Like him or not — and I can argue it both ways — established constitutional processes have hoisted Donald J. Trump atop the presidential plinth, where he stands now, getting ready to run things, insofar as anybody runs anything anymore.
The latter point — the semi-chaotic nature of 21st century social and political life — is one we might fix on as we figure out what we’re in for these next four years.
Here is my guess: We are “in for” market-driven reforms led by an entrepreneur who will show us, as all entrepreneurs must in due course, whether he’s as good at execution as he is at salesmanship. Donald Trump, businessman, is the figure to keep your eye on: not Donald Trump, master manipulator; or Donald Trump, political visionary; or Donald Trump, true and faithful patriot. We have chosen for president a man of the marketplace, with a highly tuned sense of what works and what doesn’t.
This moment has been coming to us for a while. Ross Perot was its herald. He intended, if you recall, to “get under the hood” and tune up the national engine. That was a quarter of a century ago. Times aren’t as good now as they were then. Trump’s objectives, like America’s local and international enmeshments, are larger: vanishing industrial jobs, terrorism, energy, urban decline, immigration, police relations, health care, retirement policy and so on. He wants, in his brash, ultra-capitalistic way, to smash some old stuff by way of making new stuff — stuff that works. It’s what capitalists do.
So what’s the matter around here?
The inaugural address reference to national “carnage” and the repeated pledges to “make America great again,” less as a Reagan-esque “city on the hill” than simply as a thriving, well-functioning and, most of all, free community: What’s that all about?
It’s the way in which numerous Americans see their country and the challenges, as well as opportunities, now facing it. That is why so many Americans went to the polls last year and purchased, in essence, stock in a Trump comeback plan, its details sketchy, its vision encouraging or uplifting, depending on taste.
Donald Trump sees himself as a national turnaround artist. Could that be plainer?
But as I asked a moment ago, what’s the matter? Why the need for a turnaround — a need sensed by (I make bold to guess) all who voted for Trump?
The matter is the failure of Western liberalism. Liberalism has the vitality, coupled with the dimensions and avoirdupois, of a beached whale. It doesn’t work. It lies there and flops about a little.
Liberalism (renamed “progressivism” after it ceased to connote freedom) posits government — specifically, federal government — activity as the key to prosperity and happiness. If public schools no longer produce a “winning” (as Trump might say) product, throw more taxpayer money at them, and then some. Let Washington, D.C., and the teachers unions prescribe the standards. If tax policy discourages investment and leads to capital flight, let’s denounce tax cuts for “the wealthiest 1 percent” to keep from cutting the taxes paid by everyone else.
Let’s tell consumers what kind of energy to use — and business what kind not to develop and produce. Let’s turn health care into a transaction between government and provider, with the patient mostly a bystander. Why worry about the assimilation — linguistic, occupational or cultural — of newcomers to America inasmuch as concern with assimilation probably reflects prejudice and nativism?
The modern liberal/progressive project thrives on top-down control as opposed to the creative flexibility traditionally enjoyed by people at grass-roots level — to plan, to cooperate, to respond to real, as opposed to dreamed-up, needs.
The liberal/progressive project stems, it is fair to say, in part from well-motivated concerns about genuine problems. Care for those in need is unmistakably a social duty. Care that, on the other hand, compromises freedom and mortgages the prospects of unborn generations is an outrage.
No one would argue — well, except maybe Donald Trump — that Donald Trump has published with shining clarity his turnaround prospectus. But that, I think we should own, is what he’s up to — looking under the hood and throwing defective parts all over the landscape. I might not call it fun to watch. But fascinating? We may never again see the like.