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We’re almost there, dear Swamp readers — a new administration is only hours away. When Ed and I began this newsletter almost four years ago, we knew that covering “money and power in Trump’s America”, as the Swamp Notes slogan goes, would keep us very busy. But we certainly couldn’t have imagined just how singular the events of the past few years would be.
Before I go further, let me assure readers that we will continue covering the Swamp in this newsletter under Joe Biden’s administration (though I am personally looking forward to not having to wade quite as deeply in the muck). You are wonderful readers: thoughtful, opinionated and well-informed. Keep the comments and suggestions coming — and on that note, we would particularly welcome thoughts on what you’d most like us to focus on during the new administration.
Rather than do a curtain raiser for the inauguration (for that, tune into the FT live blog on FT.com later on Tuesday and Wednesday, which we will be participating in along with several colleagues), I thought I’d write my final Note of the Trump administration on a few things I’ve learnt or re-learnt over the past few years, and how this president has influenced my own perspective on politics, economics and the news.
Below are a few of my thoughts, in no particular order. Ed, I’d love to hear at least one or two from you, as well as those of our readers!
1. Nothing resonates politically unless it reaches people at a gut level. This has been the great failure of the Democratic party over the past two decades. Bill Clinton was a policy guy but he could feel your pain. Barack Obama not so much. And certainly, the economic technocrats who have crafted policy for the left over the past several years have typically thought about people as data inputs into algorithms, rather than as flesh and blood individuals that live in real communities. Think, for example, about the constant push to move people where jobs are rather than the other way around. Going forward, if the left is to win back the working class, it must always, always keep in mind a human face at the end of the policy decisions. Otherwise, the midterm elections will be brutal.
2. A single truth embedded in a welter of lies is very effective. It’s as true now as when Herman Melville made the point in his novel The Confidence-Man. Donald Trump is and was the ultimate conman, making people’s heads spin by flinging high-speed lies across television and Twitter, but sometimes hitting some key point in the nation’s felt experience (the sense of a rigged system, contempt for traditional working-class lifestyles from the left or even the true nature of our economy). That’s one of the main things that made him so dangerous.
3. The medium is the message. Another truism, but one which Trump as well as digitally savvy Democrats such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have shown to be truer than ever. I must say that I find this incredibly depressing, because I have yet to learn anything really meaningful — politically or economically — on social media. I also find it incredibly disturbing that platform giants in this country are basically still left to make their own rules. This is an issue the new administration must address as soon as possible, not only for its own political legitimacy (going easy on Big Tech isn’t going to help them, or in particular Kamala Harris) but for its security over the next four years.
4. Place matters. The last two elections have made this obvious from a political standpoint, but I think it will be increasingly true economically as well. Not only will it be crucial to move wealth from the coasts to the interior of the country, but there are unique technological ways to do that now, with remote work, 3D printing and other decentralised manufacturing techniques, as well as advancements in digital identity. Place also matters at a global level. As I’ve written many times, I think that Trump was the symptom, not the cause, of the new tripolar world that we live in. The faultlines in neoliberalism were waiting to be exposed; he was just the guy who did it.
5. Elites must regain the trust of Main Street. Otherwise, we are on our way to American oligopoly — if indeed we aren’t already there. The people who elected Trump might have been wrong to think he cared about them. But they weren’t crazy to think the system is rigged. As anyone reading this newsletter knows, it is. Rebuilding trust and showing that the ruling class can rule well and fairly will be Biden’s biggest job. I’m wishing him God speed.
Ed, as you’ve pointed out, the president’s family is already setting up shop in the other Swamp — Florida. I was interested in this editorial in the Miami Herald about Mayor Francis Suarez’s plan to court tech titans and financiers looking to relocate from San Francisco and New York to avoid rising taxes. Not a good look. But that never stopped anyone in Florida, as anyone who has read a Carl Hiaasen novel knows.
