(Boston, October 5, 2035) The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alexandra Corker’s much-awaited “The Restoration Years: America in the Post-Trump Era” jumped to the top of the best-seller lists almost immediately. The Harvard professor and I spoke in her Cambridge home about the revelations in that volume.
BW: Why don’t we start with the title of the book? Why “Restoration”?
Donald Trump, as many may remember, was, in historical terms, a kind of usurper of the crown. Not only was he installed into power by fraudulent means, but he was, how shall we say, a bit over his head in the job. He knew nothing, he didn’t want to know anything, he ignored those who did know something. In short, he surrounded himself mainly with incompetents and mean-spirited plutocrats like himself, and tried to keep his administration’s outrageous behaviors totally secret from any meaningful oversight.
The reason why Trump was adjudged widely as “the worst president ever,” even during his tenure, was a direct result of his unnecessary wars and chaos, bungling on a monstrous scale, elevating racist and misogynist arguments into the political mainstream as if they were normal discourse, the mangling of the Constitution, ideological extremism, and out-and-out corruption and larceny. In other words, he and his cronies laid waste to the institutions of our democratic republic.
When he was finally gone, nothing less than a thoroughgoing cleansing of the foul-smelling stable was in order. That was “The Restoration” era, years of undoing the great damage his administration had foisted on the country. Restoring our country’s commitment to Constitutional rule and to sanity and realism in our foreign policy — that was the Herculean job of his successors.
THE GOOD, BAD & UGLY
BW: That sounds so harsh. Don’t you have anything good to say about the man and his administration?
One shouldn’t ignore the possibility that Trump sincerely believed himself to be, or at least convinced himself that he was, operating for the “good of the country.” But even if one accepts that possibility, rather than out-and-out moral corruption and hunger for power, Trump’s definitions of “good” and “country” flowed so narrowly out of such a circumscribed class-stratum, education, and limited experiences, that they bore little relevance to how almost everyone else interpreted those terms. Of course, one must also add a warped narcissistic pathology that made intelligent leadership difficult, if not impossible, for him.
So the short answer to your question is no. History and his own contemporaries judged him to be so reckless and incompetent with the power at his command that he brought the United States into severe disrepute around the globe. He nearly wrecked the economy in the process, laying humongous debts on succeeding generations. Even his own party’s leaders and members of Congress deserted him towards the end, feeling he did great damage to the country’s vital interests. History has rendered its judgment: His administration was an ugly stain on our country’s garment of decency.
BW: I seem to recall that even in his worst times at the end, he still maintained the support of about one out of four citizens in various polls.
Yes, there was a die-hard faction of the population, mainly centered around religious fundamentalists in the South and Rust Belt, and ill-informed blue-collar workers in the Midwest, who stuck with him, since they believed he had been anointed by God to lead this country into righteous rule. But that means that 75% had lost faith in him and just wanted him to depart the scene as quickly and quietly as possible. They felt similarly about his Vice President, Mike Pence, a weak, corrupted co-conspirator.
In other words, much of the citizenry longed for a Restoration of the rule of law and calm, orderly, competent, open government, operating not from the extremes but from the middle outwards, on some issues more to the right, some more to the left.
One would have thought that the country had learned its history lesson from the lawless behavior of Richard Nixon and then George W. Bush, but it would take the Trump catastrophe to convince Americans never to permit a president to amass so much power and control.
Still, even with those Restoration laws in place, here we are many years later after a disgraced Trump left office and we still have to remind ourselves that there always are demagogues who try to cut corners with the Constitution and the rule of law, and who try to frighten the population into reckless policies and dangerous wars of choice. The moral lesson is that the fight to preserve democracy inside America has to be waged every day, every generation, lest the forces of authoritarian self-righteousness once again rise to power.
And, since even the best-intentioned politicians find themselves abusing the power they possess — as Lord Acton said: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” — we must be alert to the necessity of cleaning out our political parties at regular intervals.
When appropriate, we also must be open to the founding of new alliances and parties, as happened in the final period of the Trump Administration when liberals and progressives from the Democratic and Green Parties, and traditional conservatives and business executives and military brass from the Republican Party, united to set the Restoration in motion and to return to the checks-and-balances system of government established by our founders that had worked so well for several hundred years.
PEEKING BEHIND POWER’S CURTAIN
BW: How do you explain why true conservatives and corporate leaders and military officers deserted their leader in such great numbers?
