“For the most part”, writes William Leuchtenburg of the American presidency, “scholars have presented the chronicle as a continuous tale, with each succeeding administration adding another chapter. By contrast, I perceive a great divide – with the twentieth century markedly different from what preceded it.” The presidency may not be a “continuous tale”, but one does have a sense that within periods like post World War II, we’ve seen a definable build, enabled by institutional memory, precedent and norms that contribute to purposeful and reasonable continuity. We couldn’t function without that. Donald Trump, the Twitter in Chief, seems bent on breaking with that build, ignoring institutional memory, precedent, norms and, most especially, continuity. There are probably multiple reasons for that, but I think foremost among them is his egotistical personality. Trump rejects anything not invented here (by him) or not subject to his claiming full credit in the future.
Working mostly with startup companies these days brings me in regular contact with a terrific generation of tech-savvy women and men. They lean heavily on everything digital. Even so, when sitting in a meeting someone usually gets up and starts writing on a whiteboard; writing and then erasing before we leave the room. Left behind is a blank slate. It’s like we were never there, never met. Eight years is not a whiteboard, but it’s quite clear that’s exactly how Donald Trump sees Barack Obama’s two terms in the White House. A whiteboard to be erased, sooner rather than later, ideally on day one.
His often inflammatory talk of some better earlier time notwithstanding, Trump has evidenced no sense of, or respect for, history. His campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” is not really about restoring a mythical past glory but boils down to undoing the pre-Trump era, most immediately the presidency of Barack Obama. First on his (and fellow Republicans) hit list is Obamacare, but the NY Times has identified 20 items ripe for erasure. Pulling the plug on the ACA won’t be easy if for no other reason that 20 Million Americans are now covered by it, including Paul Krugman estimates, 5 Million Trump voters. “Repeal it” they shout at rallies, but do they really mean “take mine away” or will they be happy when or if that happens?
There are practical challenges attendant to undoing existing programs – “easier said than done”. And Mr. Trump will discover there are also political considerations and consequences. The United States is not a privately held business. You can’t cover up or recoup mistakes by declaring bankruptcy, you can’t write-off losses or refuse to pay your bills or people. Where government is involved, initiated or abandoned activities/programs (including wars) generally produce meaningful intended but also unintended consequences. But the practical difficulties are not what concerns me most, should concern us all. It is that Donald Trump is intent on “whiteboarding” the entire presidency of our first African American chief executive. Is that what his white male voter base was all about? Is that why White Supremacists are celebrating?
There is a great difference between carefully evolving policy/programs and simply applying an eraser to wipe clean an imaginary whiteboard. There is reason to build on a foundation already in place. Institutional memory is informative; indeed, it is essential in carrying forth foreign policy where other nations are looking for consistency in the relationship. Precedent and norms, at the very least, should always be considered. Continuity is something upon which we citizens rely. Think of what would happen if all the rules of the road were suddenly abandoned or changed, just because they were invented by others, many others? Accidents, some fatal, would be sure to happen, havoc on the highways and streets. In the real world, the one where we all live and function, populism of the whiteboard kind, is a slogan, a myth not a practical roadmap. It is destabilizing with no other purpose than to reject reality, at its worst to express hatred of self and others, in this case for what we have become in the years since the founding and will most assuredly be in the future.
Donald Trump won his presidency with about 46% of the votes cast; a majority voted for someone else. With the country divided, elections tend to be close, even when we expect them to be decisive. Consequently, none of our presidents can claim a decisive mandate. That they regularly act as if they had one explains in part why they often lose support two years later. Clinton and Obama lost control of Congress. Considering the nature of Trump’s win, are we to believe that the American public want everything that has happened in the last eight years to be reversed? I don’t think so. Sixteen million Americans found employment in those years and twenty million got health insurance, many for the first time. Would the auto workers, even those who voted for Trump, have preferred for GM and Chrysler to go under? Would we be happier to see banks functioning without restriction or not having a consumer protection agency? Do we really think our Cuba policy was working either for us or for the citizens of that nearby country? Would we be happier if Iran had joined the nuclear club or alternatively that military action had been taken to stop it likely further destabilizing Mideast?
No administration is perfect, Obama’s included. Clearly many of those who voted for Trump were dissatisfied with the state of their own lives eight years after the Great Recession. Some simply don’t like the president, many were profoundly opposed to Secretary Clinton but not necessarily or only because she was likely to continue Obama’s initiatives. Some change is to be expected, but erasing all that was done in the past eight years? Truth is that humans are mostly change resistant. Obama quickly discovered that and so too have many of his predecessors. Even when we talk about change, claim we’re voting for it, we want it to be incremental not disruptive. No matter how much we may deny it, we opt in large measure for, and excuse the cliché, “the devil we know” principle. Obama has been sharply criticized for not being aggressive enough in Syria, for the Obama Doctrine described in Jeffrey Goldberg’s April 2016 Atlantic article. Some may disdain his “don’t do stupid stuff” but most Americans don’t want “boots on the ground”, certainly not body bags coming home. That doesn’t mean that some new incremental approach to policy won’t be accepted. Most certainly any weakening or destruction (if that’s really possible) of ISIS will be welcomed. Will getting into bed with Putin and Assad? Maybe not so much. We shall see.
In the end, after all the campaign rhetoric fades into a dim memory, most of us want a steady hand on the till. Republicans and their new leader may really want to wipe the board clean, but most citizens don’t share their, or any, extreme partisan ardor. The vast majority of us have not suffered in the past eight years. We’re eating three square, share in the joys and, yes, on occasion the sorrows, of our lives. Do we want things to be better, even if marginally so? Absolutely. But to read the election as an unfettered license, the obliteration of our history, even our recent history, would be a mistake. Donald Trump does so at his peril and, sadly, at ours as well.