The March 1 New York Times editorial comment, penned by Alex Kingsbury (Go Back to Normal After Trump? No Thanks), struck me as significant on many levels. Kingsbury pointed out that the statement made by House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings following the public testimony of Michael Cohen – “We have to get back to normal” – is not the result that concerned Americans should be looking for. Hoping to rid the country of a president who ignores the rule of law, who is incapable of truth telling and who has destroyed 50 years of hard-earned political diplomacy may bring us back to the old normal, but this is not enough, and, in some cases, impossible to achieve.
Cummings’ eloquent comments following the Cohen hearing were widely reported by the media as the high point of the daylong proceedings and an attempt at reconciliation in our fractious political climate. But there can be no return to the “good times” engendered by the Obama or Clinton presidencies if one is a Democrat or to those years surrounding the Bush(s) or Reagan administrations if one is a Republican. The Donald Trump presidency has exposed too many shortcomings of “normal” and created a new paradigm.
As Kingsbury points out, the investigations by the Mueller probe and by the Justice Department in the Southern District of New York have brought additional focus to the “normal” policy of: “treating crimes by the poor as felonies and crimes by the powerful as misdemeanors.” It is jaw dropping to me that Paul Manafort’s defense team recently argued to the sentencing federal judge that he should receive a more lenient sentence because “were it not for the Mueller investigation his crimes would never have been exposed.”
While Manafort’s plea for leniency is ridiculous, his point supports Kingsley’s conclusions. There are too few prosecutors investigating too many white-collar crimes, which are time-consuming and complicated. Wealthy criminals are violating the public trust, jeopardizing national security and corrupting the political system to rack up millions in profits, often untaxed, with impunity. For the most part, these wealthy criminals know that regulations are lax and enforcement underfunded.
Before the Trump gang gained power to remind us how the wealthy flaunt the rule of law, we had the worst recession in our lifetimes. This meltdown, which adversely affected millions of Americans, was caused in great part by the malfeasance of bankers and financial manipulators. In the aftermath there were few prosecutions. There can be no returning to normal when it comes to ferreting out white-collar crime.
Statistics clearly show that when resources are directed against violent crime, these crimes drop dramatically. The same is true of tax fraud, but the number of IRS agents has not increased in over 50 years due to congressional underfunding. The federal government, now in the middle of a deficit crisis, is losing $458 billion a year due to tax evasion, according to the IRS. There can be no returning to normal when it comes to enforcing our tax laws.
Again, in the area of enforcement, bringing powerful individuals and organizations to the bar, for their complicity in sex trafficking and pedophilia, cannot return to normal. American Universities (Penn State, Michigan State), religious institutions (the Catholic Church) and private individuals (Jeffery Epstein, massage parlor owners) must all be investigated when criminality is apparent. Having a friend in high places must not prevent investigations with adequate resources committed to prosecuting these complex crimes against children and women that often cross state and national borders.
There are many other issues not touched on by Kingsley where it would be a mistake to return to normal. Climate change is one of them. There is no doubt that Trump has reversed eight years of progress on climate issues by calling global warming a hoax, by withdrawing from international agreements and recently, by ignoring a report released by the Defense Department raising concerns. But it is too late for the “old” normal.
Global warming is now out of the slow and steady manageable stage and is entering an accelerated period of worldwide crisis. Even China, with its commitment to electric cars, is showing more concern than the United States. The “new” normal must replace superficial strategies for a comprehensive policy where our country becomes an inspiration to encourage, not a drag to discourage solutions.
The “old” normal in American politics called for the wealthy and social conservatives in one voting block against the middle class, poor and social liberals on the other. The Trump election and presidency have shattered this view. Trump has exposed the existence of a large voting population, in traditional Democratic strongholds, who are economically disadvantaged and who believe the traditional two-party system has left them behind. These voters will continue to support a president who will seek to keep out immigrants, fight against the effects of globalization, promise to bring back basic industry and to withdraw America from international commitments. These voters will not magically disappear when Trump is no longer in office.
For those who thought that the election of Barack Obama meant that racism was no longer pervasive in America, the election of Donald Trump has proven this a pipe dream. Clearly, racism remains virulent. There is no returning to the past belief that respect for minorities was winning the day. The “new” normal must begin with early childhood education to teach all students the history of slavery, of segregation, of the past use of legal remedies to deny minorities their basic human rights and of the meaning of white privilege in today’s society. Only then can we all understand and share the same national story, learn from it and grow past our racial divide.
In foreign affairs, there is no returning to normal with respect to the Atlantic Alliance. After two-plus years of Trump treating our European allies more like rivals than partners, very few Europeans believe the president will do the right thing during a crisis. There are too many cracks in the alliance to return the relationship to “normal,” even with a new president in the White House. European leaders have been forced to move beyond Trump because of the ambiguities caused by his actions on Iran, in Syria, on arms control treaties and in imposing tariffs. There is also outright fear and indignation caused by his rhetoric on threatening not to come to the aid of NATO members who do not pay their bills.
While the next president might attempt to restart the alliance, Europe will now be inclined to develop other strategic partners, particularly economic ones, and to act independently of American interests. Not all the goodwill that has been lost will be regained. The United States will be more alone in the world than at any time since WWII.
Trump has made it impossible to return to the “old” normal, following his departure. His wrecking ball adventurism in domestic and foreign affairs has been cataclysmic and will require not simple repairs but rather major resets in policy. The challenge for Democrats reaches far beyond winning elections. The ultimate test will be governing in the post-Trump world.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.