When Trump’s Presidency Began to Fail

When did the Trump presidency begin to fail?

I think it began at his inauguration. His speech was delivered in a monotone of acceptable platitudes by a man who neither believed nor understood what he was saying. From then on, we witnessed, a succession of events proclaimed as great achievements, that failed in delivering what they promised.

He promised accelerated economic growth and claimed he produced it, but the data say otherwise. GDP grew no better than in years past. Jobs grew, but at a slower rate, and almost entirely at the low end of pay with no benefits. There was all time low unemployment among Blacks and Hispanics, but too many jobs were part time and low paying. There was some improvement in middle class income, but not enough to celebrate. Steel and aluminum did not come back. Large manufacturing plants did not reopen. Coal declined more rapidly. The soaring stock market seemed more disconnected than ever from the basics of the nation’s economic health. It brought record paper wealth to those with substantial funds to invest, but not much to anyone else. Trump supporters bragged about the growth of their 401k plans, but they used macro data, not their own, and few had plans worth much.

He promised restoration of America’s standing in the world, asserting that it had become weak and ineffectual. Was that true? In his mind it was. But his forays into global diplomacy embarrassed us, alienated long standing allies, emboldened leaders hostile to the U.S., and isolated America from conversations affecting world trade and peace. Whether he made progress in the parts of the Middle East remains to be seen.

He advertised a new health plan better than the ACA. It was always just two weeks ahead, but never materialized. In the meantime, he did what he could to kill the ACA, stripping people of the limited protection it afforded. In that, like most other initiatives, he did not succeed.

The border wall that Mexico would pay for was a key campaign promise. He worked hard to make it happen. Mexico, of course, paid nothing, but monies stripped from defense appropriations were diverted to the project, and he got some funds from Congress too. The result? Not much. What there is turned out to be easily breached. The whole thing was based on fear of the nation being overrun by hordes of undesirable invading immigrants. Were there hordes at the border? Not hordes, but thousands, most seeking asylum. What we know from their predecessors is that they would be hard working, honest, and contributors to society. But they didn’t speak English, had brown skin, and lacked an American education. It was a white nationalist appeal that included draconian incarceration measures antithetical to everything America stands for.

His signature tax cut was supposed to stimulate job creation and industrial investment. It would pay for itself, he claimed. It did nothing for jobs or investment, it mostly benefitted the very wealthy, and it exploded the deficit and debt for no useful purpose.

He declared America First as he bailed out of multinational trade and environmental negotiations, and slapped tariffs against unfair competitors. He wasn’t wrong about unfair trade, but his tariff wars undermined our export economy, especially agriculture. He never did understand that China was not paying the tariffs, American consumers were. What’s more, China blinked once, looked the other way, and continued expanding its economic powerhouse with little notice of Trump’s jabs. He scuttled NAFTA as the worst deal ever, then renegotiated it with minor changes and called it a victory.

Korea was heralded as the breakthrough of the century. It turned out to be a brief floor show at which Kim had a great time making Trump look foolish. When Kim had enough, he went home to continue business as usual.

Little need be said about his leadership in the COVID pandemic.

Throughout his four years in the White House, he produced a daily stream of falsehoods creating a make-believe reality that his most devoted followers believed with all their hearts. He held 126 rallies celebrating it, during which he encouraged followers to violence against their supposed enemies. Who were the enemies? Anyone not among his followers, radical leftist socialists all.

Though he and his closest advisers claim it to have been the most successful presidency ever, the reality was a trail of failure leaving destroyed lives in its wake. A surprise? Maybe not – it was consistent with the trail of failures and destroyed lives he had left behind in his private life. Did he create anything of lasting endurance? Sadly, yes. He created an anti-democratic, white nationalist movement of ardent believers numbering in the millions. Not the 70 million plus who voted for him in 2020. Most of them, I suspect, will regret their votes, and shamefacedly declare they never really knew him. But there may yet be millions who will not easily turn away from the authoritarian white nationalist paradise he promised. He may soon be gone, but the promise remains.

