For my regular readers it is no secret that I am not particularly fond of our 45th President, not of his style, his substance (or lack thereof) or his character. But, as I wrote a year ago in my column ‘The Next Four Years’, the voters chose in November of 2016 to give him a chance and we should respect that. The good thing is that Presidents in the United States are term limited to a maximum of eight years and that they have to go back to the voters to ask for an extended mandate after the first four years. In addition, they (their actions and policies) will be assessed in mid-term elections which have the capacity to deny them support in Congress and thus clip their wings before they become a lame duck.
I have to believe, but I have been proven wrong about just about every prediction I have made about # 45, that this President will pay a price in the court of public opinion every time his presidency is subjected to the democratic process of free and fair elections. The sketchy results from the 2017 State and Local elections cannot really be interpreted as a verdict on the current federal administration, but they hint at a repudiation of conservative-republican candidates and policies. The mid-term elections of 2018 will be the first true test of whether we will have entered an era of nationalistic populism or are just going through a period of aberration.
Yes, there are people who don’t care about the federal government or what it does at all and just want to hear the man in the White House use the same rhetoric they like to use when confronted with opinions that differ from their own or when contemplating the lack of respect and dominance America commands abroad. These people cherish the satisfaction of ‘telling them like it is’ and despise political correctness, diplomacy and compromise. But rational people will be results oriented. They will want to judge politicians on how well or poorly they deliver on their campaign promises. Their chance to do that comes at the voting booth. I surely hope that the percentage of voters willing to live by promises, kept or not, and slogans, is not high enough to keep delivering electoral victories. We will have to wait, until November 2018, and see.
In the meantime, we will keep wondering where America will be heading. Will it revert to picking up its century long role of a global pathfinder, a living representation of the values expressed and enshrined in its declaration of independence and constitution, or establish a new normal in which a narrowly defined self interest becomes the norm not only for federal policy but also a model for personal conduct.
The fundamental difference that sets the new normal apart from the old is the axiomatic belief in the zero-point game: ‘There can only be winners and losers, not winners and winners’. In the new normal, the United States would have left Japan and Germany to fend for themselves after World War II had ended. The Allies had won and the Axis lost, as simple as that. Recovery from the Allied inflicted war damage would not have been an American responsibility. The new normal despises losers and idolizes winners. Winning means that you were right all along. The concept that a treaty or a multinational agreement, like NAFTA, the Paris Climate Accord, or the Iranian Nuclear Framework Agreement, can advance the interest of all parties is alien to the subscribers to the new normal. If America does not get it exactly its way, the deal can simply be no good, it must have been poorly negotiated. From this rationale, the new normal had every reason to reject the TPP framework even before it had been fully negotiated.
The new normal is pessimistic and cynical. In the new normal there is no ‘give and take’ and – in political terms – there is no reaching across the aisle. It looks at every challenge as a zero-point game: ‘We can’t all be winners, settlers and immigrants, protectionists and free-traders, Christians and Muslims, conservatives and liberals, rich and poor, healthy and sick, educated and uneducated, white and black and Latino’.
If, God forbid, the 2018 and 2020 elections were to establish the new normal as the lay of the land, it will signal a complete abandonment of traditional American values, beliefs, and aspirations. There is no denying that America has always harbored self-centered, cynical, and confrontational elements, but most of the time and over the long run they have been kept at bay by a moderate, rational, optimistic, and forward looking public opinion.
Will the regular order prevail and bring America, by means of the voting booth, back on the course of leading the world by example and in a collaborative mode with other peace-loving nations, or will it require a life altering shock to the system, like a nuclear conflict, a cyber war, an economic collapse or a popular revolt? That is the existential question.