“Trump is the only thing that matters”
Ever since the rise of Trump in the Republican primary my dad has been enthralled. Not sympathetic of course. He would joke about Trump all the time, even talking about him so much his wife had to explain to out of town relatives he is of course not voting for Trump.
My father is a total MSNBC Dad.
He’s 62. He missed the prime eras of Boomer political engagement, being too young for what we collectively call the 60’s. For him, the political moment of his youth was Watergate, but even more specifically, the Watergate hearings, live on TV.
My dad, like many other liberals of his generation, was glued to these hearings. This was, after all, the capital P process happening and working. To my future lawyer father, this was the power of law and norms. The system was fixing itself, catching the crooks, expunging their corruption from the the body politic. It was, in many ways, inspirational.
When I asked my Watergate dad, the dad who had me watch All The President’s Men on my 16th birthday, whether the current investigations into the current investigation into the Trump Organization's enigmatic dealings with Russia are anything like Watergate, he was quick to make the comparison. “It's exactly like Watergate,” he told me.
I think he's right, but I'm worried that's the problem. Because what happened after Watergate? Nixon resigned in disgrace, yes. Was Nixon’s brand of law and order conservatism and “Southern Strategy” as pioneered by Kevin Phillips rejected? Hell no.
What followed the era of Nixon was a great rightward shift among all major political instructions in the country. Sure, Ford was relatively inoffensive by our modern liberal standards and Jimmy Carter is some kind of a folk hero, but this was the great beginning of the Neoliberal project. This was when the market, not society, not government, began to be the solution to our problems.
What the Republicans needed to do was rebrand as a purer form of conservatism. As evidenced in Rick Perlstein’s “The Invisible Bridge”, Reagan went against the conventional wisdom and did not equivocate on the Nixon the way so many of his fellow Republicans did. He took the mantle of Nixon and built it into a crown of Technicolor racialized nostalgia and imperialism. And from that you have the politics of the past 40 years.
Something that we did not do with Watergate, or with Nixon in general, was equate the criminality of the actors with the politics they represented. It was about the process, how they broke the law. It was, like how so much is now, individualized. And individuals can be cast aside without much harm to the ideology and political projects they espouse.
We must not lose sight of what politics is. Politics is not sport, it's not a game or a club. It's about power and the distribution of pain. When Trump leaves office, it will be celebrated by many, including me. But if we do not lay a groundwork for a vision of the future, of policies that affect the lives of people who aren't watching cable news, it won't really matter
I asked my father about this. He said “Trump is the only thing that matters right now.” And you know what, in the paradigm of his politics, this is true. But without a vision for the future beyond the individual that is Trump, a victory against Trump would be nothing but a hollow victory.