here was a time when questioning a president’s legitimacy represented an act of near-treasonous incitement. That time was 2009. Take the case of Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. He wondered whether vitriolic attacks on Barack Obama (specifically, a poll on Facebook) had “begun tipping over into de-legitimization” and were “creating the same kind of climate here that existed in Israel on the eve of the Rabin assassination.” Liberal concern over the “de-legitimization” of Obama extended to the Republican filibustering of judicial nominees, the moment when a Republican lawmaker shouted “you lie” during an Obama speech before a joint session of Congress, and expressions of concern from conservatives about the fraudulent voter-registration outfit called ACORN.
William Yeomans, a columnist for Reuters, even sought to discredit anyone preemptively who questioned the legitimacy of the Electoral College if Barack Obama lost the popular vote in 2012: “In the unlikely event that Obama should be reelected without carrying the popular vote, however, there will surely be members of the opposition irresponsibly hurling that fact around as reason to reject the president’s second-term agenda,” he prophesied. Strangely, Yeomans declined to shame Democrats for obsessing over the political ramifications of Hillary Clinton’s 2-million-vote lead over Electoral College victor Donald Trump.
All this has been unceremoniously discarded down the memory hole. At the dawn of the Trump era, Democrats are reacquainting themselves with the virtues of life in the opposition. In the minority, matters that were of little or no consequence to liberals during the Obama era—or issues the raising of which would cause liberals to accuse conservatives of acting in bad faith—will almost certainly take center stage in their indictments of President Trump.
Return of the Hamburger Flippers:
When it comes to the economy, watch for two metrics Democrats dismissed offhand during the Obama era to become matters of great public urgency in the Trump era: underemployment and the labor-force participation rate.
At 62.4 percent in September 2015, the labor-force participation rate—the degree to which potential workers are either employed or are trying to find a job—was at its worst point in nearly 40 years. Though it has since ticked up slightly, that number has continued to languish. Obama critics have, from the beginning of the economic recovery after the 2008–09 recession, combined the labor-force rate with the “underemployment” rate—the category known as U6 that measures workers who are employed in occupations that do not optimize their skill sets or availability—to question the strength of the revival.
Now that Trump has inherited this malaise, liberals will suddenly turn around and blame him and Republicans for it. This means that Democrats who once argued that the labor-force participation rate was artificially low as a result of the surge in retiring baby boomers will probably forget they made this argument. No longer will nonworking students who haven’t yet joined the workforce as skilled laborers represent the light at the end of the tunnel for the economy. Liberals are sure to rediscover the tragedy of the long-term unemployed discouraged workers and involuntary part-time laborers, and in very short order. And the horror of the working conditions under which people are finding jobs.
We saw this in 2003 under George W. Bush. After a double-dip recession in 2001 (the first began six weeks after Bush took office, the second after 9/11), the economy had gotten back on a firmer footing. Job growth was relatively strong. How, under such conditions, could the opposition party convey that the Bush economy was substandard? Their answer was to call into question the value of the jobs being created. To illustrate the “crisis,” Democrats settled on dubbing the jobs created under Bush soul-sucking, unfulfilling drudgery.
From the pages of major metropolitan newspapers to the floor of the United States Congress, liberals mocked the decline of what New York Times reviewer Elissa Schappell dubbed the Rust Belt’s “slide into obsolescence” under Bush—“from ‘union proud’ to McJob servitude.” What Democrats once called Bush’s “jobless recovery” was now a false revival typified by the creation of the wrong kind of jobs. “No disrespect to our hamburger flippers in America,” said then Illinois Representative Rahm Emanuel, protesting a controversial memo to the president that recommended reclassifying food-service work as manufacturing labor. “They work and do a good job, and we are outperforming Japan and Germany and China in the hamburger-flipping business.”
This flippant political contortion was itself recycled from the Reagan years—the last period of genuinely explosive economic growth. “By destroying many high-paying factory jobs, are high-tech production techniques going to turn the United States into a nation of $50,000-a-year systems managers and $3.50-an-hour janitors and hamburger flippers?” bemoaned Walter Cronkite in September 1984.
