Friday will mark the 100th day of the presidency of Donald Trump, and commentators up to and including the President himself are busily marking that milestone. The idea that a President should accomplish great things during his first 100 days in office goes back, of course, to Franklin Roosevelt, who was sworn in on March 4, 1933, and whose first hundred days therefore extended into the month of June. To review exactly what FDR did during that extraordinary spring, I turned to one of my favorite childhood books, The American Past, by Roger Butterfield, a beautifully illustrated survey of the nation's history from the Declaration of Independence through Hiroshima--that is, from the first great crisis of our national life through the third one. Rather than waste time paraphrasing, I shall simply quote.
"On March 9 Congress met in special session and passed Roosevelt's Emergency Banking Act [declaring a bank holiday to stop a financial collapse] in four hours. On March 10 he sent up an economy bill to cut federal salaries and veterans' benefits; Congress passed it March 11. On March 13 Roosevelt asked for legal beer [preliminary to repealing the 18th Amendment], and Congress quickly complied.
"On March 16 Roosevelt proposed the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), to end farm surpluses [and a catastrophic fall in farm prices] by paying farmers to produce less. On March 21 he offered his relief program, including the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), to give $500 million to the states for direct relief; the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), to put 250,000 jobless young men to work in the forests at $1 day; and the Public Works Administration (PWA), to lend and spend $3,300 million [sic-$3 billion] for building projects. . . .
"On March 29 he recommended a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to protect investors against dishonest stock fluctuations. On April 10 he proposed the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). On April 13 he called for the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) to slow down mortgage foreclosures. On April 20 he took the United States off the gold standard [effectively devaluing the dollar, as the French franc and British pound had already been devalued.] On May 17 he asked Congress for the biggest New Deal agency of all--the National Recovery Administration (NRA)--to put industry under self-imposed 'codes of fair competition' [and recognize the right of labor to organize for the first time.\ In June he accepted a Congressional plan for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to insure all bank deposits up to $5,000 [the Glass-Steagall Act.] On June 16, exactly 100 days after Congress convened, all of these measures (and many more) had been enacted."
The GI generation ranged in age from 8 to 29 during this frenzy of activity, much of which was designed either to give them immediate help in the form of a job or public assistance (the PWA, the CCC, and the FERA), or to protect them against the financial catastrophes that had struck their parents (the FDIC, the AAA, and the SEC.) This was only the beginning of the most extraordinary period in the history of American government, which extended all the way through the Second World War. By the time that war was over the GIs ranged in age from 21 to 41, and it is no accident, obviously, that for the rest of their lives they respected what the federal government could do and looked to it for security and, when necessary, assistance. Today, the GIs range in age from 92 on up, and their influence, sadly, is at an end.
This unbelievable flurry of activity had short- and long-term roots. In the short run, the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression had left 25% of the population unemployed and was now collapsing the entire banking system. As a result, Roosevelt had won the 1932 election by a landslide and disposed of majorities of 313 to 117 in the House and 60-36 in the Senate. Moreover, more than a few of the Republican members belonged to that now-extinct species, Republicanus Liberalis, and voted for much of the New Deal legislation. But one reason so much far-reaching legislation could pass so quickly was that the ideas behind it had been percolating among progressives for decades. Roosevelt's own Missionary Generation (born 1863-1883) deeply believed in the idea that reason and science could moderate economic injustice, help to plan the economy, and secure a better world. This was their chance and they took it. Another reason, as I discovered writing No End Save Victory, was that the Missionary generation had been educated (and educated their juniors) in the economical use of the English language, and these laws were, by contemporary standards, extraordinarily short, simple, and clear.
Turning to the present, I suspect that many other readers will not have been able to read that list of legislation without noticing how much of it has become a dead letter. The most notable casualty of our time was the Glass-Steagall Act, which unleashed financial institutions and allowed them to create a new financial catastrophe in 2008. It has not been restored. No effective mortgage relief was passed for those who lost their homes in that crisis. Labor's right to organize has been under attack for decades and the percentage of unionized workers has been cut more than in half. The family farmers whom the AAA was passed to help have become a politically insignificant fragment of the population. We no longer seem to want more of the public power that the TVA provided. We have nothing like the PWA, and eight years ago, at the height of the new economic crisis, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey blocked a third rail tunnel under the Hudson River--a decision that is now having catastrophic consequences for New York commuters. Nor do we have any national service program comparable to the CCC--instead we force young people to mortgage their futures by taking out student loans. (My GI parents, by the way, received superb educations at the University of Wisconsin during the 1930s for about $1000 a year in today's dollars.)
These changes are not accidental. The Republican Party has been eagerly unwinding the New Deal since the Reagan era, and the Democratic Party has done very little to stand in the way. The question before Donald Trump, in fact, is how quickly and exactly how he can finish the job and return us to the free-market economy and concentration of wealth that the nation experienced in the late 19th century. (Just this morning, a professor at Claremont McKenna University praised the President for trying to take the Republican Party down this path on the op-ed page of the New York Times.) What has held him back, it seems to me, are two things. The first is a debate within the Republican Party about how far to go in that direction, which is in turn related to a debate on fiscal responsibility. A significant number of House Republicans really do not want to increase the federal deficit, which has been a check on plans for new tax cuts. But yesterday, the Administration marked its first hundred days by unveiling sweeping new tax cuts will balloon the deficit again (as under Nixon, Reagan, and Bush II), claiming that economic growth will provide the lost revenue (as it never does.) Several prominent Re[publicans immediately fell into line, and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform--one of the architechts of our new gilded age--went into ecstasy.
The second obstacle is a different debate about how much crueler it is possible to be to the lower half of the population, much of which voted for Trump. Because the Administration was unwilling to deprive as many Americans of health care as the Freedom Caucus wanted, they could not repeal the ACA at all. But the momentum for repeal is far from halted, and that caucus has now produced a version of repeal that they can accept. This will in any case be less important to our future than the tax plan.
We live in a destructive rather than a creative period in the history of American government. Among my own Boom generation who grew up in the world the New Deal created, right wingers have eagerly dismantled it while left wingers, with very rare exceptions, haven't cared. We have lost the belief in a national mission to plan and create a fair and robust economy. We have not been able to reach a consensus on immigration, which had already been achieved by essentially blocking itt 1924. Income inequality has reached the levels of the1920s and our political campaigns are now so expensive that it is easier for the wealthy to control our politicians. The question before us is not whether we can reverse course, but whether the situation can stabilize before even greater inequality and another economic crash make things much worse. The damage has been done, our legacy has been squandered. As I argued back in July 2010, Barack Obama lost the last chance to reverse course in the first year of his Administration. (As if to ram the point home, the press is now reporting that ex-President Obama is about to accept a $400,000 fee for an address on Wall Street.) A conservative majority now controls the Supreme Court, and is likely to get bigger during the next four years.
Donald Trump still faces the nation with a crisis because of his manifest incapacity for the biggest job on earth. The interview he did last week with the Associated Press has gotten remarkably little attention, perhaps because no one wants to face the implications of his incoherent ramblings and unprecedented grandiosity. He and his team are also threatening us with major wars. But there have been no 100 days comparable to those of the New Deal because he is not reversing course on economic issues, but rather continuing down the path the country has been on for most of the last 40 years. Our politics aredominated by corporate power, while the lower economic half of the population has no confidence in the leadership class and has been divided on racial lines. Yet history suggests that it may still last, in broad lines at least, for many years to come.