America enters 2017 divided, with major questions hovering over Trump presidency, writes Julian Zelizer
One side fears consequences of Trump presidency, the other has grand expectations of positive change, he writes
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He also is the co-host of the podcast Politics & Polls. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
It’s a safe bet that 2017 will be a year for the history books.
In the world of politics, we have not seen anything like this in recent memory, or maybe ever. Donald Trump rocked the U.S. with an election victory that almost nobody saw coming. His campaign, his persona, his style, and his rhetoric were unlike anything else that we have seen from a mainstream political candidate, let alone a victor.
After such a turbulent year, it’s not easy to say where America is headed. But here are a number of major political issues that could well dominate 2017:
Can we make progress on increasing middle class security?
If there was one big issue that came out front and center in this election, it is the fact that middle class Americans are struggling.
Even though the economic indicators are good, many Americans families don’t feel that their future is secure. They look at the growing economic divide between the rich and the poor, fearing that they and their children will fall down the bottom rung of the latter.
They are doing much better in terms of employment and income than they were a few years ago, but the kinds of jobs they enjoy seem less stable than in the heyday of unions, with fewer benefits and worse prospects for upward mobility. With rising education and health care costs, they worry about how their kids will do.
This issue animated the supporters of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. The economic anxiety drove millions of voters to choose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, believing that a fundamental change to the status quo is now essential if their communities are ever going to be rebuilt.
Whatever divisions exist between the parties, there is in fact common ground on this basic problem. The question will be whether the Trump administration decides to act on these concerns, and to do so in a way that could allow Democrats to give him their support.
While there are certain issues where Trump will clearly stick to the Republican playbook, such as supply side tax cuts, there are other areas such as infrastructure where there is the possibility for a deal. The key will be that the infrastructure package can’t be a series of tax cuts for private projects, as Trump has thus far suggested, but rather needs to be the kind of stimulus spending that will provide workers with good jobs.
How can we strengthen our counterterrorism policies?
It is now time to thoroughly revamp our counterterrorism policy.
In the wake of ISIS, the United States and the world has increasingly been facing the troubling threat of a dispersed terrorist network that depends on lone wolves who commit horrendous acts in their name.
The kinds of attacks that we are now seeing might be considered attacks on “soft targets,” such as holiday markets and nightclubs, that usually are not the focus of concerted security operations.
Furthermore, the terrorism is often committed by deranged individuals who have proclaimed their unity with ISIS even if they have little if any direct connection.
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As a nation and as an international community we have failed to put into place an effective strategy to combat these threats. We need to rethink our security measures and develop a better way to flag individuals who might be problematic. We also need to direct our security operations toward soft targets and not simply major tourist sites.
Until we do so, we will be living on the perpetual edge.
Are our democratic institutions sound?
The question of whether our democratic institutions can withstand a Trump presidency have been raised by many of his loudest critics. Independent candidate Evan McMullin has been at the front of the pack, writing a number of important pieces warning that he sees autocratic and totalitarian tendencies in the new president that can threaten the freedom of the press, other civil liberties, and more.
Trump’s expansive understanding of executive power will put the other branches of government on alert, and in a defensive position. Conservatives who have been blasting Democrats about too much government interference in the economy have winced as the president has lashed out against specific businesses and started to warn that if they move their plants overseas he will take punitive action against individual companies.
His refusal so far to take sweeping steps to eliminate the potential conflicts of interest that exist with his business empire has raised alarms about whether this president will make big decisions about domestic and foreign policy with his eye on his family’s bottom line rather than what is in the best interest of the nation.
Although complaints about excessive executive power and the abuse of authority are a perennial in politics, the genuine concerns about the health of our democratic institutions today are more intense than at any time in recent memory.
What happens to American journalism?
US journalism can legitimately be viewed as in a state of crisis. This past year exposed a number of structural, professional and technological challenges that are shaking the core of this industry. The commercial pressures facing most major news organizations on television and in print has often led to the pursuit of stories that might not be worthy of so much attention but which do guarantee lots of eyeballs.
We have an incoming administration that will clearly challenge the press in a way we have not seen since President Richard Nixon and his Vice President Spiro Agnew went after the “nattering nabobs of negativism” by withholding information from reporters and avoiding as much direct contact as possible. Social media affords Trump an opportunity to reach his followers while bypassing mainstream media.