Concern over the quality of “McJobs” always seems to be directly proportional to the GOP’s political fortunes. In the Obama presidency, the value of service employment was never an issue. Rather, the burning questions were whether employers could be made to pay a “living wage.” Now, in a new period of GOP dominance, the low aesthetic and supposedly mindless quality of this kind of employment will once again preoccupy liberal minds, especially if the unemployment rate remains.
They might have a problem pinning it on Trump, though, since his entire campaign accepted the “hamburger-flipper” argument in his insistence on reviving the manufacturing sector to “make America great again.” He used it to great effect against Obama and Hillary Clinton.
How Now, Dow Jones:
Democrats are also likely to rediscover the evils of a surging stock market in the Trump era if the Dow Jones Industrial Average continues along its present trajectory. For a glimpse of this coming reversion to a comfortable mean, Americans need look only to how the stock market’s performance was derided as a symptom of a societal sickness under Ronald Reagan.
“When politicians and pop culture impresarios refer to ‘the eighties,’ they usually mean the vapid, hedonistic, amoral years of America’s new gilded age, when yuppies reigned and greed was good,” writes the historian Gil Troy in Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980’s. For the other half, Troy noted that Reagan’s America was one characterized by drugs, crime, failing schools, socioeconomic breakdown, “selfishness, even hard-heartedness,” and an America in which the wealthy benefited disproportionately.
In July 1984, the Census noted an increase in the number of Americans living in poverty under Reagan. That finding was dubbed “the smoking gun of Reagan unfairness” by House Speaker Tip O’Neill. With inflation and unemployment down, GDP growth up, and the so-called misery index reaching its lowest point since 1972, Democrats had no choice but to bemoan the way economic performance was unfairly benefiting the wealthy and connected under Reagan. The rising tide on Wall Street (the 25-year bull market began in 1983) provided the grist for their mill. This is an argument that is almost certain to be resurrected to tarnish Trump.
It will be hard for Democrats and liberals to advance this one with a straight face, but one can expect them to shoulder on nonetheless. During a depressingly sluggish post-recession recovery in Obama’s two terms, Democrats lacked criteria by which they could declare the recession over and the liberal program a success. Their best case: The performance of the stock market.
The Implicit New Powers Trump will inherit from the outgoing president are staggering. The constitutional-law professor in the Oval Office routinely asserted the unilateral authority to act on his policy preferences based on the founding charter’s penumbras and emanations solely because Congress would not.
Donald Trump had not yet even taken office before the market’s performance was deemed of suspect value. “Greed is back on Wall Street after Trump’s win,” the headline in a report via CNN’s Paul R. La Monica blared just 10 days after Trump’s victory. By comparing the performance of bonds versus stocks, the CNN analyst devised an index by which he could measure the market’s level of greed. “The rapid shift in overall market momentum is another sign of Extreme Greed in our index,” La Monica observed. That’s, after all, fitting. “Trump first became famous in the ‘Greed is Good’ 1980s decade,” he wrote. The Third Gilded Age is upon us.
Caesar, Thou Art Mortal:
We can also expect the Democrats to be, all of sudden, alarmed, preoccupied, and horrified with executive overreach—thanks entirely to the unilateral expansion of executive authority by Obama, about which they were oddly silent when it mattered.
The portfolio of implicit new powers Donald Trump will inherit from the outgoing president is staggering. The constitutional-law professor in the Oval Office routinely asserted the unilateral authority to act on his policy preferences based on the founding charter’s penumbras and emanations solely because Congress would not. As a result, Trump will not only have the power to repeal existing executive orders, as have all of his predecessors, but is also being bequeathed “executive actions” that already have questionable legal authority.
Trump has been provided by immediate precedent with a new set of tools to try out when he sees fit. He might, say, delay the implementation of laws regardless of their legislative terms, because Barack Obama did just that when it came to the implementation of ObamaCare. If he wants to amend existing law and encounters a recalcitrant Congress, Trump can simply order executive agencies or department to issue waivers or statutory interpretations (i.e., the birth-control mandate that somehow was found to arise out of ObamaCare) that are in conflict with the letter of the law but comport with his personal preferences.
