The question I am asked most these days is, “can you please explain what’s going on?” So I thought it might be a good time to step back and look at where we are, as I periodically do, and try to make sense of the chaotic and cascading events that now define our time.
In the past few weeks we have experienced the onset of a serious impeachment investigation brought about by the Ukraine scandal; a dramatic increase in public support for that investigation and for removing Trump from office; divisions between congressional Republicans and the White House over Trump’s abrupt abandonment of the Kurds in Syria; and — not coincidently — the emergence of progressive stalwart Elizabeth Warren as a frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Readers of Wolves and Sheep will recognize these developments as tracking closely with how I expected this year to play out. Although I could not have predicted the emergence of a whistleblower to turbocharge the investigation, I did expect the magnitude of presidential lawlessness to force the House to begin the impeachment process before the year was out, and indeed the House had been crawling in that direction for months. I also believed (despite conventional wisdom) that it would be both good policy and good politics for them to proceed, and felt it would divide the Republican Party and accelerate its decline. I still do.
Much of the confusion I hear surrounds the various strands of controversy that are moving too quickly for many of us to absorb. We are being bombarded with an unending stream of outrageous details about the Ukraine story and the Giuliani story and the Syria story and the Russia story. It might help to recognize that these are different tentacles of the same sea monster, and that in time it will become clear that they are connected by the common theme of a president who sold out America for personal gain. The whistleblower fortuitously offered evidence of one easy-to-follow tentacle, cutting through the complexity of the Mueller report and administration efforts to shroud it in fog. That the story keeps expanding is indicative of the breadth of the rot. Using the government for personal gain is the entire purpose of the Trump administration. As this comes into focus, the political underpinnings of the administration are starting to buckle.
Essentially, the following five things are happening at once:
- The administration is melting down and threatening to take the Republican Party with it, either by splitting the party at an impeachment trial or saddling it with baggage that no amount of dark money can salvage in 2020.
- Institutions like the House, the permanent bureaucracy, the courts and the press are sputtering back to life, raising the prospect of consequences for lawbreaking that are leading people to come forward and talk.
- As witnesses talk and the House investigates, public opinion is consolidating around impeachment and removal.
- All this is making it appear that in a contest between the Republican Party and the republic, the latter — for the first time — has a slight advantage.
- These conditions are making a political realignment more likely, and — consistent with this — Democrats are inching closer to nominating a candidate who hails from the progressive movement and whose campaign represents a radical departure from anything we have seen in the past.
Some context: Almost two years ago, I wrote that the Trump presidency threatened to hasten the end of the Republican era in the same way that Jimmy Carter’s presidency assured there would never again be a New Deal president. The historical parallels between Carter and Trump are striking. A few weeks after Trump’s election, I wrote:
Carter was an outsider who hailed from the conservative wing of a liberal party. He successfully waged a contest for the nomination and prevailed over a string of better known and more mainstream Democrats but barely succeeded in the general, which he won on the strength of personal appeals (“I will never lie to you!”) rather than party affiliation. He was elected—and given control of both houses of congress— by reassembling the New Deal coalition of northern liberals and southern conservatives one last time, after Republicans had disrupted that coalition by winning the two previous elections. But even though the New Deal coalition elected him he was not a New Deal liberal. All this happened while the Democratic Party, reeling from two consecutive losses, was at war with itself and struggling for a way to return to power. Carter got a boost from unique circumstances—the fallout from Watergate—which would have benefitted any Democrat in 1976 and were never replicated. He was an end cycle president. He never had a chance.
Donald Trump was elected as an outsider who hailed from the reactionary wing of a conservative party. He successfully waged a contest for the nomination and prevailed over a string of better known and more mainstream Republicans but barely succeeded in the general, which he won on the strength of personal appeals (“only I can make America great!”) rather than party affiliation. He was elected—and given control of both houses of congress—by reassembling the Reagan coalition of rural and working class whites one last time, after Democrats had disrupted that coalition by winning the two previous elections. But even though the Reagan coalition elected him he was not a Reagan conservative. All this happened while the Republican Party, reeling from two consecutive losses, was at war with itself and struggling for a way to return to power. Trump got a boost from unique circumstances—fallout from the election of the first black president—which would have benefited any Republican in 2016 and will never be replicated. He has all the markings of an end cycle president.
As Republicans struggle with the Great Trump Unraveling, the prediction of Trump as an end cycle president is looking reasonable. Trump’s ascendency and the disruption it has caused is facilitating an equal and opposite reaction, because the fall of a political coalition never occurs in a vacuum. Shortly after I wrote about the Carter/Trump comparison, I added that Democrats need to be ready with an alternative if Trump falters. “Should the Trump adventure leave the Reagan coalition in shambles,” I wrote, “the opportunity will be there for a reconstructive candidate to offer an alternative.” For this reason, last December I urged Democrats to go big:
The disruption Trump has caused to the political process makes bold thinking possible. Indeed, in a political system that dances to the leisurely rhythms of the nineteenth century, bold thinking is only possible in rare moments like this, when chaos reigns and the public is hungry for action . . . What would such an agenda look like? There are many possibilities, and they poll well. Medicare for all. Raising the minimum wage. An expansive clean energy plan that creates jobs and combats global warming. Student loan relief. Infrastructure reform. Progressive taxation to fund expensive programs equitably. Variants of these and similar ideas could be packaged as components of an economic justice platform which could dovetail with a social justice platform featuring a humane immigration policy, prison reform, a new voting rights act, election reform, treating gun violence as a public health emergency, and the like.
If you have been paying attention to the Democratic primary campaign, this agenda should look familiar, because it is the agenda helping to propel Elizabeth Warren to frontrunner status. And while it is too early to know if she will be the nominee, her steady rise to prominence is neither surprising nor unrelated to what’s happening across the aisle.
In my next post, I will say more about why I believe the events of the past month are accelerating the end of the Republican Party as a majority force in our politics. In the post after that, I will address the question I raised last June when I asked if Elizabeth Warren is for real — and consider how her star is likely to rise in direct proportion to the Republican Party’s demise.