Roundtable – Taking Stock On July 4th

The Roundtable is Torchlight staff’s discussion of news and events. The text has been lightly edited for clarity, and some links were added after the fact. This conversation happened on July 6, 2019.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Senior Managing Editor

Hello and welcome to today’s Roundtable, our regular Torchlight staff discussion of current events. As we gather here on the weekend after the Fourth of July, our nation’s birthday, it seems like a fitting time to take a step back and look at how the country is faring under the Trump administration. Do we have reason to celebrate? Is it better or worse than we’d feared on November 8th, 2016? How likely are we to survive to January 20th 2021? Let’s start with your broadest overview: how are we holding up, as a country? How are you holding up?

David Spitzley, Senior Contributor

Ok, let’s get this out of the way first. Speaking as a trained economist, it is my semi-professional obligation to state that Trump hasn’t hosed the economy. Employment trends are consistent with the Obama era, and wages seem to finally be shifting upwards a bit. Some of this is actually weird enough that economists are re-evaluating which employment measures are most informative in these conditions, but that’s not Trump’s doing.

That said, things are increasingly worrying. We still have historically low interest rates, which Trump has been pushing to be cut further, which means we’re vulnerable if a hiccup causes an economic downturn. We have a continuing acceleration in the trade war. And we have a massive tax cut which is driving up the deficit during the point in an economic cycle where it should naturally be falling. So while Trump hasn’t screwed up the economy yet, there’s still plenty of time.

Ann Anderson, Contributing Writer

I spent a 4th of July helping other people deal with their despair over the current situation, particularly with respect to the treatment of immigrant detainees at the southern border. Many folks I encountered expressed feelings of helplessness, clearly hitting a wall of “nothing we citizens can do seems to matter when it comes to preventing the travesties this administration commits.” I try to keep my own head above water, but I don’t disagree with their assessments that our country is sliding in a variety of policy, lawmaking, and ideological ways, and also that our republic is slipping more and more into seeming authoritarianism with barely a whimper from far too many people, from the top down. I am not saying things are unrecoverable, but, as this administration continues, I am constantly surprised by how far a centuries-old governmental system has eroded in only a few years.

Christopher Dahlin, Politics Editor (aka Christo)

We are creeping more and more up against what should be considered unacceptable. Our immigration policy, the citizenship question for the census, and so on. Last year and the year before, we were not expecting things to get this bad. But we shouldn’t be surprised that they have, because conservatives in government told us exactly where they were going

To build on Ann’s point, the destruction of norms and disregard of policy for ideology seems to be happening around the world. Brexit is going to damage Britain, and no one in power there wants to do anything. In myriad other countries, Hungary, Australia, and so on, nativism and authoritarianism are on the rise, and they weren’t exactly small to begin with.

I have slightly more faith in the resilience of our government and it’s functions, but the worst isn’t over yet.

Rue Tierney, Fact Checker

I agree with y’all, so I don’t think I need to reiterate how everything is terrible and we are sad about it. I guess the problem is that the Trump supporting side continue to be thrilled with what he’s doing, which is increasingly terrifying. It’s like living in a world where the emperor is naked, many people have pointed this out, and yet we’re still having arguments about his clothes. I think this sort of post-truth reality is what frustrates me most, and I don’t know how to talk to people who don’t care about fact. I don’t exactly know how we recover from that as a nation, as a world, when it’s already happened.

Josh

I think Ann is right in that it’s surprising how far we’ve come in a relatively short period of time. There are concentration camps on the border. Trump held a military parade in DC this week. He was credibly accused of rape (again) and nothing happened. 

It’s the “nothing happened” that bothers us most, I think. Nothing keeps happening. Trump commits an impeachable offense every week, it seems, or more, and yet there is really no mechanism, it seems, to deal with what’s happening, short of a Christmas Carol happening to Mitch McConnell or America suddenly doing Hong Kong levels of protesting. It’s depressing, but I think we just have to wait it out. Which makes me think about all the damage that is being done, not just to the country but to the institutions we’re going to need to try and fix things after Trump is gone. Two and a half years in, how well do you think our institutions are withstanding the administration’s efforts to dismantle, undermine, and corrupt them?

Christo

Obviously, we are going to find out, but a lot depends on how 2020 rolls. If we win, 4 years of this awfulness is less than 8 years. There will still be insitutional memory of how things are supposed to work.

