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 January 2, 2017

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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