Politics & Policy

What Next?

President Donald Trump stands next to a portrait of former President George Washington as he attends at the White House in Washington, D.C., July 22, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
2020, the year that changed everything, may in the most meaningful terms turn out to be a year that changed nothing.

Imagine this: You have a friend who has never saved a penny for his retirement. You ask him about it when he is in his twenties, and he says, “No problem — I’m going to win the lottery.” Years go by. You ask him about it in his thirties, in his forties, in his fifties, etc., and get the same answer. At age 64, he has no savings, and on his 65th birthday, he walks into a 7-Eleven, buys a lottery ticket, and wins $100 million.

Question: Is hoping to win the lottery a good retirement plan?

Donald Trump won the lottery the day he was born, and so it is in a sense difficult to fault him very much for his magical thinking about the coronavirus — “just disappear,” etc. — and many other similar problems, because just muddling through has worked out brilliantly for him in the past: For all the business failures and bankruptcies, the adultery and tabloid scandals and divorces, the legal problems, and the rest, things mostly have turned out pretty well for Trump.

But that is no way to run a country.

So far, 2020 has proved to be an annus horribilis, with the plague, a painful economic disruption, unemployment, the impeachment fiasco, riots, arson, political violence, Sarah Palin’s performing “Baby Got Back” on The Masked Singer. The episodes have come down so relentlessly that it is difficult to keep up with them all: Do you remember when the United States assassinated Iranian general Qasem Soleimani? That was this year, even if it seems like a decade ago.

The moments in history when we suddenly are forced to confront the fact that things will never be the same are almost never pleasant ones. Though every now and then you get to watch the fall of the Berlin Wall or the moon landing, more often, you get Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assassination. I went to college and began my career in the 1990s, a time of great confidence and prosperity that I watched coming to an end while sitting in a Philadelphia newspaper office on September 11, 2001. I knew that things would never go back to what they had been, and I was not happy about it.

The three great convulsants of our contemporary public life — the epidemic, the political violence in the cities, and the Trump administration — are distinct but complexly interrelated phenomena. Together, they have created a moment of genuine national instability. But it is likely that each of them will come to an end in the near term or be greatly diminished, and that the mitigation of any of them would reduce the tension contributing to the others. One day, and let us pray that it is soon, the coronavirus will be reduced to a relatively minor problem. The economy will recover. The protests will die down. And Donald Trump will, either in January 2021 or in January 2025, make his way back to private life or to federal prison or whatever it is that awaits him after the presidency.

Then what?

Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douthat detects old patterns reemerging among congressional Republicans, with a mostly familiar cast of characters preparing to settle back into familiar roles: back-benchers vs. leadership, Tea Party vs. “establishment,” grandstanders vs. dealmakers. The current state of affairs, Douthat writes, is

. . . easier to understand if you see the Republican Senate, in what feels like the twilight of the Trump presidency, instinctively returning to its pre-Trump battle lines. The anti-relief faction, with its sudden warnings about deficits, is eager to revive the Tea Party spirit, and its would-be leaders are ur-Tea Partyers like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. The faction that wants to spend less than the Democrats but ultimately wants to strike a deal is playing the same beleaguered-establishmentarian role that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell played in the pre-Trump party — and of course McConnell is still leading it. And the fact that neither approach seems responsive to the actual crisis unfolding in America right now doesn’t matter: The old Tea Party-establishment battle — a battle over whether to cut a deal at all, more than what should be in it — is still the Republican comfort zone, and the opportunity to slip back into that groove is just too tempting to resist.

And what will be the legacy of Trumpism among Republicans? Douthat quotes Mad Men’s Don Draper: “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”

If the worst of the old habits are still there waiting to be revived, so are the worst of the old problems. The most basic one for Congress is that there is a substantial and ultimately unsustainable mismatch between its spending policy (which is dominated by Social Security and health-care entitlements, military expenses, and interest on the existing debt) and its tax policy (which is constrained by the desire to tax only politically unpopular classes, institutions, and activities, and to use the tax code to subsidize favored classes, institutions, and activities). The federal deficit is at record levels and getting worse by the minute, and it may be that beyond the horrifying loss of life the main long-term consequence of the epidemic will be to hasten the day of fiscal reckoning. Even those of us who believe that the extraordinary conditions created by the epidemic require an extraordinary response by the federal government must deal with the fact that this imposes real costs and risks on the nation, and that this costly calamity is only aggravating the preexisting condition of Washington’s fiscal incontinence.

For Republicans, the great political challenge is going to be that the entitlements that simply must be reformed are very popular with old white people, i.e., the Republican base. President Trump’s flat refusal to even consider entitlement reform only reconfirms the position of congressional Republicans going back to George W. Bush’s ill-fated and very lonely effort at achieving the mildest reform of Social Security. Republicans have no appetite for cutting the programs that actually represent the great majority of federal spending — popular middle-class entitlements and the military — and they remain fundamentally opposed to raising taxes, and, indeed, would if given the chance cut them still further in spite of the persistent deficit and the fiscal crisis it invites.

As the GOP loses the suburbs as surely as it has lost the cities, its slow transformation into the Nationalist Farmer-Labor Party will do wondrous things for talk radio but will also ensure that a whole generation of young people with professional and cultural aspirations that take them to Silicon Valley or New York or Los Angeles or Chicago or Austin will come to believe — not without reason — that the Republican Party is not for people like them. The promise of a tax cut is not going to change their minds.

Across the aisle, the Democrats remain steadfastly committed to a single policy: redistribution of wealth from political enemies to political constituents. Practically every Democratic policy proposal from taxes to health care to environmental regulation is organized in service of that single overriding principle. Even as poor Andrew Cuomo up in New York begins to realize that the hated 1 percenters pay half of the state’s taxes and that he cannot afford to do without them, Democrats continue to press for a more-lopsided tax policy and a larger public sector in the mistaken belief that they can have the Swedish welfare state without Sweden’s heavy taxes on the middle classes. Every social problem from air pollution to police misconduct will continue to be treated by Democrats as an opportunity to create patronage jobs for Democratic clients.

There is, of course, some bipartisan consensus. Everybody in Washington talks a good game on China, for example, though almost nobody has any real plausible program for dealing with Beijing, and most of them have almost no real understanding of the problem. They think that it’s the balance of trade, that the American worker is being victimized by the subtle economic geniuses in a country that is poorer than Mexico or Romania and barely a step ahead of Kazakhstan. Not one in ten of them has the economic sophistication of a South Dakota soybean farmer, but they remain, for whatever reason, utterly confident.

And so 2020, the year that changed everything, may in the most meaningful terms turn out to be a year that changed nothing. We are still playing the lottery as though that were a viable plan.

We, through our representatives in Washington, can either change things or wait until we are made to change things — or forced to accept changes not of our choosing. It would be better to begin to address our fiscal imbalance and other problems immediately, while we have ample resources and lots of options, rather than waiting until the crisis is upon us and we have depleted resources and fewer options. If it seems to you unlikely that we will suffer yet another national gut-punch in the near future, then you have not learned the lesson of 2020.

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