The New Trumpian Landscape

When I created this site, the policy landscape for urban America seemed fairly predictable– continued divided national government, with a centrist Democrat in the White House and a Republican majority in the House and probably the Senate. That alignment would provide, as it has in the recent past, opportunities for incremental improvements in the quality of urban life and some hope for reversing the mounting inequalities that threaten America’s economic and social stability.

The 2016 election upset that projection, to say the least, and I have followed very closely the staffing and emerging governing philosophy of the Trump Administration. Putting aside the thousands of subplots and and nth-order considerations, I believe you’re left with two basic conditions that define the new landscape:

  1. America’s now has a President who is profoundly ignorant and has serious personality disorders, and;
  2. He will enable right-wing extremists to pursue a reactionary domestic legislative agenda and belligerent foreign policy goals unimpeded.

The first of those realities was obvious to many, maybe even a majority, of Americans before the election and has only become more obvious since. I think that as the country gets to know him better we will only become more astonished at the vastness of his ignorance and the severity of his personality flaws. Being a New Yorker I have been exposed to a constant dribble of Donald Trump for most of my life, and I have never seen him do or say anything that contradicted my basic assessment of his character. That he didn’t know who Frederick Douglas is, or was, comes as absolutely no surprise. Perhaps his ignorance results from having Adult ADHD, I cannot say, but there is plenty of circumstantial and testimonial evidence that he has read few if any books in his adult life.

Having seen egocentrism corrupt people I trusted early in my career, I have ever since been wary of associating with folks with malignant egos. That’s one traditional Christian teaching I fully agree with: “pride,” or hubris, or egotism, is the most serious of the seven deadly sins. People with out-sized egos are not just annoying, they’re dangerous. Going back decades, I recognized Trump as having an acute case of megalomania, in fact a spectacular case of it.  Although his narcissism has been widely noted, I think it is nevertheless being underestimated. Trump’s narcissism is his dominant motivation; most, if not all, of his actions can be interpreted as satisfying that enveloping personality drive.

On the plus side, I think his authoritarian tendencies have been exaggerated. Adulation, not power, has been his lifelong quest. He is closer to Berlusconi than Mussolini. Though he will clearly test the limits of his constitutional powers (he tests all limits on his behavior), I don’t think he harbors a conscious plan to subvert the basic institutions of our democracy or that he sought the presidency in order to unfurl a malevolent design upon the nation. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s already looking forward to his post-presidency, when he can entertain a never-ending procession of rich and famous admirers at Mar a Lago.

Nevertheless, his temperament presents a great danger to the nation as a whole and to its cities in particular. His demonstrated tendency to escalate disagreements rather than to pacify them, and to inflame crises rather than quell them, may bring to a boil unrest that was already stirring before his election.  Among other scenarios, it is only a matter of time before another video of an unwarranted police shooting of a black civilian surfaces. How will the public response to such a situation play out with Donald Trump, rather than Barak Obama, setting the tone? Unfortunately, I can easily see a cycle of increasing protester rage and police repression taking hold, egged on by inflammatory tweets from the Divider in Chief. We have seen from Detroit, from Newark, from Bushwick, and from Los Angeles that civil unrest, once it escalates to riot, can leave lasting scars on the physical and psychic fabric of a city.

While the flaws of Donald Trump’s character and intellect were well known long before the election, the public policy orientation of a potential Trump Administration was undetermined.  There were those who hoped that his populist platitudes and “New York values” indicated that he would govern as a centrist, mixing up the established lines between Republican and Democratic domestic policies.  Any such hopes have been completely dispelled by his staff and cabinet selections, a collection of reactionary ideologues and plutocratic overlords far more insidious than any assembled by preceding Republican administrations.

Aside from the odious presence of white supremacists Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller in key policy roles, there is the anti-labor businessman Andrew Pudzer as Secretary of Labor, the environmental regulation opponent Scott Pruitt as EPA Administrator, and the charter school champion Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary.  During his campaign Trump repeatedly vowed not to cut Social Security or Medicare, but his appointment of Tom Price as Secretary of Health and Human Services belies that pledge. Price has been a prominent advocate of privatization of both Social Security and Medicare, and in fact pushed for a more extreme version of privatization than President Bush proposed in 2005. With privatizers leading both the House and the Senate, and installed as heads of both HHS and OMB, it hard to see Trump’s previous pledges of protecting Social Security and Medicare meaning much.  We have already seen the Administration’s willingness to twist and contort its previous language; undermining Social Security and Medicare and presenting it as a fix will not be a difficult verbal challenge for them.

It is hard to see Jeff Sessions, the new Attorney General, pursuing any initiatives that will advance progressive urban policy. Despite his misleading claims, he has not been an enthusiastic supporter of school desegregation efforts, and as the Attorney General of Alabama he fought legal attempts to remedy inequities in school funding. Equitable school funding is an issue of primary importance to urban areas; fortunately, most of the key legal battles over school funding are fought at the state level.

The new HUD Secretary, Ben Carson, has also expressed a lack of enthusiasm for federal desegregation policies. I’ll admit, I have more sympathy for Ben Carson than I have for most of Trump’s other domestic policy appointees, and his argument about the possible unintended consequences of the Inclusive Communities decision wasn’t as silly as some detractors claim.  Furthermore, he doesn’t seem to be fundamentally hostile to the mission of the agency he was appointed to lead, which in the Trump Administration is a big plus.  However benign his intentions, though, I believe he’ll be eaten alive by Paul Ryan, Diane Black and Mick Mulvaney.

Through the first month, most of the drama (and comedy) of the new administration was provided by the White House staff–the machinations of Bannon and Kushner, the hilarity of Conway and Spicer.  The action will now begin to shift to the cabinet secretaries and the operating agencies and, I believe, Mick Mulvaney will emerge as one of the pivotal characters. None of Trump’s insiders have any experience with the federal budget but the two secretaries that do, Price and Mulvaney, are known as extreme budget hawks. Mulvaney was a member of the House Freedom Caucus who took intransigent positions on the debt ceiling crises in 2011 and 2013 and has already clashed with John McCain over defense budgets. Mulvaney, an architect of the House’s “Cut, Cap and Balance” plan of 2011, will now be in a position to implement the discretionary budget cuts called for in that document, which are paralleled by Paul Ryan’s own budget plan, probably with little policy pushback from a White House that is inexperienced and preoccupied with its daily chaos.

The budget fireworks are likely to start soon.  The President is required to submit his budget request to Congress by the first week of February, although new presidents are often given leeway.  Providing a firm deadline for Trump’s budget request is, however, expiration of the suspension of the federal debt ceiling on March 15. Even if Trump’s desire to be the Most Popular Person Who Ever Lived imbues him with a bias against cutting programs that are useful to governors, mayors and real estate developers, who is there in the White House knowledgeable enough to push back once Mulvaney starts slashing?