By Jack Russell
Presidential transitions can test our national mettle.
Four times, an assassin’s bullet compelled the passage.
In 1877, a revanchist confederacy ended Reconstruction and imposed four generations of Jim Crow.
In 2001, the apostasy of the supremes delivered Bush, Cheney, Iraq and the Great Recession, harming millions.
Our current ascension appalls. A historic president who performed with intellect and grace to accomplish much against implacable opposition will be succeeded by a racist, xenophobic, perfidious, narcissistic, self-congratulatory misogynist who is dismissive of sexual predation.
In resistance, I offer two contributions. I assess the Obama presidency as I imagine historians will see it a generation hence. And I sketch the worst and the best political scenarios for the years of Trump.
How will history judge Obama? Such anticipations are hard at the end of presidencies, let alone at their beginning. But, ever intrepid, eight years ago I wrote on this page: “I believe that President Obama will succeed and win the support of millions whose lives have been improved by the policies and programs of his administration. The strategic investments made will lead the America economy out of deep recession into sustained growth.
“The lives of the working majority will improve, and the life-chances of their children will revive the promise of America. We will begin the great turn toward ecological sanity and noncarbon sources of energy.
“A majority of the electorate will believe again that government can and should act with competence to improve the commons and protect all from cruel chance. By the end of his second term, Barack Obama will rise in the regard of his countrymen to the company of Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and Roosevelt.”
Worker wages have risen only recently, and belief in a better future is uneven. But I stand by my audacious hope of 2009. The lives of millions were bettered by Obama. The Affordable Care Act brought medical insurance to more than 22 million. Obama policies ended the Great Recession, sustained economic expansion for seven straight years, and added 15 million jobs since the pit of the recession. Obama led a world turn to address climate change. A majority of Americans do look to government for protection of our common interests and provision of a strong safety net.
A generation from now, these achievements by our first black president and first Democrat elected twice by majorities since FDR may place his service in the first echelon. That judgment will be tempered, however, by how Obama’s contributions –and our society – fare during the regime of his successor.
Before we explore the worst and best prospects for the years, we must endure with The Donald, let’s dispense with the big tweet that his narrow victory was a mandate-making landslide. He lost the popular vote by 2,864,974, the largest margin ever for an Electoral College (EC) winner. Trump’s cumulative plurality in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin was only 77,754. If half of them – 38,878 – had voted for Clinton in the right allocations per state, she would have prevailed in the EC 278 to 260. But for the votes of a full crowd at Fenway, Trump would be a fading footnote in our national history.
His approval rating has eroded to 37 percent, the worst ever for a president-elect.
The worst possibility for our immense, dynamic, grossly unequal, politically fractured country in the Trump years is not a catastrophe of bluster and blunder by Trump, but a country drawn rightward toward reactionary populism by Trump’s political wiles, luck and erosion of democratic norms and capacity – all enabled by the devolution of the mutant party of Lincoln and the disarray of Democrats.
Here is the dark vision. Trump is a reactionary demagogue who lusts to become the maximalist leader of an America open to his narcissistic drive for apotheosis. A high majority of Trump appointments are rightwing excoriators of the agency missions they lead. They are an enabling chorus for The Donald’s triumphal march right.
That march encounters few early obstacles. Obamacare is repealed without a viable replacement. The millions who lose coverage lack political leverage to block repeal or punish the repealers. Many blame Democrats. Thousands die. Republicans survive.
Trump orchestrates a fossil fuel festival. The EPA becomes a gusher of permits under Pruitt. Exxon Rex rules the world. The Paris Accord fractures. The world warms beyond any hope.
In 2017-18, the American economy delivers a gift to Trump. The improving fundamentals he inherited from Obama get a significant pop from Trump’s largely tax-credit-driven infrastructure program and his return to Reaganesque military Keynesianism. Most of capital buys the border tax plan because the corporate income rate is slashed.
Some worry about deficits, but GOP hawks are hooded. The inflation-fixated Fed raises interest rates, but Janet Yellen is replaced by a Trump chair in 2018. In the politically crucial near term, Trump gets enough jobs to spin as deliverance on his promises.
Dealt lucky cards, the Trump team plays its hand. In 2018, Democrats have not developed a coherent, credible grassroots critique of Trumpism nor national voices to revive and extend the Obama coalition. Republicans hold their House and grow their Senate majorities.
Trump bullies all Republicans into subservience and wins passive acquiescence from big business, who likes their fat bottom lines. His dog whistle still calls a deplorable 20 percent. He builds out from his resentful rural, small business, and alienated white working class bases in key swing states.
His 2020 message: “We’re making American great again.” Despite international instability, the dark fiscal horizon, risk and pain for millions of uninsured, no real growth in worker wages, schools that fail and many scandals, Trump defeats the Warren-Booker ticket and wins a second term. Deep danger looms for American democracy.
But, take heart – here is a bright vision! Trump assumes the presidency with eroding minority support on the cusp of failure. The opportunists in his White House, Cabinet and Congress who hope to play Trump to their advantage cannot generate coherent strategies. Obamacare repeal is their opening catastrophe. The millions again uncovered, hospitals, doctors and most insurers charge health care chaos to the GOP.
Trump’s tax-break bonanza for the rich and his tax-credit-driven infrastructure plan are fairly seen by fractions of his eroding electoral base as benefiting the 1 percent. His border tax play is opposed by big retailers and manufactures who produce abroad. “America First” degenerates into ever-less-credible “plant-saved” photo ops. Many Rust Belt workers exit the Trump train.
World business leaders abhor international instability in which they cannot plan with confidence and are appalled by governance via tweet. A growing fraction of capital realizes climate change must be addressed.
The GOP cannot compose its tensions. It breaks apart as many see that Trump is not the ark of their animal spirits.
The Democratic Party is in creative ferment. Partisans under Sanders, Clinton and Obama banners contend, constructively. Grassroots campaigns against Trump on many fronts energize. Until a new voice emerges for 2020, Obama serves as the tribune of progressive possibility.
This energy keeps the GOP’s Senate majority slim and reduces the House GOP majority on 2018. By 2020, Trump’s rightwing populist play is deflated. He is decisively defeated.
Which way will the political needle swing between these visions? I say toward the brighter possibility. I believe a majority of Americans will understand and confront the real danger of Trump and revive progress by our ever-imperfect democracy.
Like Obama on his last day, I still believe in “We, the People.” That solidarity is forever. My country tis of thee.
Jack Russell was born and raised on MDI. In 2006, he returned with his wife Sandy Wilcox. He is a resident of Mount Desert.