For example, right now, our diplomatic power is completely hollowed out (Bolton, a warmongering bigot is one of our best choices when it comes to anything not Iran). It takes time to build these things up, and even longer to build the trust that these insitutions rely on. I think 4 years of Trump is survivable, if we also keep the House.

Unfortunately, Trump is not an abberration, but the Republican party writ without subtlety, competence, or intelligence. So we cannot be done. We can’t treat it like we beat Trump and go home and be done. We’re going to be fighting this fight for a long, long time.

Rue

I like that term ‘institutional memory’. Cause it’s like, yes, we have an idea of how things should we working. How we thought that they worked. How even legal scholars have said they should have worked, and yet things are still screwed up. I guess I feel like with gerrymandering and all of these attempts Republicans have made to consolidate power, including the alt-right media (which does media way better than the left ever has), along with these institutions failing to check the president, or democrats refusing to impeach–And I realize this could change, but why should I believe that? Where do we have any sort of indication that things are changing for the better, apart from feeling a sense of relief when one of Trump’s plans fails.

And I realize it’s not just Trump but without an overhaul of their party, I don’t see how anything changes without radical dissolution of some institutions, either in our favor or theirs. We just seem to be in a slow rot to the bottom at this pace.

Josh
A Crooked Media podcast episode I listened to talked about how Trump giving up on the census was a big win we should feel good about, but someone else on it countered that Trump trying and failing to do a horrible thing is, at best, neutral. And then of course Trump changed his mind and is trying to keep fighting. It is hard to be hopeful right now.

Ann

To be honest, some damage had already been done in some areas. For example, safety regulation of airlines had apparently been increasingly left in the hands of the industry for some time, and thus the FAA has been increasingly unable to watchdog, even prior to Trump’s inauguration, although his administration has, in many instances, accelerated the erosion of already eroding agencies.

In other areas, the Trump administration has seriously undercut things. For example, I encountered one report of the many things the Department of Agriculture does that are absolutely vital to numerous matters in this country, how the Obama administration came up with detailed manuals about the agency, and set aside time to orient and aid the transition to the Trump team, but no one from Trump’s administration showed up. So some agencies have never been properly staffed or run since the inauguration, which leaves no one to adequately transition the next administration and probably has left the agencies gutted of experienced staff.

Also, I feel the need to give the diplomatic corps a special mention, and not just for the reasons Christo stated. It is, quite frankly, as, if not more, important than the military, and it takes years to build up trained, experienced personnel. Past administrations spent resources to recruit and train people for the diplomatic corps, not just to beef it up, but also to keep it in good shape for the future. The Trump administration is, directly and indirectly, responsible for gutting that corps, and I recall some experts saying it will probably take at least a generation to recover from the damage.

Josh

I know Elizabeth Warren, at least, has a plan to try and fasttrack people back into the diplomatic corps.  You make a good point, that many government agencies under Trump were never functioning properly. But it also feels like we’ve entered a second act, a darker place. Under Tillerson the State Department was gutted but not actually turned to evil ends, now under Pompeo and Bolton we’re itching for a war with Iran. Under Sessions criminal justice reform stalled, but Barr is somehow even more of a corrupt crony.

Christo

Can’t fucking believe Sessions wasn’t the worst AG possible…

Josh

Trump Cabinet members used to get caught up in financial scandals, misusing department funds, like Zinke or Carson, but these days it seems that they’re all like CBP–let off the leash to actually abuse the government’s power to protect Trump and victimize the people he hates. I really don’t want to see what the third act here is.

Besides waiting for 2020, what gives you hope these days, if anything? Where are people being resilient and fighting back? Which institutions, inside or outside government, are filling in some of the gaps?

David

My main source of hope is how solid the Democratic bench is for the Presidential nomination. There are at least a half dozen candidates not on my “yes, please!” list who I was actually impressed by during the debates last week. If this was just about the presidency it wouldn’t make me as optimistic, but having a number of truly competitive progressive candidates really improves the chance of mobilizing Obama-scale turnout, taking back the Senate, and flipping more state legislatures. I think the Washington Post’s story today about how much fear of Reagan has undermined the Democratic Party is spot on, and the current surge of activism is really heartening for a marginally old fart to see.

