Beverly Gage teaches U.S. political history at Yale.
President Trump is not forever. At some point in the not-too-distant future, he will no longer be president, and it will be time to assess the post-storm damage and begin the recovery process. We don’t know when this will happen: this year or next, in 2021 or 2025. And we don’t know how it will occur: impeachment, resignation, being voted out of office or simply finishing out two terms. But it will happen, and the people in the best position to take advantage of that moment will be those who are already thinking about where we ought to go next.
That is the imaginative task behind “One Nation After Trump,” a dense but good-spirited and thoroughly readable exercise in envisioning a better America. The book is a team effort by three well-respected Beltway thinkers: the liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., the American Enterprise Institute’s more conservative Norman J. Ornstein and Ornstein’s longtime co-author Thomas E. Mann, of the Brookings Institution. Their bipartisan — or, perhaps, tripartisan — work seems intended to send the rest of us a message: It’s time to find some common ground before obstructionism, demagoguery, fake news and racial resentment become the dominant features of our national politics. They call upon the old but good Latin phrase “E pluribus unum” to express those aspirations. “Out of many,” they hope, Americans can still find a way to act as “one.”
The book begins with an assessment of the 2016 election, asking how on earth we ended up with our reality-star “Normless President.” Its emphasis is less on Trump, however, than on the long-term structural and cultural changes that made his election possible. The authors have no patience for a “both sides” argument about the degradation of our political culture. They lay the blame firmly within the Republican Party, where a process of “radicalization” that began in the 1980s has now resulted in a “Jurassic Park”-style disaster, with the creators of that change unable to control their own monster.
While Republicans in general — and conservatives in particular — come in for censure, the authors also stress how seemingly neutral aspects of our political system have conspired in recent years to produce an ominous trend toward undemocratic “minority rule.” The electoral college is perhaps the most obvious example; in two out of the past five presidential elections, the popular-vote winner lost the electoral count. Add to this partisan gerrymandering and the two-senators-per-state rule, and we begin to see a national government that does not fully reflect the will of the national majority. In 2012, the authors note, Democrats won 50.5 percent of the major-party votes in House elections but only 46.2 percent of the seats. And such statistics only begin to capture the scope of the challenge. The same structures that weight votes heavily toward rural and Republican areas also discourage voting in the first place, forever reminding individual voters that they don’t matter unless they live in a few key swing states or congressional districts.
So what is to be done? If the book’s first half focuses on the sorry state of things today, the second half focuses on how to not make the same mistakes in the future. The authors claim to be genuinely — if tentatively — hopeful about what Trump’s election may ultimately yield for American civic life. “We believe that the popular mobilization and national soul-searching he has aroused could be the occasion for an era of democratic renewal,” they write. But that will happen only if Trump’s opponents across the political spectrum come up with “a hopeful and unifying alternative.”
The authors present an impressive list of policy ideas designed to do just that and perhaps even to dispel some of Trump’s allure within the MAGA base. They make a distinction between the “legitimate” (read: economic) grievances of Trump voters and the illegitimate expression of those grievances in the politics of racial and nativist resentment. They chastise Democrats for paying insufficient attention to the real pain of working-class voters, sidelined for decades by deindustrialization and now by an incomplete recovery from the financial crisis. But they insist — rightly — that any attempt to address those problems cannot come at the expense of other social justice movements.
Many of their proposals are at once ambitious and reasonable, attempts to make the government work better for its citizens and to deliver a measure of economic justice to those left behind. They group these ideas into a Charter for American Working Families, including a GI Bill for American Workers, designed to revive the all-but-dying dream of economic mobility, and a Contract for American Social Responsibility, aimed at getting corporations to take their public obligations seriously. “Warm feelings are not the same as coherent policies,” they warn. At the same time, they can’t help but dream that the two need not be mutually exclusive.
It is hard to object to much about these plans, with their emphasis on fairness and comity and partisan goodwill. And yet there is something incongruous about the authors’ belief that good policy, judiciously presented, will yield the desired political transformation. As the authors note, one of the more depressing lessons of the 2016 election was that policy simply didn’t matter much. Nobody, including his own voters, thought Trump had much policy expertise. On the campaign trail, however, his abuse of wonks and elites and bureaucrats seemed to work in his favor.
In this context, a book that draws upon the best research of Harvard political scientists, Atlantic writers and think-tank staffers seems like a leap of faith as much as a matter of hard-nosed analysis. Some of the authors’ calls for unity have a similar wishful-thinking quality. “The imperative of turning back Trump and Trumpism will require unusual forms of discipline and commitment,” they write. “It will mean not allowing the ideological and tactical battles with the Democratic Party between factions loosely defined as Clinton and Sanders Democrats to tear it asunder.” Great! But how, exactly, will that happen?
It may be that the actual experience of a Trump presidency goes a long way toward solving these problems, forcing new coalitions and rehabilitating Americans’ desire for “coherent policies” in areas such as health care, jobs and immigration. Dionne, Ornstein and Mann celebrate “a new sense of citizenship” they see percolating throughout the country, as ordinary people crowd into town halls and airports and public squares to defend their own visions of America. Given this surge of energy, perhaps the most effective ideas will come from the bottom up rather than the top down, out of local movements rather than policy reports. Or perhaps, as the authors suggest, the next big idea will also be very old: one nation doing a better job of providing liberty and justice for all.
By E.J. Dionne Jr., Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann
St. Martin’s. 344 pp. $25.99