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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Are we witnessing a broad reorientation of US politics in the Trump era?

Hussein Ibish reflects on an extraordinary year of American politics and unpacks what it might mean for the years ahead

Donald Trump gives two thumbs up to supporters in Florida. Greg Lovett / Palm Beach Post via AP
Donald Trump gives two thumbs up to supporters in Florida. Greg Lovett / Palm Beach Post via AP

Almost a year into the Donald Trump presidency, it is a good time to reflect on what it has, and has not, meant over the long run for American politics and foreign policy. In the short term, as I have frequently argued, it seems clear it has involved a degree of almost calculated and wilful American decline in international influence and authority. But, in the longer term, are we witnessing the beginning of a broad reorientation, or is the Trump era essentially a speed bump in a broader trajectory that will remain essentially linear?

In these pages last February I speculated on how, if he played his cards right, Mr Trump might be able to preside over a redrawing of the American political landscape that could persist for at least a generation. Is that happening?

Largely, and probably mercifully, it’s not. In order to accomplish the potential restructuring I anticipated, Mr Trump would have to initiate a genuinely populist, pro-labour, economic policy of essentially Keynesian stimulus through the kind of gigantic infrastructure programme on which he campaigned.

If he could get Congress to authorise at least $1 trillion in new government spending on badly needed infrastructural repairs and improvements, and thereby create a huge wave of new and well-paid working-class jobs, Mr Trump could probably win over labour leaders as well as many of their constituents and reorient the Republicans away from traditional conservatism.

However, there is no sign of any such programme. On the contrary, the Republican Congress has just approved, to Mr Trump’s evident delight, a $1.5 trillion tax cut that will massively transfer wealth from the middle and working classes to the rich, explode the national deficit and debt, and therefore serve as the basis for large spending cuts on everything except the military.

It’s almost impossible to imagine the Congress that just passed this gigantic tax reduction approving a massive new spending programme. So the sine qua non of the total ideological realignment I imagined seems now unattainable.

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However, other aspects of the changes I envisaged are developing. In particular, the process whereby an entire generation of neoconservatives and other foreign policy hawks begin to migrate from the Republican to the Democratic Party.

As with the process in the 1970s when hawkish liberals slowly morphed into neoconservatives and bolted the Democratic Party for the Republicans, the current counter-migration is fitful, fraught, unpleasant and non-linear. Yet, it is clearly gaining steam.

In some cases, the ideological transformation appears complete. The noted neoconservative intellectual Max Boot, one of the most vehement “never-Trumpers,” has recently written about how, as a good conservative and Republican, he used to scoff at the complaints of blacks and other ethnic minorities, women and others and dismiss the idea of white privilege. “If the Trump era teaches us anything,” he writes, “ it is how far we still have to go to realise the ‘unalienable rights’ of all Americans to enjoy ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,’ regardless of gender, sexuality, religion or skin colour.” His article might as well have been called “How Trump Made Me a Liberal,” and, inevitably over time, a Democrat.

Former Republican congressman turned journalist Joe Scarborough, once a follower of key Trump supporter Newt Gingrich, has been inching to the left for many years. But his recent scathing attack in the Washington Post on the Republican tax bill as a plundering of working-class pocketbooks by rich plutocrats might have been written by not merely a Democrat, but a Bernie Sanders ultraliberal. Mr Scarborough’s journey from right to left, while largely under chronicled and seldom analysed, is one of the most dramatic in contemporary American politics.

But, one need not become a full-blown liberal to have left the now-Trumpian Republicans, as George Will, who has boundless contempt for Mr Trump and all his works, has demonstrated. He has formally left the Republican Party but remains a committed conservative. Unlike most of the others, it’s hard to imagine Mr Will voting for Democrats, or at least admitting to it, on a regular basis. But, in the long run, where can he go?

Mr Will, and others such as Bill Kristol, son of one of the founding neoconservatives, Irving Kristol, have hinted at the creation of a new, center-right third party. They must know this is structurally impossible in the American system. Such sentiments are invariably an unhappy way station in the often dismal journey from one affiliation to the other.

Many conservative Republicans, who now rightly feel adrift and without a party, have no such illusions. Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, among others, has been blunt about the need for all right-thinking people to hold Republicans accountable for their backing of Mr Trump at the polls, particularly in the upcoming midterm elections.

There are countless other commentators and columnists who have spent a political lifetime on the right and as committed Republicans but who are now identifiably somewhere on the road to permanently realigning as Democrats. At the very least, this one part of the grand reorientation I imagined back in February is actually happening.