo, and it is into this particular channel that the more activistic subset of those inclined to remain within, or attached to, the Democrats have flowed. For the bovine masses of the party, running rightward from Sanders and clustering heavily around the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Claire McCaskill, Joe Manchin, and the spectral remnants of the Blue Dog Coalition, the desire is for a return to the era when politics could be safely ignored or imagined along the lines of an episode of The West Wing.
The conundrum of American politics at this point is that there is really no direction for the discerningly disengaged politician to tack toward safety. Normally, one would hope to move into the void left behind when one’s political opponents lurched in some outward direction. But, in the case of the modern Republican Party, it’s not so much that they’ve lurched to the right (although they have) but that they’ve headed for a region of the lunatic fringe which defies the chameleon-like tendencies of even the most unprincipled Democrats. The coin of the realm thus far has been to argue that one’s opponent has failed to live up to some core American value. Now the standard is that, if one is prepared to promise to cut the capital gains tax rate to single digits, everything, from overt sympathy for the Ku Klux Klan to an avowed desire to make The Handmaid’s Tale a reality, is in play.
Beginning in the 1990s, the Democrats tried, with great success at points, simply to co-opt moderate Republicanism by claiming the views of the Republican left wing as their own. This they can no longer do, in no small part because the left wing of the Republican Party no longer exists. Any further tacking to the right by Democrats loses them the support of their traditional constituents (non-whites and the vestiges of the trade union movement) without significant prospect of compensating gains among that now most fantastic of beasts: moderate conservatives. Experience has shown that the mantle of populism can be used by one party or the other, but not by both at the same time. Mr. Trump’s approach has been to employ the flag-draped, intensely xenophobic version. This he has done to such spectacular effect that the (white) denizens of the lower third of the income distribution now see him as some combination of a long lost brother and the messiah.
If advanced in the winter of 2008-9, the proposition that George W. Bush would someday be viewed with equanimity (much less nostalgia) by Democrats would have been met with ridicule. But he has now assumed the position of the devil that one knows. He and his associates wrought havoc on the institutions of the republic, but they did not, in the end, manage to destroy it. For Mr. Trump, by contrast, the future is unwritten, but his efforts in the direction of converting the United States into an openly white supremacist kleptocracy must give even the most soulless of moderate Democrats pause. It is as if the pendulum of the clock of state has broken from its traverse between left and right and shot off into the night sky. Neither Democrats nor Republicans can predict when, or if, it will return to earth, or whether it will ever revert to the old patterns the seemed so settled in the last half of the 20th century. But while the latter can rest assured that lower taxes and higher interest rates will make their portfolios grow, or hope that an America made great once again will provide a platform for an improvement in their economic condition, the former are adrift on a stormy sea, hoping that the villains of the past will be the heroes of today for the preservation of the future.
Photograph courtesy of Dan Lacey. Published under a Creative Commons license.