Trump doesn’t hesitate to directly attack journalists, as he has done via Twitter, in a toxic social media environment that stimulates fierce attacks from his followers.
The phenomenon of fake news and the willingness of political actors to say things that are patently untrue will force reporters to figure out how to handle this kind of information while adhering to high-level professional standards.
All of the challenges have been brewing for some time now; they are not an invention of 2016. But this election brought them all to the forefront of national debate and, for some, revealed the dangerous consequences this era of journalism can produce.
What happens to the genies that have been let out of the bottle?
Although many Republicans are acting as if they can move swiftly past the underside of the recent Republican campaign, they can’t. Ignoring the vitriol from the past year grossly minimizes the very dark forces that emerged throughout Donald Trump’s campaign.
Through his polemical and controversial statements, Trump mobilized some of the most reactionary elements of the electorate. His own words about illegal immigrants being “rapists and murderers,” his sexist invectives, his broadsides against the entire religion of Islam and his hesitance to disassociate himself from people like David Duke energized fringe groups of Americans who have been angry about the pluralistic direction of America society since the 1960s.
Just because the campaign is over and Trump is switching to “governance” mode doesn’t mean that all the voters and organizations energized by his campaign will go away. They liked Trump because they believed he was their candidate, and they are expecting him to deliver.
You can’t play around with those political passions for political purposes and then assume they are forgotten. Whether Democrats and Republicans can push back on these forces will be an essential part of the upcoming year. As fearmongers have discovered in the past, it is often impossible to reverse the damage that these campaigns have wrought. The uptick in hate crimes that has followed the election could be just a taste of things to come.
What will the Democrats do?
This will be an urgent matter for the losing party. The Democrats were really slammed in this election. With united government, Republicans can now make immense changes if they stay on the same page.
It’s not clear that Democrats know what they should do. Some of them feel they need to cooperate with the administration, looking to possible areas of agreement.
Others are dead set against any proposals to work with Trump given what he represents and the radical threat that he, his Cabinet, and the Republican Congress pose to the social safety net. They have seen how Republicans have done well politically by being obstructionist throughout Obama’s presidency. And now they feel that there is no reason that they can’t do the same.
The battle over who should direct the Democratic National Committee has turned into a debate about who has the best vision for rebuilding the electoral and organizational muscle of Democrats after they have suffered so many blows since 2010 with more and more of the political map looking red.
Democrats will have to start making some big decisions about how to respond in the first few months of the New Year. The earliest battle might be when Trump puts an infrastructure bill forward. They will also have to decide how to respond if President Trump uses executive power to start to undo the progress that President Obama made on core issues like climate change, perhaps by walking away from the Paris Agreement, or on criminal justice reform relating to sentencing.
Will we go to war?
The possibility of expanded military conflict may have increased with the outcome of the election. President-elect Trump is someone who does not mind being provocative and has made some extremely hawkish statements about how he plans to take on threats like ISIS, although at times he has sounded an isolationist theme and spoken out against nation-building.
Within a few days of winning office, he took a call from the leader of Taiwan, a clear blow to the “one China” policy that the US has followed since the 1970s, and Trump continued the theme with blistering tweets about the last remaining communist superpower.
He is supportive of a Russian government that can easily create explosive situations around the globe. There are also many people who have his ear, such as National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and possible Deputy Secretary of State John Bolton, who may be willing to use military force as a first resort. Will the abundance of generals in the Cabinet lead to a preference for using military force over diplomacy?
We are already living in heated times. The civil war in Syria has led to a humanitarian disaster that is not likely to end anytime soon. An emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin will throw more support behind the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. These existing conflicts, with a US president who has even bolder visions about who he would be willing to take on, leaves the world sitting with bated breath to see what comes next.
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The most important concrete issue that will be on the table is the Iran nuclear deal. Although this deal was extremely controversial when put into place, it has now become operationalized. Even critics like Gen. James Mattis, the nominee for Secretary of Defense, don’t think it is possible to reverse. But if Trump uses his executive power to undo the deal, this would be the first clear sign that we are moving closer to a dangerous war with Iran.
America enters 2017 divided, with one side fearing the consequences of a Trump presidency and the other with grand expectations that we are about to embark on a period of positive change. We will soon find out who’s right.