The Damage Trump Has Done

tags: GOP, Reagan, Trump

Sean Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton.

Despite its legislative setbacks of the past year, the presidency of Donald Trump has been stunningly effective in its core mission, the dismantling of modern American government as it has evolved since the Progressive Era of the early 20th Century. And even though a civil war looms inside the Republican Party, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan and even frequent presidential critics like Sen. Bob Corker have firmly supported most of Trump's program. This should surprise no one: In many respects, the administration's agenda jibes with the main lines of Republican conservatism as laid down by Ronald Reagan more than 30 years ago, pressing massive tax reductions for the wealthy along with deregulation of finance and business. Trump's adherence to Reagan's dictum that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem" is what permits McConnell and the others to behold him as a flawed but useful vehicle for their own politics. Yet in irreducible ways, the anti-government Trump is in fact the anti-Reagan. As Trump consolidates his unmovable popularity among the Republican rank and file, it's become undeniable that his dark political vision has supplanted smiley-face Reagan-style conservatism as the supreme guiding force inside the GOP.

President Reagan believed deeply that the United States had a mystical, even providential mission to stand before the world as a beacon of democracy and opportunity. He spoke often of America as the "shining city upon a hill," its eminence enlarged by the generations of immigrants who had arrived in the wake of the Pilgrims. Reagan upheld traditional virtues of discipline, restraint, hard work and gracious self-effacement as essential to the nation's spiritual foundations. Although he repeatedly asserted that America's best days lay ahead of it, he never doubted America's greatness in the present as well as the past. 

Trump, by contrast, sees no American mission in the world, only a brutal contest for domination in which the United States must be the winner through him alone. He describes America not as a shining city but as a carnage-filled jungle, beset by crime and drugs and overwhelmed by vicious illegal immigrants. Although Reagan couldn't recall that he skirted the Constitution and violated it in the Iran-Contra affair, he never showed open, truculent disdain for the rule of law as Trump has done with his pardoning of the racist Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted of criminal contempt for failing to obey the law. Trump denounces Washington as a thoroughly corrupted swamp, even as he cashes in by turning the White House into a money funnel for his far-flung business operations in violation of the Constitution's foreign-emoluments clause. He has set himself up as the commander of a great movement "the likes of which the world has never seen before," then incited that movement to trash proud Reagan conservatives like Sen. John McCain and effectively endorse the likes of Roy Moore, twice ousted from the Alabama court on which he sat for refusing to abide by the law, to say nothing of the sexual-assault allegations against him. Trump has no use for self-effacement, let alone graciousness or restraint, and instead conducts official business, including international diplomacy, with impulsive, unfiltered outbursts of insults. He has introduced to the presidency something once described by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan as "defining deviancy down."

At the core of Reagan's politics was his stern anti-communism, which centered on the "Evil Empire" of the Soviet Union. It was Reagan's disenchantment with what he saw as liberal appeasement of communists, at home and abroad (as well as high income taxes), that first led him to cut his old New Deal ties. Drifting to the right, as a spokesman for the anti-union General Electric, Reagan came to regard the welfare state as a stalking horse for Soviet-style domination. He hailed slashing taxes and reducing regulations as assertions of individual freedom against statist tyranny but also as springboards for a booming economy that could sustain an indomitable military and subdue the Soviets.

Trump has certainly picked up and supercharged the Reaganite anti-government agenda but with no discernible ideology, only a compulsion to demolish established policies and programs, above all, anything associated with Barack Obama. Trump's political success, meanwhile, owes at least something to the supportive machinations of a former KGB colonel, Vladimir Putin, whose authoritarian regime has wreaked political havoc across the entire Western alliance. Putin is the one major world leader above all whom Trump has most conspicuously defended and singled out for praise, describing Putin during the 2016 campaign as a strong leader, "far more than our president." The xenophobic nationalism with which Trump stirs his political base – less an ideology than a ganglia of resentments – closely resembles the insular appeals of other Russia-friendly right-wing extremists, including Britain's Nigel Farage and France's Marine Le Pen. (Farage has been a particularly keen supporter of Trump's and, with his ties to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, is reportedly a "person of interest" in the FBI's investigation of connections between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence.) Under Trump, post-Reagan conservatism has come to this: assailing the federal government not in order to check Russian tyranny but, grotesquely, to mimic it. ...

Read entire article at Rolling Stone

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