Last week, the Department of Political Science and International Relations at SUNY New Paltz convened a roundtable discussion on the state of the Trump presidency a little more than two weeks in. Clocking in at just over an hour, the panel discussion and ensuing conversation with the audience set the context for where we are and where we might be going. The take-away was that one possible solution to Trump and his ambiguities lies in an institutional response to Trumpism, and that audience members might best channel their energies to directed political organization and action, including running for office, as a means to confront and resist the politics of prevarication and anti-democratic calumny over the next 4 years.
The panel, composed of Nancy Kassop, Stephen Pampinella, Daniel Lipson, and Gerald Benjamin, offered views grounded in the ethic of resistance and response, not reaction. The discussion was organized around questions posed by moderator Scott Minkoff. With particular attention to institutional dynamics, panelists offered their views on domestic government and politics, international relations, and environmental politics. The discussion focused in particular on two dimensions: Trump’s political strengths and weaknesses, and the institutions and industrial and populist partisans that are now organizing in opposition to the president’s inarticulate, inchoate arch-conservative, corporate-friendly policy agenda.
Starting out the conversation Nancy Kassop argued that Trump’s transition team did not prepare for its tenure in the White House; the other panelists seemed to agree that this lack of preparation has been remarkably costly. Power is being centralized in the White House, but Trump’s non-hierarchical “spokes-of-the –wheel” style of decision-making, staffed with people of uncertain expertise and allegiance, has produced a chaotic first few weeks in office.
Following Kassop, Stephen Pampinella argued that the process by which national security policy is implemented has broken down. This is a dangerous state of affairs at a time when the national interests of the United States have been cast as prior to international security. He also argued that the post-war liberal order, codified in the treaties and commitments that together frame and direct the political conduct and mutually advantageous trade among nations might well be threatened by Trumpism. Consider the astonishing fact that over the course of his first scheduled call with President Putin President Trump asked his advisors what the recently hammered out new START nuclear treaty was, and then immediately, and apparently without much consideration, denounced it. That, the past weekend’s fiasco over North Korea’s missile test, and the resignation of Michael Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor, on Monday suggest that the new administration has a lot of work to do before it can even begin to roll out its “America First” strategy.
Gerald Benjamin took a rigorously institutionalist approach. He argued that we have let the presidency and its related offices become increasingly more powerful over the last two hundred years, and it has become possible that the constitutional arrangements that were designed to control the presidency are ill-suited for our contemporary moment. Though it may be unwise to restructure the national constitution “because the risk is too great,” he said, “now we have this institution that is threatening the fundamentals of our [democratic] premises, and we’re going to test these institutions. We’re going to test federalism, separation of powers. We’re going to test the constraints that a piece of paper, a document, can place upon people who control armies.”
For Benjamin, the proper response to malfeasance is to re-direct those institutions to serve the public interest. Connecting federalism to resistance, both Benjamin and Lipson after him argued forcefully that Republicans across the country will push back on Trumpism in its most outrageous guises if only because some aspects of Trumpism might not suit the mainstream Republican brand. As Kassop noted, the resistance looks set to arrive in the form of lawsuits and legislation sponsored by states attorneys general alone, and in concert. Exactly that strategy recently proved successful: the 9th Circuit court unanimously refused to reinstate the Trump administration’s “Muslim” travel ban.
Benjamin encouraged the young students in the audience to rise up and vote for their preferred candidates and their preferred policies. Do it, he said, and who knows, we might have a public-centered politics yet again. Do it, run for local office, he said, and use that as training to run for state office, and then state-wide office, and then use that training to seek national office.
Dan Lipson offered a left-populist analytical view on the weaknesses of the Trump administration. He argued that though Trump promised miners and industrial workers sustainable employment in industries like coal, and manufacturing, structural forces within the market – such as automation and the cheaper cost of gas – would delay or fundamentally block the administration’s attempts to keep those promises. Jobs have been outsourced or outright cut not because of bad trade deals, but because of industrial transformation. Coal jobs simply aren’t coming back. Moreover, Lipson argued that factions within Trump’s coalition actually favor a direct response to our climate challenges. The Department of Defense, he said, considers environmental risks a major threat to our national security. The Koch Bros. and others on the right, he added, are now insisting the US needs to confront the reality of climate change.
Lipson added that Trump is much weaker than we think he is. The demographics are against him. His coalition is ripe for fracture, and it’s possible that his presidency is the long-delayed last stand of Reaganism. Striking notes familiar to readers of Corey Robin’s analysis in social media and in left-leaning publications, Lipson specified the content and context of the fight ahead.
The administration’s rocky first days have opened up the space for Democratic and populist resistance. Vocal opponents of President Trump like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand are already being mentioned as presidential candidates for the 2020 race. Still, these early days for the Trump administration foreshadow dangerous times for the nation and the world. This panel discussion foreshadowed that there is every promise of more to come.