Democrats may also find themselves interested in the virtues of executive modesty when it comes to direct interference with the private marketplace. For his part, Trump harbors no ideological misgivings about such interference. He demonstrated this before taking office with the announcement of a deal to preserve a handful of jobs at an Indiana-based air-conditioning plant run by Carrier. By providing Carrier’s parent company, a defense contractor, with “inducements” in the form of taxpayer-provided benefits in exchange for meeting hiring and capital investment quotas, the Trump administration showed anti-laissez-faire colors. “The free market has been sorting it out, and America’s been losing,” lamented Vice President Mike Pence in December 2016. “Every time,” nodded President Trump. “Every time.”
To some Democrats, the Carrier deal represented a brand of what the Huffington Post dubbed “authoritarianism”—but it’s the kind of authoritarianism they are not sure they should oppose. In an interview with the Huffington Post, New America Foundation Open Markets Program Fellow Matt Stoller warned that the “incentives” represent leverage over Carrier’s owner, United Technologies, which Trump may use to impose Washington’s will on the private firm. “‘Do what I say, or else,’ is not a good way to run a country,” Stoller said. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy noted that liberals had rightly chided Trump for offering Carrier a “bribe” in exchange for a positive headline, even though this kind of “economic nativism and nationalism” has its constituencies.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Americans were told that it was the worst kind of pitiless capitalist excess to let a legacy industry like American automobile manufacturing go bankrupt. That argument won the day when the outgoing Bush administration extended emergency TARP funds to General Motors and Chrysler in December 2008 amid what CBS News described as “urgent requests” from President-elect Barack Obama and Congress. Most of those federal funds went to paying off the two troubled car firms’ debts and securing United Autoworkers union members’ pensions. While union members had their livelihoods bolstered in the form of an agreement from GM to preserve their existing wage rates, nonunion members of GM’s family saw their pensions eliminated. In the end, GM did turn to bankruptcy in 2009, which decimated the investments of small bondholders. One wonders how the Huffington Post might view this kind of politically expedient “authoritarianism” with the benefit of hindsight.
The Democratic Party’s rediscovery of the separation of powers and the problems of executive overreach will actually be salutary, even if the motivation will be grossly political.
Now, staring down the barrel of a GOP administration and Republican majorities in Congress, Democrats are indulging in a little wistful regret. “I, frankly, think many of us will regret that in this Congress, because it would have been a terrific speed bump, potential emergency break, to have in our system to slow down the confirmation of extreme nominees,” confessed Delaware Senator Chris Coons mournfully. Even incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tried to rewrite history by contending recently that he privately lobbied Democrats to pass on eliminating the filibuster in 2013, but he related that he “didn’t prevail.”
Schumer’s position on the nuking of the filibuster is a weathervane that shifts direction along with the winds. He was by no means an opponent of a proposed rules change when he told the audience of a March 2013 dinner that Senate Democrats would “fill up the D.C. circuit one way or the other.” “If the opposition was not to the person but just to filling the position, that was where we would draw the line,” Schumer told Think Progress on the eve of nuclear Armageddon. “This is getting close to that.”
The Democratic Party’s rediscovery of the separation of powers and the problems of executive overreach will actually be salutary, even if the motivation will be grossly political. And it will represent a healthy challenge to congressional Republicans, who were up in arms about Obama’s conduct but will now have to face an angry president of their own party if they make a stink about the matter.
Getting and Spending:
Democrats are about to turn into debt hawks. The Pavlovian liberal response to Republican governance was ably demonstrated by Nobel Prize–winning economist and New York Times opinion writer Paul Krugman. In a January column, he warned that the GOP was set to blow up the federal budget deficit “at almost precisely the moment that deficits were starting to matter again.” His column is replete with road-worn admonitions about the GOP’s alleged commitment to making the “rich richer” while conceding that deficit spending and government borrowing “competes with the private sector for a limited amount of money.” While railing against alleged GOP hypocrisy on the matter of budgets, Krugman appears unwavering in his determination to ignore his own.
