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Ideas | David Scharfenberg

Power in the rubble of the American Dream: Why Donald Trump may be the most consequential president of our time

(Getty/Adobe/Globe staff)

WHEN DONALD TRUMP is gone — and someday, he will be gone — he’ll surely be remembered for all the ways he defiled American politics.

The porn star payouts. The Fourth of Trump-ly.

His shameful insistence that four congresswomen of color “go back” to their “totally broken and crime infested” countries — never mind that every member of “the Squad” is an American citizen and three were born here.

But if Trump’s ugliness will linger, it’s looking increasingly likely that another, more exalted legacy could surpass it.

Look closely these past few weeks and you can see it taking shape. Still ill-defined and not entirely intentional — but no less important.

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Donald Trump — the crass, cockeyed pirate of the Potomac — just might usher in the most meaningful epoch of American politics in a half-century.

Seriously.

IN THE EARLY-morning hours of Nov. 9, 2016 — the shock of the biggest political upset in modern American history still fresh — the president-elect took the stage at a hotel in midtown Manhattan and made a pledge to all the unemployed factory workers and struggling waitresses at the mythic heart of his campaign.

The forgotten men and women of our country,” he said, “will be forgotten no longer.”

He was hardly the first politician to speak to the economic anxieties of the 21st-century American voter.

But he harnessed those anxieties like no one else, smashing both the Bush and Clinton dynasties in a matter of months — and dealing a grievous blow to the Washington consensus they represented.

Power, it was now clear, could be found — maybe must be found — in the rubble of the American Dream.

Trump’s economic message was, not so subtly, a racial one, too. His “forgotten men and women” were unmistakably white — a patriotic petit bourgeois set apart from the “rapists” he insisted were pouring over the Mexican border and the Black Lives Matter protesters who hated their country.

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Trump, of course, did not conjure American racism, any more than he conjured our industrial decay or the bad behavior that led to the #MeToo revolt. And he has done little to solve these problems; on the contrary, he’s done everything he can to exploit them.

But he has done more than any single figure of the last half-century to put these challenges — the essential challenges of post-industrial, post-civil-rights-era America — at the center of our politics.

He has forced a reckoning. And only now are we glimpsing its startling potential.

Start with race. Much of the focus, these past couple of weeks, has been on the political right — on the contemptible failure of mainstream Republican politicians to call out the president’s racist slander of “the Squad.”

But if the party had been truly Trumpified on race, leading Republicans like Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy would be offering full-throated endorsements of the president’s comments, rather than tepid — if still despicable — half-embraces. “The president,” the two leaders said, in identical statements, “is not a racist.”

It seems likely that, after Trump leaves office, the GOP will more or less return to its previous posture on race — hardly enlightened, but not so openly, and corrosively, cruel.

The real action is on the left.

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Trump’s rise, as Jess McIntosh, a Democratic strategist and former senior adviser on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, told me, “crystallized a problem that many people of color have known about for a very long time — but that a lot of white progressives were simply surprised by.”

There is, indeed, ample evidence that rank-and-file Democrats have been repelled — and galvanized — by Trump’s race baiting.

One study showed that Clinton voters’ views on race actually shifted more sharply than Trump voters’ in 2016, with white liberal sympathy toward minority groups “soar[ing] to the highest levels ever recorded” and support for policies like affirmative action surging.

Another survey showed a sharp spike in the share of white Democrats who believe inequality is caused by discrimination, rather than individuals’ lack of initiative.

And a 2017 analysis by the Pew Research Center shows that Democrats, always more concerned about prejudice than Republicans, are now twice as likely to call racism “a big problem” — the gap between the two parties more than doubling after Trump’s election.

The heightened, party-wide concern appears to be playing out in the Democratic presidential primary.

It’s telling that the first major shift in the race, the shrinking of former vice president Joe Biden’s once-yawning lead in the polls, came in the face of a highly charged confrontation over race, with Senator Kamala Harris taking a headline-grabbing swipe at the front-runner over his decades-old opposition to busing.

