A Deal with the Orange Devil? Progressives Debate Whether to Seek Common Ground With Trump

The president-elect says he wants a jobs-creating infrastructure bill—should Democrats help make it happen?

John Feffer and Max Sawicky

Nobody is sure what the infrastructure plan in Trump’s head looks like—but it might be something like this. (Jan Stromme/Getty Images)

In our January issue, In These Times provided a handbook for resisting the hate-filled policies Donald Trump is sure to pursue. But where Trump has posed as populist — as on infrastructure, trade and corruption — is there room to work with the new president? This question has vexed activists, journalists and politicians across the left-liberal spectrum, with some urging staunch non-cooperation. Bernie Sanders, for his part, released a statement saying he would be willing to work with Trump on certain economic legislation.

How much do progressive groups want to be part of a sausage-making process taken over by the political equivalent of Tyson Foods?

Two voices in this debate were Max Sawicky, a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer who defended Sanders’ stance in The Baffler, and John Feffer, director of Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF), who suggested on FPIF’s website that when you work with the devil … you’re doing the devil’s work.” Via e-mail, In These Times invited Sawicky and Feffer to discuss strategic collaboration with a President Trump.

MAX: Democrats have certain strategic interests — civil rights, women’s rights, religious freedom and more — that absolutely defy collaboration with Trump. None of them are tradable.

When it comes to money, however, it’s often possible to talk turkey. The money in question is new funding for infrastructure. The Trump campaign has a more articulated policy on infrastructure than on most things. The problem is, it stinks. It’s all tax breaks and privatization voodoo — the Trump U of infrastructure bills. It should be stamped dead on arrival.

But with infrastructure spending on the table, Democrats and advocates have an opening to push for something better. A real policy would commit big federal dollars to state and local governments to build stuff they weren’t going to build anyway. We could earmark funds for projects too big for states to afford on their own, such as California’s high-speed rail system, beach and marsh restoration, an efficient national power grid and expanded regional transit networks.

The fear expressed by many progressives is that successful enactment of such policies would provide political support for all manner of vile Trumpian initiatives. But if this election has taught us anything, it should caution us against overconfident forecasts.

How to proceed? An obvious condition of any deal is that it be free of entangling add-ons that go against the Democrats’ strategic interests. It should not, for instance, be buried in an odious budget reconciliation bill written by Paul Ryan.

If Trump desires a genuine infrastructure spending bill, however, and anti-spending Republicans refuse to vote for it, the president would find himself relying on Democratic support. This gives them leverage they could use to pressure Trump into keeping his hands off the big healthcare programs and Social Security, and easing off undocumented immigrants.

The political agenda the new administration ends up pursuing will determine appropriate Democratic tactics. Nobody could expect Democrats to be singing Kumbaya” about bridge-building if Latinos are being swept up in the night, or if African-American voting rights are further abrogated.

But if we end up with a genuine proposal that would provide millions of jobs, it would be foolish to reject it. If anyone thinks the Democrats have problems now with the white working class, or with dispirited people of color who didn’t bother to vote, imagine if they turn down a serious jobs plan.

Politics is about making clear what you are for and what you are against. We are for jobs, and there will be plenty for us to be against in the coming months. Total abstention, McConnell-style, works for the party that wants to make nothing happen. That’s not us.

JOHN: Max makes a compelling argument for running an inside game during the upcoming Trump era. He’s not naïve. He knows that the Trump team is going to push regressive policies and play dirty. He has identified one possible area of compromise — an infrastructure deal — but here, too, he is realistic. Sawicky knows that the deal, as it currently exists in Trump’s imagination, stinks.”

Still, he believes it’s worth getting involved in Washington-style politicking on this particular issue, positing the following: First, the Democrats have to somehow reverse the intent of the Trump program from being a pork generator (for businesses and entrepreneurs) to a jobs generator (for those left behind by economic globalization). Second, he imagines that Trump, in order to beat the deficit hawks in his own party, will seek the support of the very political forces that have reversed the intent of his program. Third, this will provide Democrats with leverage in other areas. Fourth, the resulting infrastructure bill will in fact create jobs.

It’s possible that this Rube Goldberg scenario will work, and I’d be the first to applaud the result. But I don’t recommend investing time or energy into such tactics. The next four years will not be a time for normal politics.

Trump’s appointments demonstrate he will be pushing an uncompromising far-right agenda. Those on the Left who expected Trump to promote a more peaceful foreign policy will have to reckon with Michael Flynn, Mike Pompeo and others who will translate America First” into an unraveling of every important diplomatic achievement of the Obama years. Those who expected Trump to level the economic playing field for American workers will have to contend with the likes of billionaire Wilbur Ross and a clutch of dirty energy executives who will tilt the playing field the other way. And those who expected Trump to drain the swamp” in D.C. will have to deal with the corporate lobbyists already advising the transition team.

