By Robert Reich
Like most of you I’ve been following the harrowing news about what’s occurring in Israel and Gaza — and, of course, Trump’s crazy-ass attempt to blame it on Biden. “The horrible attack on Israel, much like the attack on Ukraine, would never have happened if I were President — zero chance!” he said with his usual modesty, even though Trump is more responsible for the diminished capabilities of American intelligence (connected to Israeli intelligence) than Biden or any other recent president.
Ronald Reagan told Americans that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”
Reagan is still revered, especially by Republicans, but his negative view of government has morphed into an authoritarian fervor within the Republican Party.
And that fervor has become the basis of a strategy — led by Trump — for seeking to persuade the rest of America that the nation is ungovernable as a democracy and therefore in need of an authoritarian strongman.
This is the underlying agenda of Trump and his enablers as we head into the terrifying election year of 2024.
It’s behind Trump’s increasingly wild ravings. It animates the House nihilists (such as Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Andy Biggs, and Nancy Mace). It fuels the zealotry of Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy. It’s behind Steve Bannon’s and Tucker Carlson’s incendiary agitprop. (It’s also basic to Putin’s maneuverings.)
The more chaos Trump and his allies create, the more pessimistic Americans feel about the capacities of our democratic institutions to govern the nation — which advances their authoritarian agenda.
So they are increasingly unconstrained. Close the government! Vacate the speakership! Impeach Biden! Investigate the judges and prosecutors in Trump’s civil and criminal trials! Stop funding Ukraine! Don’t trust the intelligence community!
“How do Americans feel about politics?” The New York Times asked a few days ago, answering in the same headline: “Disgust isn’t a strong enough word.”
Trump wants us to be disgusted. He wants us to believe that America is ungovernable as long as power remains diffused. He wants us to think we need an authoritarian strongman — Trump — to concentrate power and take over everything.
In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, only 16 percent of people said they trusted the government — close to the lowest levels in seven decades of polling. Nearly 30 percent said they disliked both the Democratic and Republican parties, a record high.
If we view the central political struggle of our era as not just between the two major parties, but more fundamentally between democracy and authoritarianism, Trump’s chaos agenda explains why much of the GOP no longer accepts the rule of law, the norms of liberal democracy, the legitimacy of the opposing party, or the premise that governing requires negotiation and compromise.
Trump’s chaos agenda continues to drown out news about how well we’re actually being governed: An economy that continues to generate a large number of new jobs, with real (adjusted for inflation) wages finally trending upward, inflation dropping, and no recession in sight.
Plus: Billions of dollars pumped out to fix and improve the nation’s roads, ports, pipelines, and internet. Hundreds of billions allocated to combat climate change. Medicare on the way to lowering the cost of prescription drugs. Billions in student debt canceled. Monopolies attacked. Workers’ rights to organize, defended.
This asymmetry — a well-governed America barely registering on the public’s mind, while an ungovernable America becomes increasingly palpable — is not just a product of Trump’s GOP and right-wing media. It’s also due to the mainstream media, which attracts viewers and listeners with damning stories of dysfunction and crisis and an inclination to blame both sides.
It is playing directly into Trump’s authoritarian hands. Trump thrives on the perception of disorder and dysfunction.
The worse things seem, the stronger his case for an authoritarian like him to take over. “I’d get it done in one day.” “I am your voice.” “Leave it all to me.”
Reagan was wrong. Government is not the problem. A modern society needs government. The relevant questions are: What kind of government? And to whom is it responsible?
Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress have been doing what they can to fortify American democracy and make it responsible to the people, under the most challenging politics of the post-war era. I have worked for two Democratic presidents (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton) and advised a third (Barack Obama). In my view, Biden is the most progressive and effective of them all.
That Biden is not getting credit — that the public sees and reads mostly about dysfunction and crises, created largely by Republicans and fomented by Trump — is not just politically disadvantageous for Biden and the Democrats.
It is part of an increasingly effective strategy by Trump and his allies to foment public disgust with our democratic system of government. It is an essential component of Trump’s authoritarian agenda.
If it succeeds, it will not just sink Biden and the Democrats. It will sink American democracy.
This article was published at Robert Reich’s Substack