At his inauguration, President Trump promised to renew the unity of the American people, claiming that “through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.” Then, Trump seemed intent on creating a reborn civic and social consciousness, and on empowering ordinary people against big government and big money.
And yet, Trump’s administration has ushered in a virulently antisocial politics that dissolves the most basic bonds and leaves individuals powerless against both market and state. Trump, like many populists of the right, gained a foothold by promising that a resurgent nationalism could make people feel cohesive, trusting and strong again. But like his right-leaning populist predecessors, he has offered only the imaginary bonds of nationalism — the illusion of fellow-feeling and homogeneity — even as his policies destroy the real and foundational bonds of family and community in the arenas of health care, immigration, labor and more.
Trump’s administration altered regulations this year to allow states to withhold health care from some Medicaid-qualified individuals if they don’t meet work requirements. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ announcement, the change is aimed at “incentivizing community engagement among able-bodied, working-age Medicaid beneficiaries.” This has long been the stated goal of workfare programs: “By requiring and promoting work,” professor Lawrence Mead, a leading advocate of welfare reform, argued before a House subcommittee in 2013, workfare “integrated [poor people] into mainstream American life as never before.”
But the talk of “community engagement” and integration is absurd. What workfare does is force recipients to choose between important benefits and familial obligations. By Mead’s own account, the major accomplishment of workfare was that “the share of welfare mothers engaged in work activities doubled to about a third, and work levels also rose sharply for poor single mothers outside welfare.” Day-care shortages ensued; women without enough money to support their families were forced to pay for child care. If they couldn’t afford it, they lost their benefits — which would mean, in the case of Medicaid, sacrificing their health.
The same disregard — if not outright hostility — toward familial bonds is on display in the Trump administration’s assaults on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and what it calls “chain migration,” otherwise known as family reunification. In a September statement, Trump said ending the program was all about protecting Americans and their jobs; presumably this was the loyalty to country he spoke of at his inauguration, meant to illuminate Americans’ loyalty to one another. But what the destruction of DACA really means is that parents will be torn away from children, and children will be essentially orphaned for no real reason. What Trump’s campaign against family reunification means is that families will be forced either to remain separated from loved ones permanently or surrender their livelihoods, jobs and communities to rejoin them.
Laws tell us what to do and what not to do, but they also contain information about what the state — theoretically the sum of our popular will — believes to be morally sound. Trump’s laws imply that family bonds are disposable and that the state has complete moral authority to destroy them in its pursuit of American greatness.
This extends beyond families. For instance, Trump’s administration has filed a brief supporting the plaintiff in Janus v. AFSCME, a union-busting case soon to go before the Supreme Court. The plaintiff in Janus argues that public-sector unions should not be able to collect mandatory dues to fund bargaining activities even though they bargain on behalf of all workers: To do so is an infringement upon free speech, goes the claim, since money paid can be thought of as a kind of unwilled endorsement of all union activities and unionism itself. In its amicus brief in support of unions, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops points out that the destruction of unions based on the loose interpretation of money as speech will render workers weaker than ever before. “Ironically then,” the bishops observe, “a misguided effort to protect one individual from government coercion would leave only individuals to stand against government (or economic) coercion.”
If only that world were really so far away. In reality, it is already here. What unites workfare, the annihilation of DACA and the war on unions is a totalizing individualism — the belief that people are essentially isolated individuals. That we are alone before we are together. That we are more and not less ourselves in total isolation. From that view flow policies that disregard or deny that people are, in fact, embedded in families, communities and industries, and that their bonds and obligations are powerful and ought to be respected and protected by the state. No politics issuing from that view can ever cultivate unity.
What Trump offered as an answer to the aching aloneness of Americans was nationalism, the exchange of an imagined community for actual ones, the promise of a mystic bond with people you’ll never meet even while the ones you know and love are deported, abandoned, dying. It was supposed to bring us together, supposed to make us strong. But his policies stand to leave us more alone than we’ve ever been, and in our solitude, weak.