Beyond Our Winter of Discontent
by Randall Amster
Spring may be upon us, but the prevailing political winds foretell a long, cold season ahead. We’re two months into the Tr$mp presidency, and the template has been set: incompetence, intolerance, scandal, strong-arming, divisiveness, duplicity. If America was longing for a “reality show” at the top of the news queue, this moment certainly fits the bill — but this is actual reality, and as time passes the damage being done will only increase in its potential to have long-term corrosive effects. And this may well include the likelihood that this Administration’s conflict-centric ethos will manifest in a full-on war soon enough.
If that happens, all bets are off as to what ensues. For those with slightly longer memories, you may recall George W. Bush getting off to a shaky start, with a series of missteps and a penchant for being more interested in golfing than governance. Granted, this is a different era and context, and the players are different — to such an extent that Tr$mp almost makes Bush seem reasonable by comparison (yet not). In many ways, we’re living with the direct consequences of the Bush years, and Tr$mp is the clear beneficiary of a playbook that calls for an imperial presidency and blatant disregard for the Constitution.
Unfortunately, the intervening Obama years didn’t do enough to reverse this tide, and even expanded it on some levels, such as with mass surveillance and drone killings. Indeed, it seems clear that certain post-millennial trends possess a momentum of their own that transcends electoral politics, making it difficult to imagine a scenario in which entrenched powers are reined in, bloated budgets are curtailed, and corporate influence is mitigated. Tr$mp, with all of his bluster and abrasiveness, actually postured as someone who would take on all of this, running as an outsider who would dismantle the bureaucracy.
For those who bought into this, Tr$mp continues to cement his character as an iconoclastic agitator, by refusing to play by the rules of comportment and thumbing his nose at convention, polls, or any of the other ostensible firewalls in our system. He appoints people to run departments who have an obvious penchant for tearing them asunder, and operates as if he’s above any legislative oversight or ethical requirements. Meanwhile, his chief strategist publicly stated that the aim essentially is to dismantle the state, at least in terms of the administrative aspects of government. And some may find this appealing.
What we’re seeing play out, however, isn’t so much the “deconstruction of the administrative state” (as Bannon termed it) as it is the reconstruction of an antagonistic state. Whatever space is allegedly being created by supplanting regulations and agencies, it’s being filled in with corruption and misanthropy. As such, this process represents not a net transfer of liberty to the populace—but instead just a horizontal exchange of the reins of power from places where it is at least nominally accountable, to ones that exist beyond the purview of democracy. This is crony capitalism par excellence, and it’s hiding in plain sight.
This isn’t a path to some imagined liberty, then, but rather to actual tyranny. Regulatory structures may indeed be burdensome at times, and in our permanently right-of-center political landscape they already reflect a watered-down framework for abuses of power and accumulations of profit. Yet some of these regulations can also provide protections for the vulnerable and opportunities for the mobile. Deconstruction best serves to spark innovation and expand freedom if the populace has evolved enough capacity from the grassroots to organize their lives and communities. Without this, it can invite greater disempowerment.
At this point, it’s fair to say that whatever virtues are inherent within community organizations, faith groups, and other aspects of civil society, they haven’t yet evolved the ability to step into the vacuum created by the unraveling of administrative regulations. Citywide and/or regional advancements may be potential options and have already shown promise in this regard, but it’s hard to scale up to address issues such as climate change or rampant inequality. Without these bulwarks being more fully activated, deconstruction likely won’t be beneficial to the people, but mainly to the few orchestrating it.
If we’re thinking about this moment of resistance simply as an effort to halt the Tr$mp Administration’s negative “progress,” then the tendency would be to pursue their vulnerabilities in terms of collusion, corruption, and other blatant misdeeds that should have disqualified them in the first place — and seek to “restore democracy” again. But if the resistance takes a longer view, there’s an opening to cultivate more participatory forms of democracy, by being proactive and moving the locus of power closer to our communities. This is actually more pragmatic than utopian, given the anti-democratic arc of our politics.
Let’s face it: we’re in a very tough spot right now, and the prospects of it getting better are not robust. Our vaunted system of checks and balances seems incapable of stemming the tide, even before the rise of Tr$mp, with both major parties implicated by overlapping interests that have been rigging the game (now in hyperdrive, with their newly minted inside man). The intelligence community and mainstream media likewise are too imbricated within these structures to be a counterforce, despite the apparent resolve of individual journalists, leakers, or other actors of conscience who may work within these systems.
That leaves one last variable, to which the arrow keeps pointing: The People. I seem to wind up here nearly every time I wade into the political morass that is the House of Tr$mp; perhaps that says more about its viability than its triteness, but either way it merits saying again. Tr$mp may be a dangerous and unqualified person to hold the presidency, but the problems in our system predate and transcend him alone. Ironically, his appearance has awakened a resurgent movement across a wide swath of the populace. May our winter of discontent yield a spring of democracy — not merely restored, but reborn.
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is Director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University, and is the author of books including Peace Ecology.