Ann

I’ll reiterate that sentiment by saying that the recommitment by many citizens to be active participants in the process gives me hope. Another thing that makes me both sad and gives me incredible hope is that the younger generations of the country seem done taking any of this garbage. They know that the old men in government are dicing with a future that those old men won’t face, but the younger generations will. So they are rising up, and that means that the future already promises active, engaged citizens who are dedicated to getting the country to a better place. Grassroots efforts do work in the long run. It will take time, but I have faith that positive things will emerge.

Rue

Uhhhh hrm. Honestly, watching the Democratic debate was like whiplash. I’d be excited for someone, then dread would creep in like, ‘But you felt so great about Clinton!’ and so I’m trying to temper my expectations, though the field looks good. Honestly, my hope comes from other queer people on the internet who are just making art and living their lives, because I think that’s how it’s always going to be? Regardless of what’s going on in America, or the world, we’re not going away.

Josh

I worry sometimes that it’s wrong to even feel hopeful about this, or to feel like we’ll get through it, because I know the reason I’ll get through it is that I’m not directly in the crosshairs of this administration. But it doesn’t help those people for us to despair, either. I don’t have a lot of answers. This is a pretty bad 4th of July, one where it’s hard to be proud to be an American, one where the greatness (or the potential for greatness) of this country seems very fragile. I’m no longer certain there’s a line we won’t just let Trump and the GOP cross. People like to say that what’s happening is unacceptable, but I see an awful lot of them just accepting it.

Sorry for the doom and gloom, but that’s what I have today.

For final thoughts this week, I’d like us all to speculate on where we’ll be by the end of Trump’s first (and only, God willing) term. Are we at the part that’s darkest just before the dawn? Or is it going to get still darker from here?

Rue

So. I guess I don’t like to speculate about if things are going to get better or worse cause honestly everything that happens has been both totally predictable and horrifically shocking, right? But even if things go great. Peaceful transfer of power to your dem-o-choice. I think it’s going to take a tremendous amount of work even to bring us back to Obama-age status quo, which might be possible on a structural level but is definitely not possible on a cultural level. I think without a change in broadcast/online journalism, media literacy, restrictions on social media etc, I don’t know how we can even begin to talk to the other side without a basic understanding of certain facts, both personally and in our leadership. And I don’t even know what exactly that world looks like, to be honest.

Ann

I hate to say it, but it’s going to get darker still because there is nothing right now except the courts that are really keeping Trump’s administration in check, and Trump counters by defying those courts whenever they block him, which just leads to more litigation and no resolution. Plus, we cannot count on the ultimate court, i.e., the Supreme Court, to keep him in check. It’s also going to get darker because, while Trump is a cause, he is also a symptom. The causes of that symptom won’t go away, even if the Trump presidency does somehow managed to be reined in along the way. I can’t say where we’ll be because honestly, if you asked me on January 2017 if we would have slid this far by January 2021, I would have said that it wasn’t possible. So while I have faith in the long run, I think the short run is going to continue to feel like falling in a bottomless pit.

David

I’m by nature an optimist, a long-term thinker, and as mentioned an economist. Trump’s reign is like exposing an infection. There is no way for white America, male America, anybody of good conscience to ignore what his administration means about the state of our country. No matter how bad it gets, we will eventually rebuild our country because we no longer have the luxury of deluding ourselves that race relations are fine, that sexism is on the decline, etc., and the demographics required to keep the white nationalist project going are simply not sustainable. This may take another decade, and it may be horrible, but we will win.

Christo

Finally time for the Union to win the Civil War?

David

“Reconstruction Will Rise Again”

Christo

Ann is correct in that because there is no way to get Trump out before 2020, this gets worse before it gets better. And the potentiality is for it to get much, much worse. The Republicans are still unquestionably backing Trump. What if he refuses a peaceful transition of power? Not just in an incompetent transition (I assume that former Obama officials will help with some of the transition, but that is the optimist in me), but refuses to take a loss? 

The thing is, we shouldn’t worry about that stuff before it happens. There are monsters to fight now. Issues to be aware of now. We can worry about the next dumb, monstrous thing Trump does when he does it, right now we need to be concerned with turnout, and enthusiasm, and making sure we are all on the same page vis a vis he needs to be gone. Because once that happens, he may tantrum, but we can beat him at every turn.

Josh

Ultimately, the best thing we can do with our anger and our fear is to let it power our resolve to make sure we don’t miss our chance to at least stop the bleeding next November. Only then can we begin to undo the damage.

And that’s where we’ll leave it for now. Thanks, everyone, for a lively discussion, and thank you for reading.

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