Looking Forward in December 2020 3.

            In the aftermath of the “chaos and nastiness of the Trump era” which left many Americans “exhausted,” the New York Times proposes a “three-pronged approach” to closing America’s deep divisions.[1]     

            First, cool down the culture wars.[2]  Partly, this means that Joe Biden should behave in a dignified, adult manner.  Biden has published his tax returns, and should not post his Tweets (if he even knows what those are).  Partly it means sealing off key institutions of power—the Department of Justice, the intelligence community, and the military—from “partisan meddling,” while accepting both the Inspectors-General and Congressional oversight as legitimate.  Partly it means the judgement of what fights to pick and which to avoid.  Americans can sort out for themselves what kneeling during the national anthem or “thin blue line” flags mean without the president sharing his own thoughts.[3]  None of the issues are subject to easy or swift resolution in a deeply divided country. 

            Biden’s personal qualities include his ability to connect with the common man and his religious faith.  He’s well-suited by temperament and experience to not speak to or about the 71 million Trump voters with “condemnation or condescension.”  He will have to do the same with the progressive wing of his own party in the likely event that he faces a divided government.    

            Second, push policies that help all Americans.[4]  If this effort begins with infrastructure, it will be infrastructure broadly conceived.  Not just roads, bridges, and air and sea ports, but also the “digital infrastructure,” responding to climate change, and enhancing America’s international competitiveness.[5]  Biden is pitching these as job-creation projects at a time of still-high unemployment created by the corona virus.  In addition to infrastructure, there is scope for patching some of the potholes in the health-care system: money for community health centers and prevention of surprise medical bills. 

            Elsewhere, the “common ground” is spottier.  Many Democrat and Republican lawmakers agree on attacking the big technology companies.  Anti-trust law suits have emerged from Republicans and Democrats alike.  Some forms of additional spending on poor Americans also enjoy a certain amount of bipartisan support: child tax credits, child and dependent-care tax credits, and increasing opportunities for 401(k) retirement plans.  Most Americans appear to favor cutting the “Dreamers” some slack, even if they disagree on immigration in general. 

            Third, restore the “guardrails” of American democracy.[6]  On the one hand, investigate what happened during the Trump administration.  There is the issue of proven criminality.[7]  There are the two in-process investigations of possible tax fraud by New York State.  Then there is the issue of crimes that may have been committed,[8] but we won’t know until there is an investigation.  There is the question of whether Trump’s business interests affect government policies?  There are multiple scandals involving Cabinet officers and appointed officials.  The danger here is that any investigations will be or appear to be politicized at a time when Biden has made “healing” a priority. 

On the other hand, figure out how to prevent it from happening again.  Trump has never released his tax returns, so it is impossible to tell if there are conflicts of interest.  Congress should pass a law requiring any president to release his/her/there previous ten years of tax returns.  Trump has abused his powers of office by pressuring the Department of Justice to investigate opponents or go easy on friends and he has pardoned convicted supporters.  Congress should pass the Democrat’s “Protect Our Democracy Act” to ban self-pardons, allow Congress to enforce subpoenas without going through the courts, impose more transparency on the Justice Department, and better shield the Inspectors General and whistle-blowers.  At the least, President Biden should appoint a 9/11-type commission to write the history of abuses on Trump’s watch, then propose solutions for the future.[9] 

In the end, though, the presence of Joe Biden in the White House as the result of a free and fair election offers the best attainable guarantee of a return to normal times. 


[1] “The Decency Agenda,” NYT, 6 December 2020.  One might wonder if an institution that can characterize the Trump administration as a “major national disaster or failure of government” is seriously interested in reconciliation with the74 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump. 

[2] On one level, “culture wars” means things like L.G.B.T.Q.+ rights, abortion, guns, and religious freedom.  On another level it means toning-down the Executive Branch as a subject and instrument of partisan strife. 

[3] This particular exclusion suggests that nationalism/patriotism, and the role of police in society is another touchy “cultural” issue. 

[4] “Build on Common Ground,” NYT, 13 December 2020. 

[5] Key areas include biotechnology and artificial intelligence. 

[6] “Accountability After Trump,” NYT, 20 December 2020. 

[7] Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were convicted of crimes pre-dating their association with Trump, plus lying to federal agents pursuing the Russia investigation.  Michael Flynn and George Papadopolous were convicted of lying to federal agents pursuing the Russia investigation.  Trump’s friend Roger Stone was convicted of lying to Congress about aspects of the Russia investigation.  Michael Cohen was convicted of paying hush-money to Stormy Daniels before Trump’s election.  Steve Bannon has been indicted for alleged crimes allegedly committed after he left the administration. 

[8] Basically related to the Russia investigation, but possibly also involving campaign finance laws.  . 

[9] I would be eager to serve on the staff of such a commission.  Jus’ sayin’.