Saturday, January 28, 2017

Trump is pitting Americans against the submerged state

The consensus take on Trump's opening salvo of executive orders is that he's overpromising by failing to take into account basic issues of implementation and legality - and that this, eventually, will turn into a political liability. These "quick moves could hurt Trump down the line," according to Politico. "Trump’s aggressive pace in his first days as president could backfire," Abigail Tracy writes for Vanity Fair. And David Axelrod argues that these failures will become a challenge for Trump:
Trump, he said, could face an even more difficult challenge..."The appeal he had as a candidate is that people clearly want someone to snap their fingers and just make something happen, and he saw that desire and played to that desire," Axelrod said.
This gets Trump's appeal right, but one should pause before assuming that Trump will be blamed for any of this. Most of the obstacles he faces are fairly bureaucratic, technocratic and legalistic in nature, which is precisely why so many publications are having to roll out explainers about them. And though wonks and pundits certainly care about these things, most Americans are far more interested in seeing problems solved than in how we get there. 

No one cares about rules

Just consider what would seem to be the most serious objection to Trump's executive orders: the Muslim ban and the sanctuary city defunding scheme are both illegal. Will Americans care?


Predictably, Trump supporters aren't too concerned about the "rules" - but here, the crucial point to consider is that even 41% of Democrats don't harbor in-principle objections, and the general population is even more ambivalent. There are substantial reasons why Americans are mobilizing against Trump, but contrary to what Chris Hayes and MoveOn.org seem to think, rulebreaking probably isn't one of them.

No one cares about the individual mandate

Similarly, Politico notes that "key members of Congress weren't consulted" about Trump's very first executive order, which "could effectively gut [the] Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate"; this may very well make health insurance unaffordable for millions of Americans, and Michael Hiltzik argues that "Republicans will find it very difficult to evade responsibility for the consequences, because they will emerge in direct response to Trump’s order."

But this isn't quite true. If Trump manages to destroy the individual mandate, this will allow a lot of healthy people to stop paying for insurance that they don't think they need. The second-order consequence will be that insurance pools will have fewer people, and those people will tend to be sicker. Only then do you get to the third-order consequence, where insurers charge higher rates to cover a smaller, sicker pool.

In other words, Trump only gets blamed for what happens next if you buy a fairly complicated and counterintuitive three-step economic analysis of cascading effects that are mostly invisible to the typical consumer. Most Americans (63%hate the individual mandate, in part because it doesn't appear to have any direct relationship to the goal of providing effective and affordable health care - so there's no particular reason to assume that they'll blame Republicans for any problems that emerge as Trump gets rid of it.

No one cares about the submerged state

Expect this kind of dynamic to emerge time and time again: Trump will violate some law or destroy some government program, and the liberal-left will have a difficult time objecting to it because people generally aren't inclined to defend either. This ideological pathology didn't come from nowhere. It's a direct consequence of what Cornell professor Suzanne Mettler calls the submerged state:
Americans often fail to recognize government’s role in society, even if they have experienced it in their own lives. That is because so much of what government does today is largely invisible...its benefits are channeled through the tax code and subsidies to private organizations...The submerged state obscures the role of government and exaggerates that of the market.
There could be no clearer example of how this problem plays out than Trump's attack on health care. If we had a simple, single-payer system in which the government directly provided insurance, the consequences of any attempt to shrink it or eliminate it would be obvious, and Americans would have a stronger investment in defending it. But instead, the ACA was designed to do something far more complicated: to provide affordable health insurance using a system "based on the private marketplace", one that would maintain the role of private, profit-seeking corporations as insurance providers.

This attempt to preserve capitalism made the ACA so insanely complex, and the government's role so remote and indirect, that today when Trump tries to dismantle Obamacare, most people don't know what's going on - and they don't care. This approach to policymaking, Mark Schmitt writes, has been powerfully abetted by
Democrats enraptured by subtle, invisible social policies...liberals moved away from large, decisive programs such as Medicare and embraced gentler interventions that could be seen as using market forces for social good...liberals adopted the Delphic pronouncement that government should “steer, not row”—that is, provide subtle incentives to guide the private sector along the right path.
The submerged state similarly weakens the rule of law. Consider, for example, Trump's plan to defund sanctuary cities. Arguably, this violates a Supreme Court ruling that "if the federal government wants to put conditions on funding to local governments, the conditions must be reasonably related to the purpose of the funding." If most Americans felt some personal interest in this ruling, then it's easy to imagine Trump's executive order turning into a political liability.

But why suspect this will happen when 57% of the population doesn't think they're using government social programs at all? The government's role in providing for the general welfare is so enormously obscured that only some Americans will feel any stake whatsoever in defending abstract laws regulating federal funding. 

Trump is a Caesar

Critics like Axelrod suspect that the public will turn on Trump when his dramatic promises and force-of-will politics crash against the complexity of modern governance. For another perspective, however, consider Gramsci:
It is the sheer complexity of civil society that paradoxically makes such Caesarist interventions feasible...Charismatic figures...present themselves as being able to "get the job done" without the time-consuming need to win over the institutions of civil society. Caesarists figures are thus likely to be populist leaders who make direct, personal appeals to the people. (Steven Jones)
Instead of turning against Trump, Americans may very well turn against the government. In Trump, they will see the same figure who they identified with during the election: an angry voice of rebellion against an entrenched, recalcitrant establishment. They will sympathize with his failures and grievances, because they too have faced the merciless, unyielding logic of late capitalist neoliberalism, with its unconquerable institutions and its indifference to their problems; instead of feeling betrayed by Trump, they will see Trump as an underdog, and believe that he's being betrayed by America.

The theory that Americans will blame Trump for his failures in governance ultimately assumes a faith in government procedures and institutions that no longer exists. To defeat him, the opposition needs to abandon the submerged state and present a vision of government that powerfully and directly intervenes in society and gives people nice things:
Give people nice things, and make it easy. Provide things that it is generally understood that government should provide. Education, health care, roads, sidewalks, supertrains. Generous unemployment benefits, easier bankruptcy, affordable childcare that doesn't have some absurd eligibility formula, consumer protection laws. Everything should be universal benefits paid for by taxing rich people more than we do. (Atrios)
Use the government to give people what they want, and Trump loses his scapegoat. Hide the government behind the market, and America has nowhere else to turn - it can only get lost in the futile ambitions of messiahs and madmen.