Make sure to tune in to not only the FT live blog on Tuesday and Wednesday, but also check out Ed, myself and our US managing editor Peter Spiegel on what to expect during the first 100 days of the Biden administration, in a special event on Tuesday at 12pm ET.
Also, don’t miss several other great FT pieces from the past few days, including my colleague Gillian Tett’s sharp piece on the risk of an inflation spike, Philip Stephens’ assertion that Biden needs an America-first foreign policy (I’d agree), Ed’s piece on why Trumpism will continue without the president, and for a political breather, this feature on why alternative hedonism would be good for all of us.
Edward Luce responds
Rana, I have a brief — but non-exhaustive — list of Trump-era observations to add to your very apposite suggestions.
Character matters. The choices that individuals make alter history. The history that I was taught at school, like most people of my generation (and before), was a series of kings and queens and various heroes (Walter Raleigh, Horatio Nelson, etc). I had that drummed out of me at university. EH Carr’s classic What is History? rammed home the point that history should not be a series of biographies of great men. He was right — we should focus on history’s larger structural forces. But I may have learnt the lesson too well. The Trump era gave me a strong reminder that the actions of individuals can change events for better or worse. Think of Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, or Michigan’s Aaron Van Langevelde, who joined his Democratic colleagues to sign off on his state’s presidential election results. These two relatively obscure Republicans — and many others — have become pariahs in their own party for refusing to collaborate in a judicial coup. My schools of history have thus fused. People can make a difference. These are not admirals or monarchs; they are cogs in a machine that would collapse without them.
Listen more! I say this to myself as much as to anyone else. It also echoes the sign that Marty Baron, The Washington Post’s editor, hung up in the newsroom: “Go talk to people.” Reporters do this every day. As columnists, we are particularly vulnerable to the sound of our own voices. Again, the Trump era has underlined the importance of listening to different voices. Almost everyone I know abhors Trump, and did so all along. Yet 74m Americans came out to vote for him — the second highest tally in US presidential history (after Biden). Not all of them are cynical financiers looking to pocket more tax cuts, or Proud Boy-types seeking to abolish the 20th century. What November drove home was that America’s divides are Himalayan. We can sit around complaining to like-minded circles about the other side’s irrationality and gullibility. Or we can try to figure out what it is that is driving them. To understand is to forgive, goes the saying. But to understand is also to win. Mutual ignorance could lead to the collapse of US democracy. The system cannot run on contempt.
Rana, I also fully share your sentiments on Swamp Notes readers — the most thoughtful, interactive and pleasant readership going. Don’t go away!
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to: ‘America’s domestic terrorist problem’
“It’s the power of the media platforms, such as Facebook, that is the unprecedented driving force in upending existing democratic structures — plus the iPhone’s power making every individual a potential identitarian, separatist, localist, etc. I don’t think it’s any good trying to put this in the old left-right frame. Nor is it anything but wishful thinking to believe that Europe, or the rest of the west, has somehow got a better model . . . The greatest danger of all in the UK is the blinkered, rear-view mirror complacency of much of the opinion-forming and policymaking ensemble that we can somehow get by, and hold together, in the ever-faster unfolding digital age without fundamental modernisation of democratic procedures, big constitutional reform and indeed changes in the the western philosophy of governance.” — Lord David Howell of Guildford
“I fear that I agree with Fiona Hill, helpfully referenced in your Note. All the signs are that Trump was building up the lie about ‘the steal’ for months before the election. He and his gang are not entirely stupid and they can read the polls as well as anyone. So they created the seeds of the lie and then attempted to grow the tangled weeds of it from election day onwards. He had also, over his term, used raw political power with his base to bring elected Republicans into line and obedience. It all reminds me of The Godfather (including the presence of Don Junior) . . . In the short term, going to trial in the Senate has to be the right course of action. But there are no guarantees that the Trump clan will, guilty or not, go quietly from the scene. Hopefully, the commercial and legal pressures that a president cannot forgive will come to bear on the organisation and bring it down.” — David Cutts, France