I believe that the Trump triumph cannot be understood in its true meaning unless we realize that it is an opening salvo in a total restructuring of American values away from the liberal global consensus that has held sway in this country at least since 1945.
That consensus, the comforting ideology of the Establishment agreed to by both parties and not substantially altered even under Reagan, was that American-style democracy, a liberalism tempered by the corporate-guided government, was the most important bulwark against international communism and the ultimate model for the rest of the “free world.”
In foreign affairs, it was based on a military confrontation with the Soviet Union, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, that ideology seemed to have become world-dominant. But since it at bottom rested on the success of the military-industrial complex, it was necessary to create some new enemies and new wars, however, fruitless, and hence the Gulf war (1990-91), Somalia (1992-95), Bosnia (1994), Kosovo (1998-99), Afghanistan (2001–), Iraq (2003–), Libya (2011), and ISIS (2014–). At the same time, America was obliged to spread its style of “democracy” and prosperity to the rest of the world, hence the emphasis on globalism and “free trade,” enshrined in NAFTA, GATT, the World Trade Organization, and now the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
On the domestic side, the consensus rested on the unquestioned permanence of Social Security (and then Medicare) and the role of government in promoting and managing economic growth, in the Keynes-Galbraith style, tempered by the need to regulate excesses. Progress was inevitable and desirable, and it included continued social and economic mobility, an unquestioned goal of equality in means and outcomes, and unflagging patriotism, made all the more fervent by incessant wars.
And for both elements, it was a given that the mainstream media would play its part in bedrock support for the consensus with only an occasional uncovering of scandal to prove that the system was ever self-correcting. Hence its endorsement of American interventionism, no matter how irrelevant or unwise, and sometimes acceptance of outright fabrications as in the case of the Gulf of Tonkin to start the Vietnam war and the weapons of mass destruction for the Iraq invasion. Politics was seen in the press as the pursuit of the agreed-upon consensus by equally matched parties differing in only the smallest ways as to how it would be carried out, with the press deciding which would be the important issues that they would discuss.
And then came Donald Trump. Along with the Brexit in Britain and the rise of anti-immigrant populist parties in Europe, his victory has announced to the world that a new way of seeing and doing things has taken hold, displacing, at least temporarily, the economic and political certainties that sustained the now-reviled consensus. The ways of the various establishments that dominated the West since the end of World War II have been challenged openly and a majority of the electorate in many places has put into office people who seek to undo them. New parties, new policies, are emerging everywhere.
Whether or not this challenge ultimately wins out—and we should expect considerable push-back by the consensus forces that have been in power for these seven decades—its triumph at this time, and in two of the most important countries in the world, is of indisputable significance. I would argue that the next four years will, at the very least, begin to put entirely new people, and new types of people, in positions of power, with assumptions and goals that are markedly different from those that characterized the governments of years past—governments that basically failed in both foreign and domestic, especially economic, policies.
The Trump people will not have a confrontational stance with Russia and seem very likely to pull back from—if not out of–NATO, a useless and expensive holdover from the Cold War era that unaccountably keeps pestering Putin. They do not seem likely to pursue the neocon’s ambition to force “democracy” on the Middle East—Trump was a gradual but firm opponent of the Iraq invasion—and may, in fact, begin the necessary pulldown of American troops there and even the downsizing of our 750 military bases around the world.
Nationalism will triumph over globalism, and I’d say Trump’s selection of an unqualified Nikki Haley to be ambassador to the United Nations is a sign that he will ignore the world body and presumably sharply cut the funds we give it. Something will be done about the immigration mess and strengthen our borders, if only the enforcement of laws already on the books ignored and bypassed by Obama.
Similarly, it is clear that some adjustments will be made in the globalist free (for corporations) trade arrangements of the past, pushing America-first as far as possible—though when Trump finds out this won’t bring jobs back to the Rust Belt that has been automated out of existence he will have to find something else to placate his base. And that will probably be the ballyhooed infrastructure rebuilding, something that Trump understands and has proven his ability to master—I was in New York when he brought a new Central Park skating rink in under budget and under time—though he needs to make sure that it doesn’t get taken over by a pork-minded Congress and used to find ways to cut ribbons rather than fix potholes.
It is difficult to see exactly how the populism that swept Trump to power will play itself out, but I expect his cabinet choices will be people encouraged to make some serious changes in the hide-bound and over-stuffed departments. Certainly, the new Health secretary will get rid of Obamacare and help Congress replace it, and the new Defense secretary can put an end to all the cosmetic efforts to put women and transgendered people in combat. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump actually made good on those familiar conservative threats to get rid of, or at least demote, the departments of education, housing, transportation, and energy. And at the very least replace all the attention given to minorities of all kinds, racial, sexual, and otherwise, with rhetoric about togetherness and all-Americanism.
I would not predict that the Trump revolution will be totally successful, but it seems certain to put an end to the failed and exhausted liberal-global consensus and may mark a new way of America acting in the world. That can’t be all bad.