I offer none of this as condemnation of Trump. He has been a consistent performer, well known to the public, who did not change his ways from private life to public. Who knows? In his mind maybe he really does think he was a good president. He still thinks he was a great business success. Sadly for him, and maybe lucky for the nation, the only tools he had to work with were in his bag of flimflam tricks he’d used all his life as he built the Walter Mitty world of make-believe he lives in. If there is condemnation to be meted out, it is to otherwise competent voters who fell for his hucksterism and thought, in spite of his track record, this time he might be selling a really good thing. Even greater condemnation falls to those who saw an opportunity to solidify their version of democracy as a small cadre of the right kind of people running the nation, and believed they could use Trump to make it happen.

Reflections on Insurrection Wednesday

Like others, I feel compelled to write about the events of this past week, yet am reluctant because it’s difficult to wrap my head around them.  Maybe you feel the same.  As usual, everything revolved around Trump, and it’s impossible to reflect on the week without reflecting on him.  He entered the week as the same Trump he’s always been.  There was nothing new to see.  He continued his claims of a fraudulent election based, as he admitted in his infamous Georgia phone call, on rumors and the amplified echoes of his own words coming back to him through right wing media sources.  In his customary fashion, he rallied his troops to assemble on January 6 at the Capitol and fight to overturn the election.  We know what happened.  Two days later, again in customary fashion, he deadpanned a video disowning the violence while falsely claiming to have immediately sent the National Guard to restore order.  It was a classic Trump move to deflect blame and create an exhibit for possible future use in his defense at trial.  We’ve always known his loyalty is to no one but himself.  What he has done to countless aides and subordinates, he did to the entire mob that had assembled at his request.  Will they abandon him as he’s abandoned them?

Trump may be on the way out, but what troubles me more is the deeply rooted conviction among his followers that he has been the president of their hopes and dreams, restoring America to a figment of their imagination, and saving it from being overrun by the wrong sort of people.  They have believed, in their heart of hearts, that the election was rigged against him, saturated with fraud, and that a count of “legal” ballots would declare him the winner by an overwhelming majority.  Their evidence was the closed echo chamber of right wing propaganda outlets, the same echo chamber that Trump himself lives in.  They believe that “we the people” created a more perfect union. They believe in government by the people, for the people and of the people.  Who, though, are the people?  Many who were interviewed at the scene of the Wednesday insurrection said they believed that they are “we the people” who are here to defend America against radical socialists intent on destroying America, confiscating guns, taking away personal liberties, and promoting immoral behavior.   It’s a world view deeply held, against all verifiable evidence to the contrary, by millions of Americans.

Sadly for me as a priest in the tradition of classical Christianity, it’s a world view adhered to by a large swath of conservative evangelicals who claim to be Christian.  Various surveys estimate that 76% of white evangelicals supported Trump’s candidacy.  Some think he’s God’s agent to restore America as a Christian nation, governed by socially conservative “biblical” principles, on which they believe the nation was founded.  It matters not that his character is flawed, it only matters that he endorsed evangelical social policies.  It matters not that Christian texts, tradition and scholarship are in sharp disagreement with them.  From their point of view, they are the sole proprietors of correct Christian thinking.  They looked to Trump to be their benefactor, and for a while, he was.  They will not give up what we now call Trumpism when he’s gone.  They’ll simply look for a new, more capable benefactor, one to whom they can pledge their loyalty with greater confidence.  There are many to choose from, and they’re already auditioning for the part. 