The national debt was of little concern to Krugman and his fellow travelers as it nearly doubled from $11 trillion to $19 trillion over the course of the Obama presidency. But as Krugman demonstrates, Trumpian debt expansion will instantly be deemed wildly irresponsible and dangerous. Trump has promised a variety of big-ticket spending items as part of his agenda, including the extension of unemployment benefits to new mothers as a form of maternity leave and an approximately $1 trillion spending and public-works proposal. Unlike Obama’s 2009 stimulus, the Trump administration will supposedly seek to structure this plan in a way that maximizes public-private partnerships. Nevertheless, Congress would still be effectively writing a 13-figure check. Moreover, the desired effects of Trump’s infrastructure proposal are virtually identical to Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: Keynesianism, but in this case without the crisis that supposedly necessitates such extraordinary measures.
“Sometimes you have to prime the pump,” Trump told Time, echoing the central tenet of John Maynard Keynes’s prescriptions for growth amid times of economic adversity. But where is the depression-level calamity Trump seeks to address? There are, at present, no recessionary pressures on the economy. There is no liquidity crisis. There is no credit crunch. The GDP grew at a respectable 3.2 percent in the third quarter of 2016. Unemployment is relatively low, and the Dow is riding high. Only a prevailing sense of personal economic crisis among a segment of the voting public to which Trump feels indebted could possibly justify such fiscal illiteracy. But this is not just terrible policy; it’s also progressive in exactly the way Democrats are progressive. Will Democrats suddenly embrace frugality just to oppose a Republican? Will they become the callous wretches they have for so long opposed in the name of parsimony?
In early 2009, at the nadir of their political relevance, Republicans discovered enthusiasm for the conservative cause that they desperately needed in the spontaneous rise of the Tea Party. The passionate opposition displayed by average citizens to the prospect of unsustainable government spending proved to be a boon to the GOP. It provided the boost Republican candidates needed for their races in 2010. It created new recruiting and fundraising tools, and crowds who promised to take their anxieties with them into the voting booth.
The zeal the Tea Party brought to the table overshadowed its nastier elements: those within the movement who were not ideologically conservative but merely anti-Obama, some of whom harbored the suspicion that this new black president was secretly a Kenyan Muslim interloper. More fatefully, it led conservative Republicans to disregard surveys that found this populist movement was composed primarily of disaffected political refugees, including a large number of Democrats and independents who had little use for the conservative governing agenda.
Tea Party envy among Democrats isn’t new. The highest echelons of the party, including Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, were quick to embrace the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 in hopes it would serve as their own grassroots uprising even as their version of it came to be typified by acts of anti-social violence. This was the Democratic Party’s response to a midterm drubbing that cost the Democrats control of the House. How will the party respond now, in the middle of its darkest winter in nearly 100 years?
If history is any guide, the prospect of renewing public enthusiasm for the Democratic Party will overcome any prudent objections to unseemly or even violent tactics. We’ve gotten a taste of this in the deference Democrats and the White House displayed toward an aggressive, riotous, and ignorant group of agitators who made a bloody stand against a stretch of oil pipeline at the Standing Rock Reservation in late 2016.
The activist left is convinced that it now constitutes an underground resistance, the final bulwark against the fascist aims of an illegitimate Vichy regime. That may sound overly dramatic to outside observers, but it will prove to be a powerful organizing tool for a movement with no ability at present to get at the levers of power in Washington—and little attachment to conventional notions of civic propriety. This group of underground Democrats is, for now, a small band. It has the potential, though, for aggressive expansion with the right amount of incubation by imprudent members of a party out of power.
In performing as any opposition party must, Democrats appear ready to demonstrate that most of their so-called principled objections to Republican tactics in the Obama years were mere postures. There is no question that many voters are apprehensive about Donald Trump, but, owing to their many hypocrisies, Democrats are going to find thwarting his agenda a difficult task. They have only themselves to blame.