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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Follow-Up Notes for America’s Students on ‘The Politics of Cowardice’

New York Times columnist David Brooks’s “The politics of Cowardice,” which he “directed at high school and college students,” includes a few distortions, as well as an excellent, though disturbing psychological portrait of President Trump.

From Brooks’s perceptive take on Trump:

Consider the tenor of Trump’s first week in office. It’s all about threat perception. He has made moves to build a wall against the Mexican threat, to build barriers against the Muslim threat, to end a trade deal with Asia to fight the foreign economic threat, to build black site torture chambers against the terrorist threat.

Trump is on his political honeymoon, which should be a moment of joy and promise. But he seems to suffer from an angry form of anhedonia, the inability to experience happiness. Instead of savoring the moment, he’s spent the week in a series of nasty squabbles about his ratings and crowd sizes.

If Reagan’s dominant emotional note was optimism, Trump’s is fear. If Reagan’s optimism was expansive, Trump’s fear propels him to close in: Pull in from Asian entanglements through rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Pull in from European entanglements by disparaging NATO. It’s not a cowering, timid fear; it’s more a dark, resentful porcupine fear.

We have a word for people who are dominated by fear. We call them cowards. Trump was not a coward in the business or campaign worlds. He could take on enormous debt and had the audacity to appear at televised national debates with no clue what he was talking about. But as president his is a policy of cowardice. On every front, he wants to shrink the country into a shell.

…Desperate to be liked, Trump adopts a combative attitude that makes him unlikable. Terrified of Mexican criminals, he wants to build a wall that will actually lock in more undocumented aliens than it will keep out. Terrified of Muslim terrorists, he embraces the torture policies guaranteed to mobilize terrorists. Terrified that American business can’t compete with Asian business, he closes off a trade deal that would have boosted annual real incomes in the United States by $131 billion, or 0.5 percent of G.D.P. Terrified of Mexican competition, he considers slapping a 20 percent tariff on Mexican goods, even though U.S. exports to Mexico have increased 97 percent since 2005.

Trump has changed the way the Republican Party sees the world. Republicans used to have a basic faith in the dynamism and openness of the free market. Now the party fears openness and competition.

Here Brooks provides one of the most insightful descriptions of what is eating Trump. But Brooks does have his blind spots. He suffers, as do most conservative columnists, from romaticized  delusions about Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Brooks and other conservatives often describe the Reagan years as a  sort of golden age, and they tend to give him nearly all of the credit for the end of the Cold War and its nuclear arms race

Mr. Brooks does mention Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as a partner in this effort. In reality, most of the post-World War II American presidents took part in the arms race with the Soviet Union, and Gorbachev deserves most of the praise for the winding down of the Cold War. He was the  visionary realist who took the bold action for disarmament, economic and political reforms needed to spark this historic transformation. Reagan does merit some credit for not screwing up disarmament, but the Republican tendency to glorify Reagan’s contribution is one of the more grotesque exaggerations of recent history.

The other thing students should note about Reagan is that Republicans and conservative writers have also distorted his record on economic progress. As Robert Borosage wrote of the effects of Reagan’s economic policies,

…Reagan opened the campaign against government domestic spending that leaves us with an aged infrastructure that is dangerous to our health, schools that put children at risk, and record numbers struggling simply to feed their families. Poverty levels began rising under Reagan and have remained high, other than in the couple years of the Clinton presidency when full employment began to lift all boats

…Free trade was the label affixed to a trade policy defined by and for multinational companies and banks. Under Reagan, America began shipping jobs rather than goods abroad. When Reagan fired the PATCO strikers, he signaled to corporate America that it was open season on unions. The combination was lethal for America’s manufacturing base — and for the family wage that was the signature of America’s broad middle class.

Deregulation gutted consumer protection, environmental protection, workplace safety and the right to organize under Reagan. It led to many scandals that made his administration one of the most corrupt in history, with a record 138 officials investigated, indicted or convicted. But the biggest change was deregulation of banking, which led to successive financial wildings and crashes that have cost taxpayers literally trillions. The first was the Savings and Loan debacle that followed on Reagan’s reforms that empowered banksters to gamble with other people’s money, with their losses guaranteed by the federal government.

America’s students can find a Republican President who actually deserves more praise in President Eisenhower, who, unlike Reagan, actually built important stuff, like the interstate highway system, which laid the infrastructure foundation for the nation’s post-war prosperity. Eisenhower was also one of the nation’s greatest military leaders, and he merits further admiration for his warning about the corrupting power of militarism. Eisenhower, like Reagan, would be horrified by Trump’s undignified leadership.

Note also that President Reagan had a cynical side, as well as the  “sunny faith” in America cited by Brooks. Reagan, more than most post-war presidents actively obstructed civil and human rights in America, often in ugly ways and comments conservative writers rarely acknowledge. As Sidney Blumenthal wrote in The Guardian,

Reagan opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (calling it “humiliating to the South”), and ran for governor of California in 1966 promising to wipe the Fair Housing Act off the books. “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house,” he said, “he has a right to do so.” After the Republican convention in 1980, Reagan traveled to the county fair in Neshoba, Mississippi, where, in 1964, three Freedom Riders had been slain by the Ku Klux Klan. Before an all-white crowd of tens of thousands, Reagan declared: “I believe in states’ rights.

Reagan’s awful civil rights and economic policies notwithstanding, he did actually negotiate in good faith with Democrats, unlike Trump, McConnell and Ryan. Credit Reagan also for upholding the basic dignity of his office — a quality, we have learned can no longer be taken for granted.

2 comments on “Follow-Up Notes for America’s Students on ‘The Politics of Cowardice’

  1. Jack Olson on

    If “Reagan opened the campaign against government spending”, that must have been one of the campaigns he lost. Total federal spending was $940 billion in 1980 before he took office, it was $1,662 billion in 1987, his last year in office. Military spending went from $168 billion in 1980 to $320 billion. Meanwhile, welfare spending went from $95 billion to $140 billion, which hardly represents a cut. Federal spending on education went from $152 billion to $240 billion. It went up, not down. Source of figures: Office of Management and Budget Only in Washington is an increase in spending called a cut.

    • Jack Olson on

      Edited to add: Sorry for my blunder, his last year in office was of course 1988. But, 1987 was his next to last year in office and federal spending by then was dramatically higher than before he took office. At $1,771 billion, federal spending was still higher in 1988 than it had been in 1987. This does not sound like a campaign against government spending. In 1980, health care spending had been 9% of the budget and it was 10% of the budget in 1988. (Office of Management and Budget) That isn’t a cut in health care spending.


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