Secular and religious believers in Trumpism may be strange bedfellows, but they’re in agreement that they alone are the ones who are “we the people.”  All others are not “we the people.”  They, as “we the people,” are the only ones whose votes should count, whose candidates should govern, and who get to set the terms and conditions for who can be an American.  They believe the nation should be governed by their rules alone, enforced by the candidates they alone elect.  We saw abundant evidence of that mindset in videos recorded in and around the Capitol during the Wednesday insurrection. “We the people” was boldly chanted.  One of my right wing contacts asserted their right to invade the Capitol because it is the people’s house, and the Trump crowd were the rightful claimants to be “the people.”  He was equally certain that those protesting racial and economic injustices over the summer are not rightful claimants to be “the people.”  They are the enemy of “the people.”  It’s plain for him to see, and others are blind if they don’t see it too.

Trumpians are unable to see or understand that the road they’ve chosen is not to freedom, but to oligarchical authoritarianism, fascism if you will.   They are unable to see or understand that they are merely fodder for the benefit of other, cagier, more resourceful people.  It’s been asked often how we’ve come to this place.  How could such an anti American world view gain so many adherents and so much power in such a short time?   How could they have so easily hijacked the label of patriotism? I’ve tried to poke at a few answers in previous columns.  The underlying truth is that they’v always been there.  They’ve been relatively quiet since the end of WWII, but they were there.  Surrounded by a larger, more liberal public, they knew their views were intolerable in the eyes of neighbors and national leaders. They saw the ignoble fall of Faubus, Wallace, Goldwater and the like.  They chaffed at the adulation given to King.  It was OK to make their voices heard among a few friends over a beer, but they didn’t have the critical mass to go public.  That changed with the tea party movement, partly created by oligarchs who thought they could control it.  They couldn’t.  Trump gave them permission and opportunity to shake off all restraint.  Like genies out of the bottle, or toothpaste out of the tube, they will not willingly go back into their containers.  

That may be a good thing.  We now know how fragile our democracy is, and how hard we need to work to keep it.  It’s work that includes restoration of opportunities for economic well being, first benefitting those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.  It means teaching a more complete version of America’s story that doesn’t shy away from challenging things like slavery, conquest of Indian lands, oppression of immigrants, etc.  It means doing that without demeaning the stories that celebrate our achievements and ideals.  

For the Christian Church, it means boldly reclaiming the name of Christian by even more boldly proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the moral precepts guiding his followers in the way of love.  It means working for justice that will restore wholeness of community by naming the sin, and committing to repentance and atonement.

Liberals Have a Problem with Elitism: it’s not necessary

Liberals have a problem with elitism in the words and actions of some vocal, well-meaning people.  They undermine programs that otherwise have broad appeal among a large majority of Americans.  Some decades ago they were called Limousine Liberals: wealthy do gooders who had it easy in life.  They were mocked for the way they swooped down to do good things for pathetic unfortunates, then soared back to their estates where they held balls celebrating their good works.  Cartoonish, I know, but not without reason.  It didn’t go unnoticed by the recipients of their largesse that their benefactors looked down on them, with pity, that the unwashed needy were not as good, nor as capable, and would never amount to much unless helped by their betters. 

Curiously, wealthy benefactors who celebrate themselves for their generosity are seldom liberals.  I’m reminded of one whom I knew well.  He underwrote an education program to place gifted ESL students in colleges of his choice.   To qualify, students had to agree to speak only English, except in the privacy of their homes, take his prescribed classes, and learn his definition of Americanism.  Racist to the core, he was determined to fashion a new generation of potential leaders from south of the border into his right thinking conservative white ‘man’s’ ways.  He was a one man version of what the nation had for a century tried to do to young American Indians through the infamous Indian Schools.  He knew that, believed the schools were on target, and we gave up on them too soon. 

It may be an extreme example, but it represents a historical mindset that has ebbed and flowed throughout American history from its earliest colonial times.  Moreover, wealth and limousines are not required for some version of the mindset to be exhibited.  Too many liberals are unable or unwilling to identify with, be among, and recognize the equality of those whom their agendas are intended to benefit.  Even recognizing equality is problematic when the measure of equality is dictated by those who assume their values are the standard to which others should aspire.  Some of my liberal friends mean well in every way, but it comes off as if they think those whom they would defend or benefit can’t do it for themselves.  I confess I sometimes fall into that trap.  It’s so easy to do.  As a pastor, I’m reminded that Jesus lived among those he came to heal as one of them.  He ate and drank with persons in all walks of life, as one who truly knew, loved, and called them friends.  Yes, he also called them to new and better way of life, but without a trace of the superiority that he alone had a right to claim.  

