Trump Builds Foundation for Bipartisanship, But Can He Pull It Off?
As part of its “Understanding America” series, GMF’s Berlin office hosted a fireside on President Trump’s State of the Union address and his first year in office with Gary L. Gerstle, professor of American history at the University of Cambridge and fellow of Sidney Sussex College. Professor Gerstle is also a fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Historical Society and was elected to the Society of American Historians in 2006. His latest book Liberty and Coercion: The Paradox of American Government from the Founding to the Present (Princeton, 2015) won the Hawley Prize in 2016.
How would you assess the President Trump’s State of the Union speech in comparison to former presidents, and especially to former Republican presidents?
Professor Gerstle: State of the Union speeches are not a great genre of speeches. They begin with soaring rhetoric and then pretty quickly, historically, descend into the representation of all the interest groups and policies that the president intends to take care of over the next year. Hence, it is hard to compare President Trump’s address to speeches given by other Republican presidents. The inaugural or other speeches for particular occasions are what presidents are remembered by. What is interesting about President Trump’s speech, given his aversion to lists and scripts is that he actually adhered to a script for 80 minutes. In terms of its content, I think the most significant aspect was the effort made by him and his advisors to move him toward a somewhat centrist position — creating at least the possibility of bipartisanship with the Democrats — to solve some very pressing problems as immigration, the collapsing infrastructure, and what to do with the huge incarcerated population when people are released. However, the bad blood between the Democrats and the Republicans is so severe that it is not clear that there will be a path for bipartisan efforts. Almost a year ago, Trump addressed Congress in a similar speech which was well respected. However, whatever good will that he might have generated from that, he lost within a week. So, whether it will be different this time remains to be seen.
In your book Liberty and Coercion, you refer to the paradox role public power plays within U.S. policymaking. Where would you place President Trump’s presidency historically in this evolving relationship between personal liberties and state powers?
Professor Gerstle: Even though I could not have imagined a President Trump on the horizon, the last chapter of the book sets the state in a way for his election because it refers to a system that is divided, that is in effect broken. The quality of American democracy has been declining for about 30 years and Trump is a product of that decline and malaise. Historically, the use of government power has been problematic in the United States. The question of how a government could be created that is big enough to take care of the citizenry’s basic needs, but small enough to not interfere with personal liberties, has always been a contentious issue. The Democrats have been the dominant force in U.S. politics from the 1930s through the 1970s and expanded state powers. They did it by stretching the constitution, sometimes beyond its limits. That provoked a reaction on the part of the Republicans, accusing the Democrats of unconstitutional activities. The Republicans under Ronald Reagan came to power and with them the dominant neoliberal ideology of small government and free markets. Ideologically they carried the day, but politically they did not. They did not have enough support in Congress to do the radical shrinking of government that they wanted. This gap between their ideological dominance and their actual political power led to a steady move to the right of the Republican Party. That radicalization deepened the polarization of the U.S. politics and absolutely paralyzed Congress. It created the conditions for someone like Donald Trump to successfully claim that the paralyzed institution of Congress is totally ineffective and only serving private interests of elected officials, in other words: a swamp.
Do you see any chance in the near future that this broken system will be fixed and that President Trump can overcome this paralyzation?
Professor Gerstle: His presidency has to be understood as a profound revolt against the usual Republican Party way of doing business. However, given his inexperience in government and his dislike of government, I do not think he is capable himself of actually engineering a re-creation or re-imagining of American government. The question is whether he will create so much chaos so as to compel others to come together to save the Republic. There are instances in Europe as well as in America of contrary parties putting partisan issues aside for the sake of restoring the fabric of democracy, and the quality of government. There are not a lot of indications that that has happened since he has been elected. If anything, he has deepened polarization. There is an opportunity for someone to depart from Republican Party orthodoxy and to bring some Democrats on board. This was really interesting to hear in President Trump’s State of the Union address. There was a foundation for bipartisanship on three items he proposed – immigration, infrastructure, criminal justice reform — but I just do not see that he has the political skill or interest to pull it off. What we see is not a recent or minor crisis. It goes much deeper, it is in the very fabric of government.
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