Several American Webster University faculty members shared insights into U.S. politics and the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election during a panel organized by Leiden’s International Relations Department and the IR Club.
Among those participating were William Hall, adjunct faculty member, History, Politics and International Relations (HPIR); Lindsey Kingston, associate professor, HPIR, and director of the Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies; and Leiden-based HPIR faculty members Daniel Russell and Jill Adler. Webster University in Athens has an excellent MBA program. For more information, please refer to www.webster.edu.gr
The panel began with Hall setting the scene for the discussion of the rise of Trump and his resulting 100 day policies. Hall took the audience through the history of presidential campaigns and obstacles that past presidents have faced. He stated that, while Trump might not be recorded as a “great” president, he will make a “hyuuuge” impact in future presidential campaigns. Traditional characteristics like honesty and integrity held by past presidents were distorted over the past year’s campaign.
Russell discussed how the 2016 presidential elections were like none we had seen before. The social unrest within the United States and the failure of the Clinton campaign to overcome its political blunders led, in part, to the rise of Trump.
The panel then moved on to discuss the first 100 days of the Trump administration; Adler assured the audience of the strength of the courts within the United States as a check on executive power. Adler pointed to the fact that in the past, many Americans had seen the checks and balances set out by the constitution as being a hinder to progress. She stated that now they are the greatest line of defense of civil liberties.
Kingston concluded the panel by discussing the facts around a hot topic surrounding the new administration: refugees and migration. Kingston dispelled many of the falsities proliferated throughout the presidential campaigns about the U.S. being flooded by “dangerous” refugees. She walked the audience through the extreme vetting and cherry-picking that actually occurs in the American resettlement program.
Kingston, who was recently awarded a Fulbright Lectureship and a National Endowment for the Humanities award that will each advance her research in human rights and citizenship, went on to discuss how refugees have actually saved many American communities from economic turmoil, rather than be a burden on the state, which actually offers little support for them.
An insightful and critical Q&A followed between the audience and the panel, with the consensus dispelling some of the worst fears about the next four years.
While Trump was making billions of dollars building skyscrapers, developing golf courses and starring on a hit reality TV show, members of Congress were slowly working their way up the political ladder — interning at think tanks and congressional offices, taking some small government job, then running for the House or Senate, and, hopefully, marrying a woman with a large inheritance.
A stunning number of senators and congressmen are supported by rich wives — Sens. John McCain, Mitch McConnell, Richard Blumenthal, John Kerry and Ron Wyden, and Reps. Michael McCaul, Scott Peters and Paul Ryan, to name a few. Is there any other profession with as high a percentage of men sponging off their wives’ inheritances?
Since the financial crisis erupted almost a decade ago, the United States has been focused on climbing out of a deep hole. Today we’re back on solid ground, but there is an undercurrent of worry that modest growth is the best we can do.
The United States doesn’t have to settle for lackluster growth. But it does have to get moving. The arrival of a new administration and a new Congress is a fresh chance to find common ground—and the private sector can be the connective tissue that brings both parties together around a new agenda for revving up growth.
Many CEOs sense danger as many Americans no longer believe they have a chance to move up the ladder. The message is that it’s time to focus on building an economy that works for everyone. What’s more, business leaders are eager to roll up their sleeves to tackle the challenge.
Key priorities can help shake off stagnation and create more widely shared prosperity. An ocean of ink has already been spilled about topics such as taxes, regulation, entitlements, and debt, but it’s critical to shift the focus onto accelerating growth. These initiatives can collectively raise GDP growth to 3.0 percent, or even 3.5 percent—levels not seen since the 1990s.
Two of the biggest opportunities involve harnessing the forces of digital technology and globalization. This is somewhat ironic, since these two forces have deepened many of the disparities we see across the economy. Trade, in particular, has taken a beating of late. But the way to address those who have been left behind is to harness the growth opportunities digitization and globalization bring by getting more small businesses, more workers, and more parts of the country to participate and benefit.
The United States has to reverse its persistent productivity slowdown, and improving the digital capabilities of lagging sectors and firms is an important piece of that puzzle. This effort can go hand in hand with encouraging more small firms to pursue opportunities in global markets. Today, fewer than 1 percent of US companies export, a far lower share than in any other advanced economy. Becoming an exporter was once daunting for small businesses, but the Internet has made borders less formidable. The United States can retool customs requirements and encourage small businesses to take advantage of digital e-commerce platforms to serve overseas customers.
