Is President Trump an aberration whose defeat in 2020 would allow the nation to begin rebounding toward normalcy? Or does his ascendance reflect long-running national pathologies and deeply ingrained structural economic and political problems that will intractably endure long after he’s gone?
The answer to this question — which has been thrust to the forefront by the Democratic presidential primaries — is, in a sense, both. Trump represents both a continuation of and a dramatic exacerbation of those long running pathologies and problems.
As of now, Elizabeth Warren appears to be the Democratic candidate who most fully grasps the need to take both of those aspects of the Trump threat seriously. The Massachusetts senator is, I think, offering what amounts to the most fully rounded and multidimensional response to that threat.
In recent days, Warren has addressed the deeper issues raised by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report — and the reaction to it from Trump and Republicans — in by far the most comprehensive way.
Warren takes on the GOP
In an important moment on the Senate floor on Tuesday, Warren took strong issue with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s profoundly cynical effort to treat this all as a closed matter. “Case closed,” McConnell said, speaking not just about Mueller’s extensive findings of likely criminal obstruction of justice by Trump but also about Trump’s eagerness to reap gain from Russia’s sabotage of our elections, which McConnell blamed on Barack Obama.
In response, Warren again called for an impeachment inquiry, but she did more than that: She indicted the Republican Party as a whole for shrugging off Trump’s epic misconduct and wrongdoing.
Warren has also pointed out more forcefully than any rival has that Trump tried to derail an investigation not just into his own campaign’s conduct, but also into the Russian attack on our democracy — which Trump has refused to acknowledge happened at all, hamstringing preparations for the next attack.
As McConnell’s speech showed, the GOP is all in with that as well. And the GOP appears all in with Trump’s escalating efforts to treat House oversight of the administration as fundamentally illegitimate.
We are now learning that the Justice Department asked Trump to exert executive privilege to keep Mueller’s full findings concealed.
Meanwhile, Trump may try to block former White House counsel Donald McGahn, who witnessed multiple Trump efforts to obstruct justice, and possibly even Mueller from testifying to Congress. The administration won’t release Trump’s tax returns, violating the law. And Trump has vowed to resist “all” subpoenas.
Legal experts tell Adam Liptak at the New York Times that such wholesale resistance to oversight threatens the constitutional order, placing Trump, as one puts it, “above the law.” Few, if any, Republicans are raising an eyebrow about any of this.
Thus, Warren’s call for an impeachment inquiry is linked to a big argument — one broader than that of any other candidate — about how the GOP has actively enabled Trump’s authoritarianism, lawlessness, shredding of governing norms and embrace of the corruption of our political system on his behalf.
Warren is comprehensively treating Trump both as a severe threat to the rule of law in his own right, and as inextricably linked to a deeper pathology — the GOP’s drift into comfort with authoritarianism.
Trump’s authoritarianism and his corruption are two sides of the same coin. Trump’s tax returns, which he rebuffed a House request for — something his government participated in, with dubious legality — may conceal untold levels of corruption, from possible emoluments-clause violations to financial conflicts to compromising foreign financial entanglements.
Warren has responded to all this — and the GOP’s near-total comfort with it — by rolling out a sweeping anti-corruption measure that requires presidential candidates to release tax returns and requires divestment to avoid such corrupting situations in the future.
Thus, Warren is treating this two-sided coin of authoritarianism and corruption as a systemic problem in need of reform, one linked to the broader imperative of actually “draining the swamp,” as Trump vowed, only to plunge into full-scale corruption himself.
Which brings us to the plutocracy.
Plutocracy and populism
It’s strange that pundits take it on faith that Joe Biden would best win back blue-collar whites who overwhelmingly backed Trump in 2016. We’re constantly told Trump won them by campaigning against an economy “rigged” by plutocrats, getting left of Hillary Clinton, who hailed from the corporate wing of the Democratic Party and thus was vulnerable against Trump’s (fraudulent) populist attacks.
But Biden hails from the same precincts. Indeed, as Jamelle Bouie points out, Biden is implicated in many great elite failures that supposedly fueled Trump’s rise, including bipartisan neoliberal laxity toward Wall Street and the Iraq War.
By contrast, Warren has offered the most detailed populist prescriptions in response to the “rigged” economy of any candidate, including policies to tax extreme wealth and reconfigure corporate power.
If Warren proves unable to appeal to blue-collar whites, we’ll perhaps have to revise our story of 2016. But here again, Warren is the one with the biggest actual argument.
Trump exploited populist discontent and then embarked on a near-total betrayal via an embrace of GOP plutocracy, in the form of a massive corporate tax giveaway and a deregulation spree that further enabled elite corruption. These things, too, show Trump as both continuation and exacerbation — and Warren has offered the most systematic and comprehensive response to all of that, as well.
None of this is to say the other candidates don’t have great policies and virtues. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has in some ways offered a bigger response to inequality. Biden has said good things on Trump’s racism and on impeachment. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) has taken on Trump’s lawlessness.
But only Warren has done all of these things, and only Warren has woven them all into a big story — one that treats Trump as both a unique threat and a symptom of so much of what’s gone so horribly wrong.