In my last post I promised to look for silver linings in this catastrophic election. I’ll try to make good on that promise, but I do want to emphasize that I am grasping at straws (and, I guess, mixing metaphors). Today’s NY Times is full of reports of all the very bad things Trump is planning, along the lines I indicated in my post. For all his pseudo-populist inveighing against “special interests” in Washington, the Trump Administration promises to be a government of, by and for big business, not unlike the Reagan and Bush II administrations, but with a more radical thrust.
OK, so what’s to like? There is one positive prospect in the Trump economic policy agenda. Trump has strongly advocated a massive infrastructure program—large scale investment to restore America’s bridges, roads, ports and airports and other public facilities. This is not only very much needed, because so much of our infrastructure is crumbling, but also likely to be a significant boost to the economy, injecting major new stimulus into a still rather lackluster recovery from the Great Recession of 2008. Obama’s infrastructure proposals were blocked by the Republicans because they came from Obama. Hillary Clinton would probably have had a similarly frustrating experience. Trump will be able to get his program through because the Republicans will go along with their president and the Democrats will be favorably inclined in any case. So, this is the one really clear domestic policy plus that a Trump administration will have over a Clinton.
Trump made some very worthwhile ethics in government proposals during the campaign, aimed at thwarting the well-known revolving door that enables government officials and corporate lobbyists to exchange roles and influence. If he really means it (I have my doubts—see my “short take” below) and if he can get most of these proposals through Congress (also iffy) I will tip my hat to him. Again, proposals along these lines from a President Clinton would have had little chance of success.
The area where there is the greatest possibility for positive change from Trump, but also the greatest risk, is foreign policy. I indicated in an earlier post that while Trump’s personality disorders make him an untrustworthy steward of American foreign policy, he has nevertheless expressed some views that usefully challenge conventional wisdom. His call for our allies to spend more on their own defense is entirely justified; unlike most of our leaders who have said much the same thing, he seems to be determined to do something about it. And, of course, I can only be pleased at Trump’s pledge to do away with or radically revise the Trans Pacific Partnership.
Trump is also the only presidential candidate since the end of the Cold War to apparently challenge the Washington foreign policy consensus that the United States can and must act as the world’s guarantor of peace, stability and prosperity. That assumption means that American military power and commitments stretch to every corner of the world. The result is that we spend very large amounts of money on our military (something that Trump is happy to do in any case) and we tend to get into mini-wars and other far-away trouble without any real gains in our own security. This kind of perspective gets reviled as isolationist, a scare-word that is used to discredit any challenge to the prevailing consensus. It is a perspective that has become the subject of lively debate in academia. Whatever success he has in actually changing policy (and inertia is a powerful force in government), Trump’s presidency might just seve to bring the debate to the Washington establishment and to a wider public. That would be a very salutary development.
Trump has repeatedly promised to take down the “special interests” in Washington, but a lot of those special interests are anything but worried, as one headline reports: “With Trump’s Election, a Bonanza for Washington Lobbyists.” No wonder, since the Trump transition team is already filling up with lobbyists. Trent Lott, the disgraced former GOP Senate leader, now a highly paid lobbyist himself, is salivating: “Trump has pledged to change things in Washington—about draining the swamp….He is going to need some people to help guide him through the swamp.” I guess it takes a swamp-dweller.