Two weeks ago I suggested that the Republicans would try to undo the expansion of the role of the federal government since 1933, if not since 1901. I still think that the House majority and many Senators want to do just that, and that Donald Trump would probably go along with it. This would be a New Deal in reverse, with legislation passed and signed more rapidly than at any time since 1965, when LBJ used his huge majority to push through the Great Society while he covertly began the Vietnam War. But the tumultuous events of this week suggests that we face an even bigger threat: the advent of anarchy such as we have not seen, perhaps, since the time of the Articles of Confederation. The threat now comes from both sides of the aisle.
For the last eight years, the Republican Party in Congress and in the courts has done its best to prevent the federal government from functioning. The nation faced urgent problems relating to energy and the environment, immigration, and gun violence, but the Republicans stopped any attempt to deal with them in its tracks. They did everything they could to obstruct the Affordable Care Act, and only the vote of Justice Roberts allowed the act to go into operation. In what I believe to be a move without precedent, they unanimously opposed a major foreign policy agreement, the deal with Iran. They invited a foreign leader to declare his opposition to that agreement before Congress. They used their congressional majorities to insist on automatic reductions in the federal budget, another unprecedented move. They refused to allow Senate debate on many important measures, and refused to consider many Obama appointees for confirmation.
Almost five years ago, I described this strategy
as dau tranh
--a Vietnamese term describing the Viet Cong's strategy against the Saigon government. That strategy, which was more political than military, aimed at making it impossible for that government to function effectively, and in 1975 it was crowned with a spectacular victory when the South Vietnamese government and army collapsed in the face of the North's last offensive. The Republican strategy was shamelessly irresponsible, but it prevented the Obama Administration from doing enough to build a new political consensus, and helped worsen the esteem in which the federal government was held. Now the Republicans control that government. This development poses not one, but two grave dangers to its effectiveness, and to the Republic.
One danger, I regret to say, comes from the Democratic Party. Everything suggests that the Democrats in Congress are going to treat President Trump and his Administration exactly the way that the Republicans treated President Obama and his. Some of Trump's cabinet appointees are indeed unqualified, but Senate Democrats are voting unanimously against most of them--something the Republicans never did. They are talking about filibustering the nomination of Judge Gorsuch, an eminently qualified and personally distinguished judge who is completely within the Republican mainstream. Democrats, as I have mentioned before, say that Trump "is not my president," in defiance of our law and Constitution. Local and state authorities threaten to defy the federal government on immigration issues. These tactics, like their Republican counterparts, deny the right of approximately half the citizenry to make their wishes felt in our national government, despite the result of the last election. They will inevitably bring the Washington establishment into even greater disrepute. The Democrats need to do more than oppose: they must propose policy alternatives of a different kind. But they should also show some respect for the institutions we have inherited from our forefathers, and opposition parties generally have throughout our history, except, of course, from 1861 through 1865.
I for one do not want to relive that era. Secession talk has already begun on the west coast, and it may well spread. Had Clinton won instead of Trump I have no doubt that it would have started by now in Texas, the Deep South, and elsewhere. Lincoln in 1861 decided to try to preserve the union by force not to abolish slavery, but rather to save our democratic experiment both for ourselves and for all of humanity. He succeeded, and within ten years Germany, Great Britain and France had moved much further in the direction of democracy themselves. As in the 1850s and the 1930s, democracy once again finds itself in crisis around the world. It has failed to take root in Russia and much of Eastern Europe, it has given way to authoritarianism verging on totalitarianism in Turkey, and it has failed to solve western Europe's problems. The election of Donald Trump is probably the biggest setback that American democracy has ever suffered, but it is no excuse for giving up on it. Trump--democratically elected--threatens to reduce us to chaos. If we cannot use the democratic process to restore order and some semblance of good government, we shall sink into authoritarianism, a catastrophe for future generations here and abroad. Any attempt at secession would create chaos, if not violence. The two coasts--the richest parts of the republic--simply cannot disengage from the federal government.
Well before the elections of 2018 and 2020, however, we may need a bipartisan movement to preserve a functioning government. The Trump Administration in its first few weeks has been highly incompetent, and the President seems incapable of steering the ship of state. Oddly enough, his tweets are not entirely unprecedented for a President. Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson both railed against their opponents in the same way. But they lived in a different age, when they could not instantly share their thoughts with the public, and knew enough to keep them within their inner circle. Trump does not--nor does he understand the need to project real authority. To fire General Flynn while announcing that he was unfairly treated by the media was disgraceful. If Flynn had done something wrong (as he evidently had) the President should have taken responsibility for removing him. If he had not he should have stood by him. On Wednesday the President also spontaneously backed away from the two-state solution in the Middle East, and answered a question about rising antisemitism by bragging about his total of electoral votes. In his meeting with sheriffs he obviously had no idea what asset forfeiture was. His team has filled only a tiny fraction of the vacant positions in the federal government, and it is apparently planning an adversarial relationship with the civil service (another dream which Nixon knew enough not to turn into reality.) The administration's economic plans seem certain to bust the budget, and any number of its planned economic steps might trigger a recession. It seems quite likely that within a few months, the government will be entirely at sea. It also seems subject to unprecedented foreign influence.
Meanwhile, both sides continue to undermine the authority of the government. Today's New York Times
leads with Trump's plans to appoint a billionaire friend of his to conduct a special review of our intelligence agencies, an obvious attempt to intimidate him. But it also includes an op-ed
detailing how a Virginia federal judge ruling on the immigration order has argued, in effect, that President Trump cannot exercise recognized constitutional authority because he has expressed animus towards Muslims. Our government will fail if we will not allow its officials, from Presidents down to civil servants, to exercise their legal authority.
Many Democrats--especially younger ones--believe that progressive Democrats can sweep the next two elections and turn the tide. I frankly doubt this very much. Much of the country seems immune to their appeal in any case and gerrymandering will protect many of the House Republicans. The Democratic establishment evidently remains strong. After the civil war--the crisis which clearly most resembles our own--the country benefited from the prestige of President Grant, and then, after the disputed vote of 1876, reached a compromise in which each side got important concessions. A similar compromise may be our only hope for national unity--one that will sacrifice important interests of both parties. I would not be so bold as to speculate what shape it might take, but I hope politicians and citizens will start thinking about it. The armed subjugation of either blue or red states is not an option. There is no evil comparable to slavery that it could eliminate, and it took a long time after 1865 for it to restore real harmony to the two sections. We cannot do without our federal government and we need it to function with minimum effectiveness. That may require the legal removal of the President, but it will surely require the discovery of some common ground between the two parties.
My posts about Steve Bannon have brought many people here for the first time, most of them liberals. I could write those posts because I have been open to original ideas. Had I not become interested in the ideas of William Strauss and Neil Howe twenty years ago, Bannon never would have heard of me and interviewed me and I would not have gotten any insight into who he was and what he might do. But that same openness to different ideas means that you will not find standard liberal boilerplate here. You will find ideas you will not see anywhere else, and I hope you can regard that as a plus rather than a minus.
I once heard Alistair Cook quote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to the effect that Constitutions were meant to reconcile men of differing opinions. (I cannot find the quote myself and would welcome any assistance.) Holmes had been wounded four times fighting for the Union and knew whereof he spoke. We are in terrible trouble partly because both sides hold other principles in higher esteem than our Constitution. For the right these principles are religious and economic; for the left, they stem from the left's vision of a higher morality. The framers gave us the Constitution because they believed so deeply in the role of government. We shall suffer disastrous consequences if we cannot once again recover some of their fervor for the only principles and institutions that can hold us together.