The Trump Scandal

The appointment of a special prosecutor may prove not to impede or divert the investigation into Trump’s Russian connection, which is what I feared, because it seems largely designed to protect the ongoing FBI probe. And the case for such a connection is mounting, having already reached Trump’s inner circle, the latest news being that Jared Kushner was trying to set up a secret communications link with Moscow. There are just too many dots out there for them not to connect. Does anyone think that this is still all coincidence?

But whether Trump is removed from office by impeachment or by the Twenty Fifth Amendment, or simply serves out his term, hobbled by his tendency to kick himself in the head and with no idea of how to organize and accomplish a legislative agenda, the effects of the Trump Presidency are historical in the sense that they will be with us for a very long time. That is because Trump was elected as a fluke rather than because he was the symbol or activator of a social movement, and so his Presidency is something of a scandal, and scandals, in the course of history, usually have unfortunate rather than liberating sequela, while social movements, at least among the English speaking peoples, result in real social progress. That is because real change and progress occur slowly, over generations, albeit with the assistance of social movements to promote change by taking advantage of changing social circumstances. Scandals, however, do not refresh the social system, freeing it to engage in progress, but rather result in retrograde developments that just routinize what had previously been seen as just a scandal.

Social movements enhance ongoing social processes so as to give them a particular political end. They do so by bringing together a coalition of interest groups to pressure for the desired outcome. The Prohibition movement drew on the legitimate grievances of both the rich and the do-gooders of the time to end what was the scourge of the poor. It used public actions such as taking hatchets to saloons to bring attention to its cause and eventuated in the Eighteenth Amendment, which was short-lived because it turned out that most Americans wanted to drink and the dries were not able to convince the population as a whole that it was a bad thing. The campaign to end smoking was somewhat more successful because people in general were in agreement that smoking was a danger to the public’s health and because municipalities developed ordinances that limited the places people could smoke: first hospitals and schools, then restaurants, then public and even outdoor places. The union movement was successful because it developed techniques for strikes and picketing that deprived manufacturers of their labor force and made collective bargaining seem a to be preferred way to manage a labor force. That was before the passage of the Wagner Labor Relations Act, which merely regularized what was settling in anyway. The labor movement had spent its force by the Eighties because white collar workers proved difficult to mobilize, even down to the associates employed by Walmart.

The time for a movement, therefore, comes and it goes. The Civil Rights Movement lasted from the late Forties through the late Sixties because very adroit political leadership was able to find causes, such as lynching and voting and social accommodations issues, and mechanisms, such as marches and sit ins and filling up Southern jails, whereby to highlight that  justice in the minds of whites as well as blacks would mean breaking down the caste system that separated blacks from whites. That movement ended, not long after King’s death, when it became clear that the additional barriers to black social mobility had to do with economic and cultural issues such as residential segregation and high rates of black incarceration rather than social exclusion measures.

Trump was not the beneficiary of a social movement even though he said he was and even though commentators have been trying to identify the social groups which his movement represented, pointing to all those who have been left behind by recent economic developments. But, in fact, he came to power at a time of increased overall prosperity and it is a good question whether those displaced by an increasingly globalized and roboticized economy are worse off than they would be otherwise, getting jobs, as they do, in the health and service sectors rather than in the coal mines or the factories of the Midwest. The anger of his supporters was largely irrational and traditional: aimed at immigrants of a different hue and at plutocrats who got their own way. Trump squeezed out a narrow victory. He filled an inside straight, as they say, by capturing eleven or twelve thousand vote margins in three states, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, the loss of any one of which would have defeated his candidacy. So we are left with the consequences of his victory, even if the causes of it did not have to do with long standing grievances or shifting social tectonics.

The election of Trump is an example of a scandal, which is something that didn’t have to happen and is something best judged as unseemly, the product of an aberration in a social process, in this case the electoral system. A scandal is an event to which people respond, in time, not so much in anger as with embarrassment, the result of a clash or failure of personality rather than of the social process itself. Examples of this proliferate in the history of democracies. Throwing John Wilkes out of Parliament because of his proto-radical sentiments, and the trial of Warren Hastings for his activities as the first Governor General of India are two examples from the Eighteenth Century of political scandals. Closer to home, the Alger Hiss case was a scandal because a figure from the Establishment had been found out to be a Communist and, more than that, a spy, just as those who thought America was being undermined by elites had thought was the case, and so it was outlandish and a cause of shame, though it was never established that there was a widespread communist conspiracy. Nixon had to fudge charges against leftists like Helen Gahagan Douglas and portray them as traitorous because there weren’t enough real traitors around to feed the Republican grist mill. A scandal such as the Hiss Case does not lead to a more measured response to similar charges, to an immunization against outlandish charges. Rather, it leads to more of such charges and a cheapening of standards. McCarthy went out to rid the Army of a lefish dentist.

The most serious scandal of recent American history, up to the present moment, remains that of Richard Nixon, who turned the scandal of having covered up a burglary into a full blown constitutional crisis wherein the President had used any number of illegal or questionable means to advance his candidacy and so led to the only occasion in American history when a sitting President was driven from office. And yet that scandal was quickly over, forgotten by those who had driven him from office as well as his defenders, because the episode had been so embarrassing that it was important to restore what seemed regular order, Gerry Ford, a respectable President, was just barely defeated in his bid for election just two years after Watergate. The Republican Party paid no price for Nixon and, indeed, harbored a grudge about it that would lead them to launch their own quest to oust a President, Clinton this time, also on the basis of a scandal, this time clearly one, because it was about sex, and so trivialized the grounds for impeachment from being something about the Constitution to a game of gotcha.

Getting rid of Trump might well follow the same tawdry logic. He might go away, Republicans happy to forget this interlude in their history, returning to more serious versions of themselves and so expecting that the American people will forgive them for having made him President in the first place. There are a lot of respectable Republicans, aren’t there? But don’t forget the other sequelae of a scandal. The standards of a political process are lowered. That is what happened with the standards for impeachment. The dumbing down in the case of a quickly aborted Trump Presidency will be that the standards for being a President are set even lower. Trump was at least a billionaire, even if he proved to have no management skills that were transferable to the White House, not the way Tillerson’s acumen as a businessman does seem to mean that he is capable of mastering what you have to know to be Secretary of State. What Trump has made legitimate is that a President need not be of a character to be trusted to remain cool and realistic in a crisis, as was the case with Lincoln, or someone who had some virtues however they were overcome by his vices, like Nixon, but who need do no more than turn the running of the government over to his staff, some of whom are knowledgeable, that being the new minimum. A President doesn’t lead his party or press a legislative agenda and is intimidated into doing what wise heads tell him to do about foreign policy. That is all we should expect? I hope not. I much preferred an Obama Presidency where the incumbent knew enough to criticize his foreign policy advisors and to decide his own legislative agenda and brought calm and even eloquence to moments of crisis. Have we come so far so fast that we no longer want that?