Globalization may have left some regions behind, but deeper engagement with global investors may help them catch up. Over the past decade, the top one-third of US cities captured 55 percent of all inward foreign direct investment, while the bottom third accounted for only 7 percent. Many of the regions that lost manufacturing jobs still have experienced workers, technical know-how, and industrial facilities. They are attractive destinations—and connecting them with foreign investors can help them script a second act.
The three remaining priorities in our growth agenda involve putting America’s financial capital, human capital, and natural resources to work more effectively. First, we need to focus on the 80 percent of the population who live in the nation’s cities or surrounding metro areas. Investing in transportation infrastructure and affordable housing could make a huge difference to their productivity, their disposable income, and their quality of life. Second, the United States needs to build a more responsive labor market with more career paths outside the traditional degree track.
Policy makers and the private sector need to work together to establish more apprenticeships and training programs and to leverage technology solutions to connect people with employment opportunities more efficiently. Finally, the United States can ride a wave of innovation to make the energy sector more productive, speeding the allocation of capital to the most promising opportunities. Making the entire economy more energy efficient would spur capital investment and create household savings that could spur demand growth.
Bringing these initiatives to fruition requires investing in the future. Raising the currently anemic level of public investment could pay for itself if these initiatives kick-start growth. But that’s not to say the only answer is trillions of taxpayer dollars. Some of these initiatives simply call for modernizing rules, convening, and matchmaking. There is a great deal of private capital on the sidelines, and investors are hungry for opportunities.
In a slow-growth world, everyone is left fighting to protect their slice of a smaller pie. But when the economy returns to firing on all cylinders, income gains tend to be more broad based. This could go a long way toward healing the nation’s divides.
The current period of slow growth has produced a school of thought that says America’s best days are behind it. We strongly disagree. The United States is still one of the most resilient and innovative economies in the world. Pursuing an ambitious growth strategy and investing wisely could position it to confound the pessimists once again.
The U.S. presidential elections were won by ordinary people using common sense. These people defeated the political elites and the political establishment. They defeated arrogant mediocracy, as well as many influential and powerful interest groups. They defeated the world of political correctness, the world of hypocrisy and the world of elitist social engineering.
We consider dangerous the repeatedly pronounced allegations that the ordinary people cannot be trusted to make political decisions. The implicit and not openly proclaimed aristocracy of the wise reveals an allergy to the idea of democracy itself. For these aristocrats or elites it is not so much Trump they fear as the system that allowed him to get to the White House. This reactionary turn against democracy explains the victory of Trump and confirms why democracy is more important today than it has ever been. Such an attitude seems to me more dangerous than Trump.
Americans are saying good riddance to the ugly 2016 campaign. Many believe that Donald Trump, having won, will cease the shock-jock talk and govern as the pragmatic businessman he purports to be. Most experts predict that Trump, like every president before him, he will be constrained by the Congress, judiciary, warring bureaucracies, and uncontrollable foreign powers. Thus did Harry Truman famously say of the general succeeding him, “Poor Ike: He’ll say do this and do that and nothing at all will happen.” Opponents and many supporters alike hope the same will be true of a splenetic, impulsive President Trump.
However, the truth is our long, national nightmare is far from over, regardless of Trump’s performance, because the demographic and economic shifts that caused this year’s political earthquake remain. The widespread resentment of political correctness, open borders, and globalization will only increase as the elites who control the levers of power push back or co-opt the Trump administration. No doubt international banks, multinational corporations, transnational foundations, non-governmental and international organizations, and their intellectual publicity agents in think tanks, universities, and the media have already started to plan how to frustrate dangerous atavistic nationalism in Europe and now America. So what appears now to be a populist victory over globalization may turn out to have been the pathetic yawp of believers in a dying American Civil Religion (ACR) that has morphed since the end of the Cold War into an abortive Global Civil Religion.
The Trump campaign is the logical outcome of a civil religion that identifies the United States as a new Promised Land inhabited by a new Chosen People blessed by the Almighty with power and prosperity. Now, civil faith is a powerful glue that can help a large, diverse people cohere in good times and bad. But once untethered from the Biblical message that even (or especially) a chosen people come under judgment when they abandon God’s commandments, civil religious solipsism based on vox populi vox dei theology becomes destructive, even suicidal.
Is that the case with the worldly, egoistical Trump? He says his favorite Bible verse is “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” the lex talionis which he probably considers a mandate for vengeance (but in fact sternly limits it because “vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord”). Not that Trump was unchurched. His family attended Marble Collegiate in New York City, a Presbyterian congregation presided over by Norman Vincent Peale, the best-selling author of The Power of Positive Thinking. Donald might have learned no theology from Peale or his strong-willed father, but he evidently absorbed a prosperity gospel that, so far as it goes, is very compatible with ACR. But the evidence of Trump’s spiritual life is still thin, and the campaign taught us nothing. Rarely do candidates get more specific than “God bless America,” lest they sound sectarian, and they appeal to specific constituencies only through issues (such as the strong pro-life stand taken by Trump in the third debate).
