Wow—yesterday was bad, politically speaking. In fact, the past year and a half has been bad, politically speaking. But as we all despair, it is very important to take a step back and remember: this could all get much, much worse.
Already, under the Trump administration’s short tenure, things have gotten bad. There are serious threats to the rights of women, and minorities, and immigrants, and the poor. A staunchly anti-worker, pro-rich economic agenda is well underway. There are actual child prisons in operation at the border. Corruption and lies from top government officials are now breezily tolerated in a way that America hasn’t seen in living memory. And civil rights of all sorts are poised to be reinterpreted for the worse under a newly conservative Supreme Court. All of the cultural, political, and economic rot that has been growing just beneath the surface of America for decades has now burst into view and is sunning itself on the White House lawn. It is rather impressive how dire our entire national situation has gotten in less than two years.
That said, this is nothing compared to how bad it can get. And may get. The success or failure of the Trump agenda will not be fully determined by the conventional political efforts of Republicans and their allies; they will also be determined by the general socioeconomic and geopolitical state of the country and the world, which exerts its own effects on domestic politics. In our case, the effect would be to make everything much, much more volatile than it already is. Let us touch briefly on the two big horrors that we have not yet seen under Trump. But might!
Recession. Consider the fact that the entire Trump administration has thus far taken place with an economy that is booming, by many traditional measures. The stock market is high and unemployment is low. Our economy does, of course, have deeper structural problems—particularly built-in inequality between rich and poor that continues to grow, contributing to our fractured politics—but fixing those will be a long term battle that we have not, quite frankly, even begun to come close to winning yet. But in terms of basic, day-to-day, top-of-mind measures of the short-term economic situation like “whether you can find a job” and “can you pay your debts” and “can you get a loan,” the American economy is in good shape, by historic standards.
This will almost certainly not last. It is impossible to predict recessions with certainty, but it is possible to make educated guesses based on history. We’re more than ten years past the last recession, meaning we’re due. The yield curve is about to invert, which often signals a recession. And ten years of easy money from central banks around the world have raised asset prices so high that many are questioning if they have much room left to run. Also, ill-timed (stupid) upper-class stimulus measures like the Trump tax cuts will ensure that when the recession does hit, our government’s own financial situation makes it harder to furnish well-timed stimulus to the needy when we actually need it.
And when that recession inevitably appears, unemployment will rise, the stock market will fall, retirement accounts will be drained, living standards will sink, homelessness and bankruptcy and general economic insecurity will increase, and the lives of most people will become less stable and more precarious. That means that people will be more dissatisfied, scared, and angry. Which is to say that the current level of dissatisfaction, fear, and anger in American politics is where we are on a good day. You can expect racism, xenophobia, and the urge towards violence to increase when the inevitable recession adds a new level of economic stress onto our nation. Be ready. And that brings me to the other thing...
War. Of all the bad things that Donald Trump has done on the world stage, the one he has not yet tried is getting us involved in a (new) war. But he could. Oh yes, he could. There are so many ways it could happen. It could happen as a result of one small incident setting off a rapid tit-for-tat military escalation with China, or North Korea, or Iran, or any number of other lesser powers. It could happen as a result of Trump’s impulse to lash out, after a terrorist attack here in America or against our military abroad. Or it could happen purely as a calculated move to whip up political support at home. It is devastatingly easy to imagine scenarios that could lead us into full-blown war in very short order. The instability of our president, the gutting of our diplomatic corps, and our newfound isolationism only heighten the risk.
If America finds itself in a new war, what will that mean for the homefront? It will mean, inevitable, a rise in patriotic jingoism and a vast push to rally around the flag and a hostility towards political dissent and a rise in support for Trump, at least for a while. That is what always happens during war. There is a distinct cynical political advantage to be had by starting a war, which is just something to be kept in mind as we watch our leader careen around the world like the big, bold dumbass that he is. A war, on top of all of the obvious horrors, would make it harder to oppose the rest of the Trump administration’s agenda. Recall the post-9/11 Bush years and all of the slavish, empty patriotism that went with it, which led us into a number of disasters that we have yet to remedy. That could quite easily happen again under a president who cares even less about the human consequences, and who is being advised by John Bolton.
So right now we only have to worry about the erosion of civil rights and institutions and democratic accountability and the fabric of our American experiment. But things have the potential to get much worse. We may be on fire, but there are still two big cans of gasoline that we have yet to open.