“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day,” Harris said, in the first round of debates. “That little girl was me.”

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That it was busing that shook up the contest — an idea that even the most liberal Democrats have kept at a safe remove for decades — speaks to the sharpness of the Trump-era turn.

And now that the Democratic contest has opened up — now that a Harris, or Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren, or Pete Buttigieg, or Cory Booker victory seems plausible — the transformative potential of the field’s racial justice proposals has come into focus.

Take Warren, the Massachusetts senator who has staked her campaign on a fierce critique of inequity. She’s calling for $7 billion in grants for entrepreneurs of color. That’s start-up capital for an estimated 100,000 businesses — and a serious attempt at narrowing a racial wealth gap that can only be called grotesque.

The median white family in this country now has 10 times more wealth than the median black family, according to the Federal Reserve; and almost 1 in 5 black families have zero or negative wealth. “Because the government helped create the wealth gap with decades of sanctioned discrimination,” Warren said, when she announced the plan, “the government has an obligation to address it head on — with bold policies that go right at the heart of the problem.”

Many of her rivals for the Democratic nomination seem to agree. Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., has proposed a sprawling “Douglass Plan,” named after abolitionist Frederick Douglass, that would establish a $10 billion fund for black entrepreneurs, invest sizable sums in historically black colleges, and aim to cut the disproportionately black and Latino prison population in half.

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The size of the program is stunning; Buttigieg says it would be on the order of the Marshall Plan, which saw the United States put about $100 billion in today’s dollars toward the reconstruction of Europe after World War II.

A plan of that size is unlikely to make it through even a Democratic-controlled Congress. But even one-tenth of the spending — on some of the less controversial proposals — could have a significant impact.

What may be the most intriguing idea in the entire contest would be even cheaper on an annual basis: Booker’s “baby bonds” proposal, which would provide every child born in the United States with a $1,000 savings account.

The US senator from New Jersey would tier the government’s annual contributions by family income; a child growing up in a family of four earning less than $25,100 would get $2,000 per year, with the amount lowered as families move up the income ladder.

Recipients, who could access the money at age 18, would only be allowed to spend it on “wealth-building” activities like paying for education, investing in a business, or buying a home.

The proposal is race-neutral, which is politically advantageous; many of the struggling white families in Appalachia and the Midwest who supported Trump would benefit. But a study by a Columbia University researcher shows that, with its tilt toward low-income families, it would nearly eliminate the wealth gap separating black and white young people.

That would have to count among the most powerful blows for racial equality since the civil rights movement.

Booker would cover the $60 billion annual cost by closing capital gains tax loopholes, imposing a surtax on very wealthy estates, and restoring the estate tax rate to 2009 levels; in short, he would transfer wealth from the rich to the middle class and the poor.

And that’s a theme that runs through the Democratic candidates’ approaches to the second great concern of the Trump era: an economy that increasingly favors the affluent at the expense of the rest.

From World War II to the 1970s, income gains were broadly shared up and down the economic ladder. But from 1979 to 2017, the top 1 percent saw their real annual wages increase by 157 percent, while the average American’s purchasing power stalled.

Here again, Democratic voters are moving left. The share who say government should do more to help the needy has spiked since 2011 — with a particularly sharp uptick since Trump came on the scene. And there’s overwhelming support for taxing the rich.

Warren’s wealth tax is among the most sweeping proposals. She would put a 2 percent levy on fortunes of more than $50 million and a 3 percent levy on those of $1 billion or more. There are some legitimate questions about whether the super-rich would find ways to evade the tax; that is, in part, why wealth taxes are falling out of favor in many of the world’s richest countries. But if Warren can extract anything like the $2.75 trillion over 10 years that her advisers estimate, it could make a real difference in the lives of the lower-income people she aims to help.

Even the “moderate” candidates in the race are proposing measures unlike anything on offer in the 2016 presidential primary — putting billions of dollars directly in the pockets of poor and middle-class people.