When I was in high school (a long time ago), our social studies teacher, Mr. Hobson, had creative ways to teach about government.  He organized our class as a legislative body, with students self selected as conservatives on one side of the room facing liberals on the other side, with independents forming a bridge at one end.  Students came from a broad range of economic classes with a plurality from lower middle income families.  The liberal students laid out an agenda to dedicate more resources for the poorest and least capable in the community.  They meant well, but conservative students objected that the poorest were not, therefore, less capable, and should be left alone to make it on their own.  Both were right.  More resources were needed.  It’s all but impossible to make it on your own without resources.  But it’s arrogant and wrong to assert the poor are less capable than others.  That’s a lot of wisdom shown by a bunch of young teenagers, none of whom lived on estates or rode in limousines.  It’s a lesson I’ve been pondering for over sixty years. 

Today’s liberal agenda, about which few liberals can agree, recognizes that government is the necessary tool for creating conditions in which the nation can prosper.  It starts with devoting adequate resources needed by the lowest economic strata to raise their incomes and open doors to greater mobility.  It advocates creation and maintenance of the complex infrastructure that enables our technologically advanced society to function: assuring that its parts operate safely, without discrimination, and with concern for the future of the environment.  Health, education, housing, transportation, and civil rights are critical elements of its domestic side.  Mutually beneficial relationships with other nations, and a global policy defending and promoting liberal ideals are pillars of its foreign side.  It is less concerned with defense of American territory, and more concerned with defense of American intellectual property and cyber security.  It is the antithesis of right wing howling about radical socialism and Marxist ideology, but making that clear may be a lost cause.    

It will succeed or fail depending on how well liberals can avoid the trap of perceived elitism that right wingers are eager to turn against them.  The final irony being that right wing leadership has no sympathy with ordinary people, and believe themselves to be best suited to rule without the messy processes of democracy.   

Conservative is Good– Liberal is Bad: the operating assumption of middle and rural America

Conservative is good and liberal is bad, at least that appears to be the accepted rule throughout much of middle and rural America.  It seems to be something that grew out of the Reagan years from soil and seed fertilized by civil rights and anti-war movements.  In earlier years, what was conservative or liberal formed a sort of political succotash on both sides of the legislative aisle.  From Reagan on, a deep gully was dug by laissez-faire political operatives: conservative was labeled good and isolated on the right side, liberal was labeled bad and isolated on the left side; and rickety bridges between the two were rigged to collapse if too much was asked of them.  

There are some common assumptions underlying the rule of good and bad.  Conservative claims to mean lower taxes, smaller government, and limited regulation of (my) business.  That’s good.  Liberal means high taxes, wasteful public spending, big government, and out of control regulation.  That’s bad.  Candidates who claim conservative credentials run on platforms echoing the basic assumptions without offering evidence or workable plans.  Candidates on the other side promise to address issues of social and economic inequity, regulate abusive practices that burden citizens and the environment, which would obviously cost a lot of tax money.  One side could easily claim to be conservatively good, while the other side had a hard time explaining why they weren’t tax and spend socialists.  It goes without conservative notice that the economy generally does better on the liberal watch, with deficits and debt held in check.  Government tends to gets bigger under conservative stewardship, while deficits and debt soar.  Few believe it.

Reagan style conservatives had a simple, effective strategy for strangling social and economic programs they defined as liberal, and therefore bad.  Cut taxes, primarily for the rich, and increase defense spending, with no intention of paying for either.  It would drive up national deficit and debt so when liberals were in power  no funds would be available for their programs. Conservatives could pretend to be worried about deficits and debt, demanding draconian cuts in social programs, and accusing tax raising liberals of being soft on defense  It’s worked well for over 30 years, and Republicans in 2021 are confident it will continue to work. 