The historical record shows that there were practical reasons for doing so: While the wealthy and many huge companies reaped windfall profits from Trump policies, the overall economy really couldn’t return to real health with the debt-anchors dragging it down as a result of the trillions of dollars spent not only on climate change-engendered natural catastrophes but also on unnecessary wars of choice. The U.S. military was stretched so thin fighting all these wars of imperial aggression against native guerrillas that our military leaders rebelled in order to protect their troops and their services from more such adventuring abroad. The pre-eminent position that America had enjoyed for so long on the world stage began to deteriorate rapidly, with its negative impact on our exports, the health of the dollar, our economic stability, our lack of respect abroad, and the concomitant rise of other major countries such as China and India and the South Asia/Russia Alliance in general.
But the Restoration also can be explained this way: The powers that be in American society, those corporate and political forces that truly control the economy and parties, usually carry out their agendas so effectively because their goals and strategies are essentially hidden. But Trump and Pence and their cronies, with their bumbling policies and their arrogant in-your-face tactics, tore away the veils and revealed all too clearly the faces of those powers-that-be and what was really going on: corporate theft on a massive scale, rapacious imperialism abroad, barely disguised racism, manipulation of the mass-media in hiding the truth, the ignoring of the rule of law and the Constitution, etc. Therefore, it was to the advantage of the elites to dump this incompetent, reckless crew and replace them with the usual type of smarter, more malleable leaders.
OPPOSING POLITICAL THUGGERY
BW: Can you help us understand why it took so long for that momentum to build in the body politic?
Part can be understood by the laws of inertia and entropy, part to how skillfully the Trump Administration and the corporate mass-media that supported them bamboozled the public, part to how the citizenry accepted this misinformation for a long, long time, out of fear and confusion. But deeper than that, I think a key factor was that the opposition was incapable of dealing with the kind of smash-mouth tactics practiced by the Trump Administration and their authoritarian-politics “experts.”
Throughout most of American political life, the various parties had fought each other long and hard but generally with a certain respect for the other side, and with a tendency to meet somewhere in the middle in order to get things done. But the far-right Trumpians — and their establishment-Republican enablers — decided to play a different kind of politics, aimed at the utter destruction and marginalization of their opponents in order to establish permanent one-party rule from an extremist ideological position.
It was a kind of political thuggery that was more reminiscent of Stalinist Russia and Hitler’s Germany. The Constitution was mangled; laws passed by the legislature were ignored; effective oversight of the leader was non-existent; voting rolls and elections were manipulated. In short, ideology, tribalism, authoritarianism, and Trump’s greed-obsessed self-promotion ruled all. In effect, our democratic presidency had become a kind of feudal monarchy, and for a country that had established itself in opposition to a tyrannical king, this contradiction in American political life could not last forever.
Most Americans, coming from a long tradition of more genteel political battles, for the longest time didn’t know how to confront this mendacious, authoritarian juggernaut that was rolling across the Constitution and distorting so many of our governmental institutions. Though the progressive blogosphere had agitated against the Trump administration early on, it took a long while before the general public caught on (aided by the constant revelations of new and more reprehensible scandals in key newspapers and websites) and the opposition built to critical mass. These oppositional alliances led to the demise of not only the Trump Administration but to the rapid decline of the ideological fanaticism and racist factions behind it.
The important thing I want to emphasize is that the United States under Trump/Pence came mighty close to a totalitarian, fascist society. Had the Democrats, and estranged Republicans and independents buoyed by public outrage, not stood up to the Trump Administration and confronted them time after time directly and with courage, there might well not have been a Restoration period in American history. Withdrawing funding for the Iraq and Afghan Wars, and the initiation of impeachment proceedings, appear to have been key precipitating factors that fomented the essential momentum for the swift exit of Trump and Pence from the scene. Without those moves, American democracy might well have been strangled, and even more destructive wars abroad might have been initiated.
“HARD IMPERIALISM” DAYS ARE OVER
BW: Finally, Professor Corker, could you sum up what your historical research reveals for our own time?
The forces of worldwide change were manifesting themselves before Trump and Pence, to be sure, but their Administration hastened the slide of American power and dominance in the world by their lack of creativity in dealing with these changes. They relied on the long-discredited and ineffective “hard imperialism” that did little but reveal their technological might’s inherent weakness in dealing with the many low-tech nationalist rebellions, and the scary reality of cyber warfare.
Thankfully, Restoration leaders toiled intelligently and mightily to undo much of the great damage done abroad, and to right the ship of state domestically as well, returning to the type of Constitutional rule that shone as a beacon and model for many societies abroad. It took many years to undo most of the damage done to our political system, but most citizens would agree that it has been well worth the difficult effort and has diluted the impact of worldwide terrorism.
But even in our more enlightened times, there still are, there always are, those forces frightened by major change and determined to try to control society through more draconian, authoritarian, racist measures. They exist in all three major parties. We all must resist that backward-looking movement with all our might, lest we return someday to a situation as bad or even worse than what history has revealed about the administration of Donald J. Trump.