Both President Donald Trump and the Democrats are looking backwards.
Trump offers a return to the past in government action on trade with other countries and in a far more limited government. That last word in his slogan “Make America Great Again” may be its key word.
Democrats and progressives lament Trump’s arrival and what they regard as his rejection of fundamental truths of the American political tradition. Shocked, they wait in anguish for Americans to come to their senses and return to their party’s traditional policies, ultimately rejecting and expelling Trump.
Trump’s election was not simply a matter of making Americans feel better about their country. It was not only another version of Custer’s last stand, the battle of a country traditionally run by white men against the soon-to-arrive majority of non-white Americans. And it was not simply because the Democrats had lost their focus.
Trump’s winning support came from voters worried about what might be called a second Industrial Revolution. The first had introduced machinery that would replace working people. The second is introducing machinery replacing both machinery and many manufacturing jobs.
When the Industrial Revolution came, some French workers were said to have removed their wooden clogs, called sabots, and thrown them into the machines to cause them to break down. From this may have come the word sabotage.
In England, the same movement was sparked by Ned Ludd, who supposedly destroyed a couple of knitting machines. Those who followed him came to be known as Luddites. Like the French workers, they were eventually defeated by the forces of industrialization. The resulting growth in the new economy created even more jobs.
The changing economy is now rapidly and drastically reducing jobs that are done by rote. If a worker on an assembly line can be replaced by a robot that can do the same job, he or she will be replaced. Manufacturing can increasingly be done by machines that need no pay, no benefits, no vacation, and no labor union.
To this must be added Americans’ ever expanding ability to purchase manufactured goods from other countries with lower labor costs and weaker environmental standards.
People who lose their jobs, because of technological change or imports, are disoriented. How do they earn a living? If we can go back to the way work used to be, people may believe they will again work in coal mines or auto factories.
Trump wants to change the rules of the game to make possible a return to an earlier economy (“the old days”). Rules controlling the mining and use of coal will be relaxed. Pipelines will be built. Outright protectionism will impose higher tariffs on goods from China, Mexico and the rest of the world (“America First”).
With jobs as the paramount goal, Trump ignores the fact that burning more coal will harm the air Americans breath. He does not recognize that cutting American imports will also lead to reduced American exports as other countries retaliate. Blocking lower cost imports will raise consumer costs.
What Trump wants to do to create jobs will come at great cost, especially if the U.S. falls behind the rest of the world as the second Industrial Revolution advances elsewhere, and China takes America’s place as the dominant economic power.
In short, Donald Trump is a Luddite. He is trying to reverse the course of economic history. By focusing on resistance to change, he sacrifices consumers, the environment and ultimately the workers themselves.
Do the Democrats offer an alternative, answers to dealing with change? They now to focus their attention on Trump’s abandonment of traditional values, failing to recognize that may not be where the debate is.
The Democrats need to stop wringing their hands and clinging to retread leadership. They need to renew their historic alliance with working people by coming up with reasonable and positive proposals for coping with the transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy.
Republicans, too, should avoid giving Trump a free hand simply because he seized the GOP banner and won. The proposal by Sen. Susan Collins and her Louisiana colleague on reforming the Affordable Care Act opens discussion of the kind of positive alternative both Trump and the Democrats should have had in their back pockets.
Looking backwards and giving in to the dangerous and outmoded policies promoted by the undisciplined new president cannot restore the economy and promote progress.
And even while disagreeing, both parties need to insist on civil discourse against Trump’s petulant and ultimately destructive outbursts. Congress must assert itself – now.