There’s a popular conservative platitude that a person can make better use of his/her own money than the government can, so lower taxes are always better.  As a friend once said, “He’s promising lower taxes; that’s a no brainer; who wouldn’t want lower taxes?”  It’s a platitude that deliberately overlooks the need for collective investment in the public good.  It doesn’t deny the need for public education, transportation infrastructure, public safety, etc., but it is unwilling to admit taxes, equitably imposed, are investments with handsome returns providing a better quality of life for all, and greater opportunity for individual success.  Oddly enough, higher marginal tax rates at the top end can spark economic growth that increases personal income at the low end while reducing budget deficits and national debt.  Tax cuts accruing to corporations and the very wealthy are just as likely to do the reverse.  The data are incontrovertible, but will never convince a dedicated conservative.

The second platitude: smaller government is better government.  It’s easy to make fun of bloated, plodding bureaucratic government because there’s some truth to it.  Reorientation toward customer service would go far in making government more efficient and easier to work with, but that’s for another time.  The small government gambit is disinterested in a more efficient, customer friendly bureaucracy.  It wants a government too small to do anything but provide for defense and assure that business is as free as possible to do as it likes.  Social and economic problems are matters to be worked out by individuals acting in their own self interest while voluntarily cooperating together as they see fit.  The greater good, if there is such a thing, is merely the sum total of self interests.  It ignores the complexity of interdependent systems that make up the physical, social and economic fabric through which the nation functions.  It’s a fabric that requires constant maintenance and improvement to keep pace with societal change.  Small governments and voluntary associations were never up to the challenge, not even on the frontier.  People needed the federal government to divvy up the land forcibly taken from American Indians, keep them safe, underwrite railroads and telegraph lines, and make rivers navigable.  Farmers and ranchers needed a big federal government to protect them from predatory big business.  The public needed a big federal government to guarantee that foods and drugs were safe.  Bigness in government has never been a problem.  Inefficiencies and poor customer service have been.

The third and most enduring platitude: less regulation is better.  Scare mongering raises the specter of a tyrannical federal government regulating every aspect of personal life.  Curiously, the expansion of civil liberties is often labeled as intruding on the rights of some people to deny the same rights to others.  More important to the less regulation crowd, is relief from federal oversight of the way they do business.  There is some merit to their case.  Repetitive paper work, filled in and sent off month after month gets tiring and seems pointless.  On the other hand, business practices have a long history of ignoring public health and safety, including the health and safety of workers, beyond the bare minimum required of it.  Required by who?  By federal laws and regulations.  When the nation, as a whole, decides that it wants to provide greater, less restricted opportunities for more people, to protect the environment from needless degradation, to assure public health and safety, and to see that business is conducted honestly and responsibly, it can do so only through the power of its government.

These trite platitudes of the conservative creed cannot bear up under close examination, but they’re deeply rooted in the minds of many citizens who will never examine them, and are believed as a tenet of faith that they represent the good of what it means to say conservative is good, and liberal is bad.  While most will readily admit that individual items on the liberal agenda are desirable, they’re convinced the undeserving who’ve not worked for them will benefit more than they will, so it’s better to get nothing.  They’ve been sold that common sense, every day proposals to improve education, provide universal health care, and fix the infrastructure, are radical left wing schemes.  In the name of democracy, they’re willing to obstruct the will of the people by authoritarian means.  

A dramatic change of minds is unlikely.  Maybe it’s best to elect enough liberal legislators and leadership to enact laws and regulations that will help create the economic and social benefits conservatives really want, and just let them complain about the better life they have.  Some won’t be happy that women and people of color will have more opportunity for greater success, but that’s life.  In the process, some hard nosed reform of the bureaucracy would go a long way toward reducing suspicion of government.