All this — plus Trump’s campaign rhetoric — suggests that a policy of non-cooperation is a better bet than trying to compromise or win the new president over. Trump is an autocrat who intends to bend American institutions to his will. To engage such a leader will reinforce his authority and normalize a repugnant political philosophy tinged with racism, xenophobia, misogyny and religious extremism.

My program of noncooperation consists of three parts. First, don’t mindlessly oppose something that will have progressive outcomes, but don’t expend much effort to facilitate it, either. Second, focus on change at the state and local level. Third, and most importantly, strengthen peace and justice movements — particularly in the states Trump won — to resist the next administration’s policies on the ground (and prepare for the next elections).

This strategy of active resistance would ultimately be more productive than scoring minor Beltway wins. This election has revealed (once again) that a huge number of Americans don’t care about the inside game. They reject elite tactics even if those tactics measurably improve their lives, like the Affordable Care Act. We just lost the corridors of power. Now we’ve got to rebuild at the street level.

MAX: I need to clarify a few things.

I don’t know what infrastructure deal exists in Trump’s imagination. I don’t think he does, either. Two of his supporters wrote a paper of supply-side drivel that I doubt he has read. If Trump wants a real legacy of creating jobs, I actually think he would be able to tell the difference between a real program and crapola. It’s the one area where, as a developer, he has some knowledge. Does he want a real pro-gram, or does he want to implement a massive grift? Who knows?

Trump’s infamous strategist Steve Bannon—against conventional Republican wisdom — supports big spending on infrastructure, saying the conservatives are going to go crazy” at his plan. As a Goldman Sachs alum, he too knows the difference between a real jobs program and hot air.

Feffer raises concerns about a program providing pork” to business. Because construction is usually contracted out, any infrastructure program is going to benefit business firms. Yes, this inevitably entails graft — it goes with the territory. But distinguishing between pork and good” infrastructure would be a good problem to have; it means there will be real, job-creating federal spending, not merely tax-cut voodoo. Of course, actually valuable projects are better than pork.

It is far from certain that a good infrastructure deal would provide Democrats with leverage in other areas. My case is that such a deal would be good in and of itself, because it means jobs (and upward pressure on wages) and helps Democrats put a wedge between Trump and many Republicans.

There is not a clear connection between infrastructure and the basket of deplorable policies that are coming down the pike. So none of this is any substitute for the urgency Feffer notes of building social movements, including in state and local political struggles. A good deal on infrastructure doesn’t have much bearing on the safeguarding of basic human rights and fundamental social benefits. That’s a separate track that will depend on grassroots organizing, not usually the work of members of Congress.

The choices in my mind are simple. A deal that can generate millions of new jobs should be supported (with the caveats noted above). If it’s big and real, it would not be seen as inside baseball.” A small or rotten deal can safely be rejected, but if congressional Democrats and progressive activists are perceived to be indifferent or hostile to a genuine, large infrastructure deal, the political fallout would be an arrow to the heart and grease the skids for genuinely horrible things to come.

JOHN: Max provides some helpful clarifications, and there’s no doubt that we are on the same side when it comes to what can ultimately improve the state of working America. The differences lie in emphasis and tactics. Those differences will prove critical, however, in the four years ahead.

Looking at Trump’s corporate career, I’d say job creation was pretty low on his list of priorities. He busted unions, stiffed contractors and closed operations that could have been saved. He always focused on profits, primarily his own. As president, he could have some kind of conversion — but I doubt it.

The larger question is whether progressives should engage in actual politicking with Team Trump. I’m not talking about a bill with obvious progressive consequences, such as this chimerical job-creation bill.

Most legislation coming out of Washington’s sausage factory has some good and some bad. I’m talking about the utility of working closely with Trump on legislation with widespread regressive results simply because progressives have some marginal influence on the bill, or in the hopes of winning influence on future policies. How much do progressive groups want to be part of a sausage-making process taken over by the political equivalent of Tyson Foods? I propose going vegan for the next four years.

Washington interest groups will pursue the inside game because that’s part of their DNA. I predict they will come up hard against the Republican-controlled Congress, an openly hostile Trump administration and a well-funded set of lobbyists. I’m impressed by those who are willing to continue to play the game under these conditions; I just don’t think it’s worth the effort. Worse, it could be counterproductive, legitimizing the most noxious political team to take over in a long time.

I propose instead to throw sand in the gears of the Trump juggernaut, persuading foundations to redirect funding to state and local initiatives, turning our backs on the elite D.C. game. We don’t have the votes or money to con-front Trump head-on in Congress. It’s time for an end run instead. 

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His dystopian novel, Splinterlands, a Dispatch/​Haymarket Books original, was released in December 2016. Max Sawicky is an economist and writer in Washington, D.C.
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