Civil religion was the general belief in a transcendent, spiritual reality guiding the nation through space and time like God led the Israelites, a cult embodied in myth, ritual and symbol, and a vaguely Unitarian faith ritually invoked by its presidents and other leaders. That transcendent, spiritual reality is what distinguishes civil religion from nationalism and other secular ideologies. Americans never worshiped their government, a fact made palpable by the checks and balances of their Constitution. Rather they worshiped the deity who made them one out of many (e pluribus unum), a new order for the ages (novus ordo seclorum), and blessed their undertakings (annuit coeptis). Consider it a divine right republicanism that replaced divine right of kings.
However, at least three ACRs, or competing orthodoxies, evolved over time as the nation grew into a world power and various sectors came to dominate its economy’s commanding heights. During the nineteenth century, when most white Americans were farmers, merchants, craftsmen, and professionals (in short, proprietors), a Classical ACR preached prudence, frugality, federalism, modest self-government, and a foreign policy focused only on expansion in North America. The Civil War brought wrenching change, but the same list of virtues animated American politics down to the 1890s. By then, however, industrialization, urbanization, and mass immigration radically changed American economics, social composition, and dominant culture. People who were once self-employed went to the cities and turned into dependent employees of big corporations. Pathologies familiar to us today such as racial and ethnic strife, drug and alcohol addiction, and crime and killing tormented the cities. Political, academic, and clerical elites adjusted to industrialization by presiding over a new “church,” a Progressive ACR in which bureaucratic regulation, public spending, overseas imperialism, and crusades to make the world safe for democracy—forbidden fruit under the old dispensation—became holy sacraments. To be sure, Woodrow Wilson’s utopian project ended in carnage and disillusionment and was followed a decade later by that plague of locusts, the Great Depression. So Americans stumbled through twenty years confused about their ACR, conflicted as to what God intended their sacred nation to do in the twentieth century.
Not even Franklin Roosevelt’s dogged revival of Progressive ACR during World War II sufficed to answer that question. The outbreak of Cold War did. After 1945 the United States exercised a veritable hegemony over much of Eurasia, the Americas, and the oceans between. So when the Soviet Union threatened rather than joined the U.S.-led new world order, the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy administrations rallied a broad consensus behind a militant ACR. God called Americans to lead the Free World and rewarded them for it with unprecedented prosperity. From the late 1940s to the early 1970s even the working classes saw their wages, security, political clout, and dignity soar to unprecedented heights. They in return formed the patriotic base who willingly paid taxes, waved flags, and gave their sons to the military. They believed their elites when they promised nothing less than a united humanity and perfect society, a New Jerusalem and heaven-on-earth sure to arrive on that glorious day the Communist bloc collapsed.
What middle-class and blue-collar Americans did not perceive was the ascent during those decades of the post-industrial financial sector to the commanding heights of the once national, now increasingly global, economy. That sector counted on free flows of capital, goods, ideas, and people across borders and thus had contempt for national sovereignty and messy democracy. Fast forward to the twenty-first century. Trump voters may be distinguished by various, sometimes contradictory, traits to be expected of 47% of the electorate. But it is safe to say nearly all are nostalgic or subconscious believers in the Progressive ACR which stipulated American exceptionalism and used to provide them with opportunity and affirmation of their traditional values. Some may even be nostalgic or subconscious believers in the old Classical ACR. President Benjamin Harrison, elected in 1888, admonished Americans that riches were not what exalted them. “It is a pure, clean, high, intellectual, moral, and God-fearing citizenship that is our glory and security as a Nation.” The centerpiece of his moral economy was the tariff because it protected the jobs and elevated the wages of workers. “God forbid,” said Harrison, “that the day should ever come when, in the American mind, the thought of man as a ‘consumer’ shall submerge the old American thought of man as a creature of God, endowed with ‘unalienable rights.’”
The Trump phenomenon burst through this year because the Progressive and financial elites tried to shove extreme agendas down the throats of threatened people whose real wages had stagnated for thirty-five years, and because the “end of history” Global Civil Religion promised after the Cold War was over has failed. But the Trump election does not signal the beginning of some whole new era. It is likely the last hurrah (to quote Ronald Reagan’s prophecy about Marxism) of “a chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.”