Wellllll, we’re back. I know we’ve been back for a week, but your correspondent couldn’t face the world and instead devoted himself to a slow tour of the Baltic states. Amber, patterned knitwear, old towns and mincemeat pancakes, since you ask. Now, 2017 can no longer be held off. Your correspondent thought he might start slow, sneak in with some light summer reflections. But ah, can’t be done, as an opener. Looking ahead into 2017 is like looking into the dragon’s mouth.
Next week, Donald Trump will be inaugurated as 45th President of the United States, and, finally, the two-month phony war will be over — these past two months in which anti-Trump forces have been attempting to foment an opposition to a man who as yet has had no real executive power. This has only served to burnish his charismatic, spectral power, the command he gets from not being leader. It has left his opponents looking as if they are still questioning the election result, the very possibility of it. But of course, he could not not be opposed. That was the delicious nature of the problem, delicious for the Trumpistas, everything flowing in golden tribute to him, not the last such allusion we will have in this article.
Simultaneously and separately, Trump has been weakened as has no other president before his term began (oh OK, Benjamin Harrison, then) by the accusations not merely of Russian interference, but of complicity between the Trump campaign and Russian security forces, Putin cronies, the shadow state, the deep state, etc. Trump’s erratic behaviour has only served to emphasise this, even in the context of the amnesiac US public culture. This is the man, after all, who publicly called on the Russian FSB to “find” Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 “missing” emails, and who has played out a bizarre public semi-bromance with Putin as well.
The fact that such cosying up to Russia has not damaged Trump among his addled supporters — where Obama was accused of treason for not coming to blows with the country in Syria — shows what stage a section of the US right has got to: the Vichy stage, in which hatred for the “cosmopolitan” forces within its own society runs so deep that it would rather ally with like-minded people among its enemies than restore national solidarity.
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The discourse of the right is now so tangled — Obama divided the country, but we’ve got more in common with Christian reactionaries overseas than our own; Obama weakened the country, but hey maybe Putin can sort out Islamic State; Obama diminished US standing in the world, but Trump’s right, Ukraine’s not worth a war for — that no genuine debate with it is possible. Such Americans are isolationist and supremacist, global reactionaries and exceptionalists, all at the same time. Their politics is a hysterical reaction to decline, and in its hysteria it returns to the root fantasy, the Reagan years — remembered as those of projected strength, despite the forced withdrawal from Lebanon, the farcical “Star Wars” plan, and the friendly back-route dealings with Shia fundamentalism during the Iran-contra affair.
Well, in a week Trump will own all of this, and the slightly giddy note affecting Trumpistas in the US and abroad will have to resolve to something else. The fantasy won’t end immediately, of course. The sheer joy his supporters and the wider right will experience from a couple of days rescinding Obama executive orders will carry over for a long time, and Trump has managed to call in favours/bribe/bully a few corporations into leaving some token factories in the rust-belt. Whatever chaos and disorder there is at the beginning, there’ll be enough sound and fury to cover it for a while. On most issues.
The exception is the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare, which Congress has already, again, defunded in bill form. They have done so in the House at least 60 times before. But now they have the Senate and the White House to carry it through. This is already shaping up as a problem since it’s become clear that a lot of people benefiting from the ACA voted for Trump in the belief that he wouldn’t “really” abolish it, and would in any case replace it with something “better”. There’s another bunch of people who think the ACA was different to Obamacare, and that the former was a Republican measure designed to solve the problem of Obamacare. And there is a third group just now realising that ACA/Obamacare was not merely the health insurance purchase mandate for the uninsured, but also a ban on exclusion of pre-existing conditions from insurance, fee caps on services relating to chronic illness and the extension of family coverage into the mid-20s for students and the post-study unemployed.
The Republican Congress cares not a whit for that; they have done the bidding of their health insurance paymasters and attacked without remorse. But Trump promised a better system and universal coverage, something impossible to achieve without the mandate, which draws healthy young people into the fee pool. Trump’s only path to fuller coverage is either an NHS-style system or an unlimited chequebook for purchase of insurance on the open market, the bill for which would be staggering. Trump’s populist appeal depends on it, as does his messiah complex, that he is going to bring “such great healthcare, the best healthcare” (“we have the best showers, our showers are golden”) to the American people.
He might also have his mind focused on something else: the greatest achievement of Obamacare was in causing it to exist in any form at all. Assisted health insurance has been talked of for so long that people had become sceptical of the claim. Not having it, they felt no loss when it failed. Now 20 million people are about to lose some or all their insurance — and they have another 40-50 million relatives and friends. For a few million people, withdrawal of the ACA will mean the return of sickness held at bay, pain, misery and worry beyond belief. For thousands it will mean a hastened death. Obama was enough of an old-school political realist to see that the crucial political act was to get the thing through in any form at all, and lay the basis for a political army willing to fight for it.
Getting people healthcare they could lose was, thus, an extreme way of making contact with the sort of American who is tactfully called the “low information” citizen — people so incapable of framing basic political questions in their heads that they need some real, immediate, personal event to have them join the polity at any point. The question is not merely quantitative but qualitative as well. Ask yourself how much you’d fight to have the tree at the end of your road saved from being cut down for road-widening. Now ask yourself how much you’d fight, and with what methods and determination, to stop your chronically ill child being thrown off their health insurance. The Republicans may well be unpleasantly surprised by the sort of new political force that emerges from their actions. The old rule of American politics — that no one sees the next thing coming — might hold true. No one saw the Tea Party coming, and that movement was partially built from the top down.
That will be Trump’s first challenge, is my suspicion. Beyond that he will have to deal with the impossibly contradictory and unachievable goals he has set — 4% growth, reindustrialisation, military expansion, entitlement protection, tax cuts, deficit reduction and debt retrenchment — and the prospect of further and more explicit revelations about Russian and other connections (the failure of such to go away has the distinct feel that Watergate had around the time of the Nixon inauguration — not yet nailed down, or substantiated, not going away neither).
Finally, the method of government will have to be sorted out. Trump is not going to be a full hands-on president in the Clinton or Obama mode putting in 12-14 hour days on the detailed and tedious work of the presidency, but nor is he going to be content to allow his cabinet to run their own ticket, and sign off as required. He is, most likely, going to be both hands on, and extremely unprepared. Every new US administration is disorganised and mistake-prone, because the role is unique; beyond the early fanfares, this one is going to be a doozy. Quite possibly, they will perform a few high-profile, simple acts — mostly retrenchment of Obama initiatives — to great and apparent success. But even these will have unintended consequences not much further down the track.
The contemporary right, in its Trump/Brexit/Abbott-Bronwyn-Bolt etc manifestation has entirely lost contact with the lumpy, choppy business of real-world government. The contemporary right is punk in its deepest sense, the essence of punk being a turn to destruction, and self-destruction as a last ditch defence against the acknowledgement that your fantasy projection has failed. The Trump presidency will be the first full manifestation of the punk right in action (Abbott lacked the focus even to be destructive). As the year goes, he may be joined by full and actual Brexit, and the victory of Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. Anyone saying good riddance to 2016 was deluding themselves. If you “liked” the year past, you’re going to love the one coming. Let freedom rain!