One such proposal, Harris’s “Rent Relief Act,” offers a refundable tax credit for those making $100,000 or less and spending at least 30 percent of their income on rent — going right at the biggest and most painful expense for many urban families. The program, according to a Columbia University study, would lift some 7.8 million people out of poverty.

It’s the sort of tangible benefit for working people that is rarely taken up in Washington. And suddenly, it seems possible.

WOULD HARRIS HAVE proposed hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies for the poor, even if Trump weren’t president?

Would most of the leading Democratic candidates for president be voicing support for some form of reparations for slavery, an idea that the country’s first black president, Barack Obama, and the party’s 2016 nominee, Clinton, explicitly rejected?

Maybe. Politics are, in no small part, a product of their time — and this is a time of gross inequality.

But politics are also highly contingent, shaped by the particular personalities in power. Bill Clinton gave us George W. Bush, who gave us Barack Obama, who gave us Donald Trump. And the peculiar personality in the White House right now offers the country a rare opportunity to tackle some of its biggest problems.

Where most Republican politicians elide questions of race and economic inequity — or search for subtle ways to exploit them — this one has tossed them, raw and quivering, into the public square. At the same time, he’s built one of the least popular first-term presidencies of our time.

That combination has opened the door to the sort of challenger who would normally struggle to get traction: a genuine change agent. And liberal activists like Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is backing Warren, are determined to take advantage.

“Things have been so bad under Donald Trump — norms are shattered and people are hurting — that we actually have an opportunity to put someone genuinely inspiring and transformational in there,” he said. “Why cut ourselves short by settling for someone who is merely going to return us to the status quo?”

But the choice is not quite as simple as Green suggests. His status quo “someone” — Joe Biden, of course — has been tacking to the left on some of the issues that liberals care about most.

When the former vice president teased a “middle ground” approach to climate policy in April, he faced an avalanche of criticism from environmentalists and lawmakers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, co-author of the “Green New Deal.”

“This is a deal breaker,” she tweeted. “There is no ‘middle ground’ w/ climate denial & delay.”

But the plan Biden eventually released went much further than anything the Obama administration ever pursued. And it was on par with his opponents’ most ambitious approaches: $1.7 trillion in spending, a tax on planet-warming pollutants, and a goal of eliminating the country’s net carbon emissions by 2050.

That sort of proposal presents progressives with a genuine quandary: With polls showing Biden performing better in head-to-head matchups with Trump than his Democratic rivals, should they be so quick to dismiss him?

There is also the question of governing. If someone like Warren took the White House — and managed to win a thin Democratic majority in Congress along the way — she would probably have to sweep away the Senate filibuster to have any reasonable shot at pushing through her ambitious agenda. And that would be a challenge.

Several Democratic senators have voiced misgivings about such a move, worried that the next Republican majority would be empowered to gut some of the country’s most important social programs.

Ultimately though, the arguments for a more cautious approach aren’t as strong as they seem. On the electoral front, Biden is not the safe bet his supporters suggest. He’s been a weak campaigner in the past. And recent experience suggests that candidates who stir voters’ passions — candidates like Obama and Trump — are more likely to prevail in general elections.

The latest polls show Warren and Sanders leading the president. And it’s not clear liberal candidates would cede so much ground to Trump in the center, given that he seems unwilling — or unable — to moderate.

When it comes to governing, the filibuster may not be the critical safeguard some Democrats suggest.

The fact is, in the early part of the Trump administration, Senate Republicans could have used a process known as “budget reconciliation” to gut Obamacare and slash Medicare on a simple majority vote. But they weren’t able to summon the political will. Why? The programs they targeted are too popular. They’ve helped curb the worst excesses of our market economy. They’ve lifted millions out of poverty. And their example may be the best argument we have for going big this election season.

We’ve seen what smart, ambitious policy can do. We’ve seen how it can endure.

And now, with our deepest problems exposed, shouldn’t we seize the opportunity to fix them?


David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe