January 19, 2017
Well, the dreaded day is finally upon us. I really hope my fears and misgivings about the incoming Trump administration prove to be unfounded, but very little has been said or done in recent days to raise my level of confidence. The war of words between the President-elect and CIA Chief John Brennan (see BBC), Rep. John Lewis, leader of the House Democratic boycott, and others suggest a leader who is incapable of tolerating the slightest offense.
The inaugural festivities tomorrow evening are likely to be paradoxical, with multi-millionaires flattering each other in luxury while the working class voters who put Trump into office figuratively gaze through the window from the outside. The contrast reflects the tensions within the Republican Party, which is undergoing a profound (and probably permanent) transformation into the opposite of what it once stood for. Even though Trump rode a wave of populist resentment into office, there will be no repeat of the 1829 White House keg party, when the rural ruffian supporters of newly-inaugurated President Andrew Jackson (the very model of what it meant to be a true Democrat for many decades) damaged White House furniture while whooping it up. Any trouble from Trump's supporters is likely to involve street clashes between "Bikers for Trump" and anti-Trump protesters. At a time when police in America are regarded with more hostility and scorn than at any time since the 1960s, the possibility of political violence in Washington is especially high.
Even though the term populist aptly describes his base of electoral support, it remains to be seen to what degree will the Trump presidency be meaningfully "populist." I wrote on Facebook that I have studied populist regimes in Latin America, so this is familiar theme to me. In particular, there have been three populist regimes in modern Peru: Gen. Juan Velasco (in power 1968-1975), Alan Garcia (in power 1985-1990), and Alberto Fujimori (in power 1990-2000). The first two pushed a radical, left-wing agenda, the first via a military regime and the second via a democratic regime that proved to be too fragile. Both failed miserably. In contrast, Fujimori surpised everyone by reneging on his vague campaign promises and adopting a harsh free-market economic stabilization program, coupled with a fierce anti-terrorism campaign implemented with authoritarian means. (He launched an "auto-coup" in 1992, shutting down the Congress for almost a year, and having a new constitution drafted.) Fujimori achieved spectacular success in policy, but it went to his head, as his government became entangled in a variety of corruption scandals, and he left office in disgrace soon after being elected (fraudulently) to a third term in 2000.
In terms of his base of support and egoistic tendencies, Trump reminds me a lot of Fujimori, and while I don't think he's a "fascist," his bully-pulpit style does smack of authoritarianism. As I concluded on Facebook, "Chances are, we're in for one hell of a scary ride under Trump. But little if anything will get solved." For more background, see "What The Trump Era Will Feel Like: Clues From Populist Regimes Around The World" at forbes.com; hat tip to Emily, a former student of mine at Sweet Briar College.
Even when I identified as a Republican, I generally avoided the polemics over social and cultural issues. The libertarian in me says "live and let live," and my religious upbringing reminds me of when Jesus said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." So all of the kulturkampf angst about issues such as abortion, gays marriage, drug abuse, etc. fails to excite me very much. When the cast of the Broadway play "Hamilton" scolded Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence last fall, I was only mildly offended. People who make a living on a stage tend to have an exaggerated sense of their own importance, so it's par for the course. Besides, I'm in no position to judge the aesthetic merits of that play. But having said all that, I must say that the article in Reason.com ("Finally: The Case Against Hamilton"; hat tip to Nick Sorrentino) makes a compelling case about the underlying reasons for the upset election outcome of last November:
"The election of Donald Trump and the leave vote in the United Kingdom aren't just political decisions. They're a cultural revolt against the pomposity of upper-crust liberals who don't have to live with the consequences of their own values. Hamilton is where the modern day Marie Antoinettes tell unemployed forklift drivers to eat cake."
Personally and professionally, I don't really fit into either the "elite" or the "populist" social categories, which gives me perhaps a more neutral perspective on some of the ongoing clashes in American society today.
* That's a not-too-subtle reference to the 1965 protest song by Barry McGuire, "Eve of Destruction," which I will explain in an upcoming blog post.
A big part of what divides people in America is how they understand Donald Trump, who is prone to making filthy trash talk about his opponents, and grandiose, outrageous boasts about himself. Last September, Salena Zito wrote of Donald Trump in the Atlantic that "When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally." For example, his supporters take him seriously (as being capable of governing) but not literally (e.g., they discount his promises about building a wall), while members of the press take him literally (e.g., starting a trade war with China) but not seriously (e.g., he's a buffoon or a clown). I suppose those people (presumably his opponents) who take him seriously and literally must be truly petrified with fright; see Charles Lane in the Washington Post. Me? Up until recently, I haven't been taking him seriously or literally, but now that he is on the cusp of power, I no longer have that luxury.