Donald Trump Is Playing to Lose: Donald Trump is certainly a very different kind of president from what we have been used to—not just in temperament; in (lack of) knowledge about America, its government, and the world; and in public presentation-of-self. He is very different from what we have been used to in his orientation toward policy as well.
After "New Democrat" Bill Clinton won his plurality victory in 1992, he promptly began "triangulating": He talked left with an (unsuccessful) fiscal stimulus bill. He tacked center with a pro-growth deficit-reduction bill He tacked right with the North American Free Trade Agreement. He tacked center-right with a crime bill: "tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime". He tacked center-right with the reappointment of conservative stalwart Alan Greenspan to run the Federal Reserve. He tacked left with an (unsuccessful) regulatory-heavy health-care reform.
The idea was that he needed to: (a) enact policies that would be successful in their aims, and so make America greater; (b) enact policies that would give many who had not voted for him reason to approve of his performance as president, and so become not a plurality but a majority president; and (c) enact enough of his base's priorities to make them, if not enthusiastic, at least understand that no-compromise leads to only evanescent terms in office and to no durable substantive policy accomplishments at all.
After Barack Obama won his majority victory in 2008, he promptly began moderating: He tacked center with a technocrat-approved financial rescue and fiscal stimulus plan. He tacked center with a market-oriented health-care reform—Republican then front-runner Mitt Romney's, in fact. He tacked center-right with an (unsuccessful) attempt to strike a grand deficit-reducing tax-raising and Social Security and Medicare-cutting "bargain". He tacked center with an (unsuccessful) market-oriented global-warming cap-and-trade plan—former Republican candidate John McCain's, in fact. He tacked center-right with the reappointment of somewhat cautious Ben Bernanke to run the Federal Reserve.
The idea was that he wanted most of all, above everything else, desperately, to be president not of a Red America or a Blue America but of a Purple America. He thus pursued cautious and technocratically-approved policies wherever he could, hoping that their goodness for America would attract Republican support. He would then tell his base that attaining national unity and healing partisan divisions—making a truly Purple America—was more important for the long term arc of the moral universe than was advancing Democratic core goals.
After Donald Trump won his minority victory in 2016, he promptly began... something: He tacked white nativist right with his Muslim ban. He tacked destructive right with his attempt to repeal—without replacing—ObamaCare, thus threatening health-finance chaos without advancing any conservative technocratic ideas about good directions for health-care reform. He tacked white nativist right again in opposing opposition to police brutality. He tacked plutocratic right with a tax cut for the rich that somehow left on the table all of the pieces that might have won at least some approval from any technocrats as likely to spur productive investment and economic growth.
This is not normal politics. This does not seek to unify the country. This does not seek to enact policies that will actually work and achive their purported aims, and so make America greater. This does not provide anybody in the majority who did not vote for him with any reason to approve of his performance as president. This does not try to teach his base the proper road to durable rather than evanescent legislative victories, or even continuance in office.
Again: This is not normal. Here in California last year we were treated to a remarkable spectacle. The California-elected members of the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives did not argue for a version of the tax cut bill that would have been good for their constituents. It was as if they had already given up fighting to retain their seats: they were looking forward to future jobs outside of California in Washington for lobbyists whose water they would therefore carry.
And now we are told that the next legislative priority for the Trump administration, a far as policy is concerned, is infrastructure. But is this an opportunity for the administration to tack left, and enact an infrastructure bill that will have an egalitarian rather than a plutocratic distributional orientation, and so make America greater? Unlikely. Is this an opportunity to tack technocratic, and enact a bill that that technocrats believe will provide a boost to economic growth, and so make America greater? Unlikely.
What will the bill do? First, we do not know, because there has been no policy-design process: no set of hearings and white papers and discussions and arguments and back-and-forth during which the policy and legislative communities reach not a rough consensus but a sense of what the options and their benefits and drawbacks are. The public-sphere process of deliberation has—as wtih the Muslim ban, as with the attempted not repeal-and-repace but the repeal of ObamaCare, as with the collected Twitter musings of Donald Trump, as with tax cut—simply been absent.
What about the shape of the policy we can glean so far is worse than not encouraging. Back in 1776 Adam Smith set out three proper tasks for the government in a libertarian society–one devoted to installing and maintaining the “system of natural liberty“. Those three were: defense, police—protection of life, limb, and property and enforcement of contracts—and, third, infrastructure. According to Adam Smith, the government has the duty of:
erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expence to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society...
And we, who know the economics of public goods somewhat better than Adam Smith did, would add that even when you can make it privately profitable to provide such public works and public institutions—by granting monopolies—it is destructive of societal well-being to do so.
Yet Trump's staff have not gotten Adam Smith’s memo about good government. Or, rather, perhaps, to them Adam Smith’s memo and whether the policy actually makes America greater are irrelevant. Trump's infrastructure program seems highly likely to be much the opposite. It looks to be a policy of providing public subsidies to private investors so they can construct those components of infrastructure for which they can successfully profit by charging monopoly prices.
Thus it looks to be not so much a pivot toward national unity and broad presidential popularity as another plutocratic–or, rather, kleptocratic – play. It does not look as though intended to attempt to accomplish any of the end Clinton and Obama sought when they tried to become president of most, if not all, of the people.
Now it may be politically efficacious. America's public sphere is broken. We can all already see now, in our minds' eyes, pundits and reporters at organizations from Fox News to the New York Times, pundits and reporters who have not gotten or pretend they did not get Adam Smith's memo, stroking their chins and lamenting why the Democrats are rejecting Donald Trump's pivot and open hand for infrastructure.
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