Ross Douthat: The opportunities we’ve lost under Trump

(Damon Winter | The New York Times) His gesturing hand and a bit of his signature hair are caught by a spotlight as Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Coliseum Complex in Greensboro, N.C., June 14, 2016. "So when we talk about what’s been lost in the four years of Trump’s administration, we should start with the lost opportunities to address what was revealed in 2016," writes Ross Douthat.

In the original Greek the term “apocalypse” refers to an unveiling, the gray rain clouds of the everyday world torn away and something long hidden finally revealed. The political apocalypse of 2016, when Donald Trump improbably vanquished the establishment of both parties, fits this ancient definition perfectly: It was a moment when all kinds of uncomfortable truths about American life were suddenly exposed, when the hidden realities of our country and our coalitions were suddenly dragged up into the light, when the failures in both parties and every faction were laid bare.

So when we talk about what’s been lost in the four years of Trump’s administration, we should start with the lost opportunities to address what was revealed in 2016. These failures aren’t universal; there has been some reckoning with what the last presidential election meant, some attempts at treatment in response to a “that’s why you got Trump” diagnosis.

But there has also been a widespread retreat from revelation, let alone from any subsequent conversion, and a rush back to the comforts of one’s preconceptions and one’s tribe.

For the right, the major revelations of 2016 were threefold. The celebrity bombast of Trump’s campaign revealed how much the right’s media-entertainment complex, envisioned as an adjunct to conservatism’s political program, had instead swallowed up the movement. His birtherism and race-baiting revealed that white-identity politics had more potency, more support within the larger right, than many conservative intellectuals had ever wanted to admit. And the success of his America First arguments on economics and foreign policy exposed the gulf between the actual sentiments of Republican voters and the hawkish, limited-government orthodoxies of Reaganite conservatism in its decadent phase.

For the center, the revelations of 2016 were about policy failures that had been mostly invisible until Trump came along — above all, the way that center-left and center-right visions of post-Cold War “openness,” to free trade or low-skilled immigration or ever-greater-integration with the People’s Republic of China, simultaneously failed to achieve their geopolitical goals and hollowed out communities across the American heartland, creating a deadly, demagogy-ready vacuum where work and church and family used to be.

For the left, the revelations were about how its own victories within the Democratic coalition, the triumph of social liberalism over cultural conservatism, had forged a party that no longer connected with a lot of white, working-class voters (and more than a few Hispanics) no matter how much new federal spending it promised. Like Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Social Democratic parties across Europe, the Democrats' shift leftward in the 2010s accelerated their transformation into a party of the professional classes, culturally separated from many of the struggling blue-collar voters they claimed to represent.

So how did right, left and center respond to these revelations? Sometimes with recognition and adaptation, but more often with denial.

On the right, this denial took the form of a concerted attempt to just ignore Trump’s Twitter feed, to play “hear no evil” with his toxic rhetoric while steering his administration back toward precisely the stale orthodoxies that his campaign had rejected. For every figure who tried to make something substantive out of Trumpism (Josh Hawley) or repudiate its moral turpitude (Mitt Romney), there were many more Republicans who behaved as though Mike Pence had been elected president, answering Trump’s excesses with a public shrug and an off-the-record lament, and governing as though they had been given a mandate to do just the Republican usual — cut taxes on high earners while pretending to cut spending, with Trumpian populism reduced from its initial economic ambitions to a constant owning of the libs.

In the center, any sustained reckoning with the failings of the neoliberal era was eclipsed by a self-flattering narrative of liberalism desperately imperiled, authoritarianism on the march, that allowed pundits and ex-officials to posture as Resistance leaders and pretend to be pontificating in the shadow of a 1930s-style putsch. The major centrist project of the Trump era wasn’t a sustained reassessment of where its leaders had gone wrong; it was the hysterical overhyping of the Russia investigation, in a paranoid style that made seedy Trumpian malfeasance out to be a vast Kremlin conspiracy, the casus belli of a new Cold War.

Finally, on the left there were some attempts, via the Bernie Sanders movement, to build a left-wing politics responsive to the appeals of right-wing populism. But the gravitational pull of the cultural left was the stronger force, dragging Sanders away from his economics-first message, his skepticism of identity politics, toward a woke socialism that appealed to neither the white working class nor the African American voters who ultimately made Joe Biden the Democratic nominee. And with Sanders' defeat, the left turned decisively toward the easier opportunities afforded by its power in elite institutions and bureaucracies, in which class politics took second place to the promise of corporate HR departments assigning intersectional reading lists, forever.

Of course, all the lost opportunities I’m describing owe a great deal to Trump’s own presidential conduct. Had he governed as he campaigned, had he dropped into Washington trying to cut infrastructure deals with purple-state senators instead of letting Paul Ryan run domestic policy for the first two years, it might have forced real policy adaptation on both parties. Had he been less Mafioso-like in his rhetoric, less brazen in his financial self-dealing, it would have forced centrists away from their Resistance poses and into a more constructive stance.

Likewise, when the pandemic and the economic crisis and the George Floyd protests came along, he had an opportunity to make use of the two big ideas that emerged on the right in response to his initial victory — so-called state capacity libertarianism and common-good conservatism, overlapping perspectives that stressed the importance of effective institutions and socioeconomic solidarity, against the tendency of limited-government conservatism to decay into anti-government individualism.

Instead — unsurprisingly — Trump embraced precisely that decay. His management of the pandemic has been a case study in what you might call state-incapacity libertarianism, his handling of racial protest was deliberately polarizing rather than unifying (and not even successfully polarizing, since it left the majority on the other side), and his early push for sweeping COVID relief spending gave way to indifference and distraction as the autumn phase of legislation stalled.

Overall we can say that Trump enacted the fantasy (or nightmare, from a liberal perspective) of a populist government but never figured out how to translate that image into political or policy reality, which enabled other factions to persist in their ideological bubbles and self-flattering fantasies as well. And now that reality has taken its revenge of Trump’s incompetence, the whole exhausting experience has made the idea of a simple reset, a return to the before-times of 2014 or so — a “kill switch” on the virtual adventure of the Trump era, as the Portuguese writer-diplomat Bruno Maçães put it recently — much more politically potent than it might otherwise have been.

Which is one reason that Biden is likely to be his successor in the White House, as the aging avatar of the pre-Trump establishment, even as Trump’s own party girds itself for a return to its circa-2014 positions.

After so much failure and derangement, there are worse things than a reset. But it’s still the case that too many of the figures, Republican and Democrat, who are poised to be restored to their prior positions on the chessboard resemble the restored Bourbons after Napoleon, having “learned nothing and forgotten nothing” across the last four years. Which suggests that what we’ve lost above all in the Trump years is the chance not to repeat the experience soon enough.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times

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