We are a week into the Trump Presidency, and it is taking shape more rapidly than any since Franklin Roosevelt's. That is no accident: both men took office in the midst of a great crisis or Fourth Turning, as described and predicted by Bill Strauss and Neil Howe about 25 years ago. Both represent the death of an old political order and both are determined fundamentally to reshape America. This has excited some Americans and worried a great many others, especially in the blue states. As usual, I find my own feelings to be quite different from those of many others. We are just beginning the rule of Trump, but I would lay to lay the groundwork for future analyses with some observations.
1. Talk that Trump "is not my President" is silly--unless one wants to secede from the union. Whatever your politics, if you are an American citizen you have one and one president at all times, and right now, he is it. He was clearly elected, albeit without a plurality of the popular vote. (We have no idea, by the way, how he and Clinton would have done if they had actually been competing for the popular vote of the whole nation, and we never will.) He is legally exercising the powers of his office, which are indeed very broad. He also disposes of friendly Congressional majorities, just as Obama did in 2009.
Now the Republicans clearly intend to undo as much as they can of the last 85 years of American government. Much of the New Deal is already gone. The SEC does not effectively regulate markets and the NLRB has not been able to protect the rights of labor for some time. Antitrust laws, which the New Deal vigorously enforced, have been a dead letter for quite a while, and the government is not an employer of last resort. Social Security (which was significantly increased under Nixon) and Medicare, which is 50 years old, may be severely modified. The Republicans have announced plans to eliminate agencies such as the National Endowment of the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, which, frankly, serve Democratic constituencies. There is also talk of abolishing the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, although I am pretty sure that was established by law in the 1950s and I can't imagine that even this Congress would abolish it by law. They also plan a new round of budget-busting tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.
Now like it or not--and I certainly don't--the Republicans have used our Democratic processes to reach the position from which they can actually make these things happen. It is characteristic of fourth turnings that engaged people stop caring about process and start caring about outcomes. Lincoln used implied war powers to do unprecedented things during the Civil War. FDR was prepared if necessary to proclaim a dictatorship when he took office, and said so in his inaugural address. He was also ready, at one key point, to defy a Supreme Court decision if it did not go his way. On the other side, the Confederacy, of course, took up arms to defy the Constitution of the US, and many elements of American society viewed FDR as anathema. Those of us who still believe in our democracy, however--it seems to me--must not deny the Republicans the right to put their beliefs into practice. That is how democracy is supposed to work, and that is how I hope new Democratic leadership will make it work when and if they have secured majorities. Like Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, Trump will probably try to stretch executive power beyond the law, but the courts and Congress successfully restrained those men, and they still provide legal rccourse now. But much of what Trump wants to do--including, sadly, the deportation of immigrants--is well within our legal traditions, and ardently supported by large parts of our populaton.
And let's be frank: the Democratic side of the fence is particular vulnerable because it has won some of its greatest victories in the last 70 years or so not through the legislative process, but through the courts. Brown vs. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, and Oberkfell v. Hodges were three decisions that reshaped important areas of American life without consulting the electorate or the national legislature. Now I happen to believe that the legal case at least for Brown and Oberkfell was very strong--even if I would have preferred to see Oberkfell decided on equal protection grounds--but at least the first two of those decisions have probably mobilized more voters in opposition to them than on their behalf. And that is a big reason for the political mess in which we find ourselves today.
"The only cure for the ills of democracy," a great governor of the early twentieth century frequently said, "is more democracy," and I agree. In blue America, in academia, and in the major media the principles behind tehse decisions are regarded as sacrosanct and unchallengeable. But the inhabitants of the red states are citizens too, and they have elected leaders who have never accepted some or all of those decisions.
2. Partly because of the attitudes I discussed in (1), the breakup of the country, or violence between the federal government and local authorities, has now become a possibility. Immigration is the flash point here. It is, of course, disgraceful that Republicans have for so long refused to do anything to legalize the status of millions of immigrants who are actively contributing to our society and who have lived here for at least a generation. Yet if we believe in the rule of law, and in the supremacy clause of our Constitution, I do not think it is in the power of big-city mayors to shield illegal immigrants from action by the federal government, any more than it was in the power of southern governments to stop integration. Already President Trump is also threatening to exceed his own powers with respect to this conflict. He has warned of cutting off all federal aid to "sanctuary cities," even though the Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that the federal government could only punish local authorities for infractions in this way by withholding money specifically related to those infractions. In my opinion, it's entirely possible that Steve Bannon, in particular, would be glad to unleash an armed conflict against liberal municipal authorities. Those authorities must ponder their courses of action carefully and try to enlist Congress in solving a very real problem.
3. Finally, as I indicated last week, another problem of a different character faces us. Like William II of Germany, Donald Trump may rather quickly turn out to be intellectually and emotionally unfit to be President of the United States. His decision to push for an investigation of non-existent massive vote fraud suggests that he is counting on the federal government to act out his irresponsible fantasies. The ABC interview that will screen this evening is not reassuring. If serious bipartisan opposition to Trump emerges, I think it will be on those grounds. But if Democrats want civic virtue to prevail over partisanship among Republicans, they had better set a good example.