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L'invité de La Française

Comité de prospective
20 février 2017

A l’occasion du Grand Rendez-vous La Française « USA, La nouvelle donne », le 24 janvier 2017, Arthur Goldhammer, Senior Affiliate au Centre des Etudes Européennes à Harvard, était L’invité de La Française. Officier des Arts et des Lettres, il travaille depuis 1977 en tant que traducteur des classiques français tels que Albert Camus, Marguerite Yourcenar, Alexis de Tocqueville, etc. Mais c’est la traduction du livre de Thomas Piketty « Le Capital au XXIème siècle » qui lui apporte la célébrité.

Interviewé par Xavier Lépine, Président du Directoire de La Française, Arthur Goldhammer donne son avis sur les raisons de l’élection de Donald Trump, 45e président des Etats-Unis ainsi que sur le climat sociétal, économique et politique actuel et à venir.


20th  January Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States


Why did Trump win?

There is a lively debate in the US about why Trump won. One could mention 1001 reasons, but none is truly convincing. The outcome of the election remains a puzzle.


Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought. One camp emphasizes the country’s economic condition. The key factors are said to be :

  • Loss of jobs, especially in manufacturing industries.
  • Stagnation of income of the working and middle classes
  • Increasing inequality of both income and wealth, as described by Piketty

The other camp emphasizes social and racial issues.

Whites, especially white males, are said to resent what they see as discrimination in favor of minorities and women.
The sociologist Arlie Hochschild uses the image of people standing patiently in line, waiting to advance to a higher social status. Then they see people cutting in line ahead of them, and they become angry. In part this resentment is directed against the educated elite, and especially against graduates of the top universities.
You know, in the US, unlike France, there are thousands of colleges and universities, but only 50 or so are regarded as truly presitigious. One can understand this resentment, even if one is also the target of it. A graduate of West Missouri Bible College may hold a degree with the same nominal title as a graduate of Harvard or Yale, but his degree does not give him access to the highest levels of the hierarchy, whether in business or in the public sector. Indeed, it may not even allow him to obtain the same level of job as his father could achieve 30 or 40 years ago with a college diploma.

The world has changed, and even middle-level jobs require some college training, the cost of which is not always compensated by the social status or level of income that the degree provides.
Obama and Clinton are in a way the perfect targets of such resentment: a black man and a feminist women who came from modest origins but were lucky enough to attend the most prestigious universities. Their success is resented by the less fortunate, and one of the secrets of Trump’s victory is that he found a way to mobilize this envy on his behalf. This helps to explain the paradox of a billionaire posing as the spokesman of the common man.


What potential for division exists within the Trump team?

Within this team there is a potential for significant differences.
Trump himself, to the extent that one can interpret his constantly shifting statements on policy, seems to be most committed to keeping American jobs onshore, even if that means imposing protective tariff barriers.
The G-S bankers are unlikely to share this protectionist approach to the economy, but they will be eager to involve themselves in Trump’s infrastructure spending proposals, which are really federal guarantees for private development loans.
The politicals, however, if ideologically consistent, would oppose such federal intervention in the market. Most of them belong to the Christian evangelical wing of the party and come from Southern states, where hostility to minorities and immigrants is highest. Their main concern is with social policy: building the wall, deporting immigrants, repealing Obamacare, banning abortion, regaining control of the Supreme Court, and suppressing minority voting, which poses a direct threat to their continuation in power.


Is Trump’s personality likely to change in office?

My wife is a psychiatrist. She often says that nothing in the world is less likely to change than a person’s character. Trump has unshakable confidence in himself. He doesn’t read much and listens only to a small circle of advisors, most of whom are members of his family. He has just won an enormous gamble without the slightest concession to the conventional wisdom of the political world. So why would he change now? Everything has gone his way.
What we don’t know is how he will respond to opposition that he cannot simply crush or sweep away, as he did with his Republican rivals and then with Hillary Clinton.
We already know that this opposition will be massive. We saw it in the Women’s March on Sunday, the largest demonstration in US history.
The mood in the US, among the more than half of the electorate that voted against Trump, is somber, even frightened. I have never seen anything like it, and I lived through the Vietnam era. There is a potential for trouble of a kind that the US has not seen since that time, especially if the Republicans insist on attacking what many people have come to see as fundamental rights, such as a woman’s right to reproductive choice or the right to choose one’s sexual orientation.


Given these deep conflicts, how will the country’s political institutions react?

First, the famous system of checks and balances has stopped working for the time being.
The Republicans control the White House, Senate, and House and will soon regain control of the Supreme Court. They also control half of all state governments. It’s true that their maj in the Senate is small, 54-46. Hence the defection of a handful of senators could have serious consequences.

Defections are most likely in the realm of internal relations, trade policy, and monetary policy. For example, John McCain and Lindsay Graham are unhappy with Trump’s friendly overtures to Russia. The question is whether a split with Trump on for pol would carry over to domestic policy. Would they oppose him on, say, an attempt to repeal Obamacare without replacement?
Trump is an outsider. Many members of the R establishment hate him, for good reason. He treated many of them roughly. He has insulted Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, public rebuked Trump for his behavior toward women. But then Trump appointed McConnell’s wife as Secret of Transportation.
In any case, the Rs have an opportunity they have not had in many years, with total control of the government. They have several longstanding goals they can now achieve thanks to Trump’s victories, and they are unlikely to turn against him until they achieve those goals. The first and foremost among them is the repeal of Obamacare.
The Ds will do everything they can to oppose this, including the filibuster, a parliamentary technique to prevent the passage of legislation, which might be likened to the opposite of your 49.3. But if they do this, the Rs can resort to another procedure called reconciliation, which would allow them to circumvent the filibuster. The problem is that reconciliation limits the extent of change that can be made to existing law. They might be able to repeal Obamacare without achieving an acceptable replacement. This could provoke a reaction by the 20 million people who would then lose insurance coverage, some of whom are Trump voters, whether they know it or not. This could cause political problems for some R congressmen and lead to a split in the coalition.
But this is unlikely. The Rs will stick together until they have achieved 5 fundamental goals:

  • Control of SC
  • Reduced corporate taxes
  • Income tax reform to favor the wealthy
  • Impose voting restrictions on minorities
  • Defense of a certain idea of national identity

Hence I do not foresee any immediate fracture of the coalition between congressional Rs and Trump, even though in some ways it is an unnatural coalition rather than an ideological convergence.


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