One year ago, America woke to the dawn of a new era in national politics.
A year later, we're not at all sure where we're going in this new era, which is bringing us chaos and contentiousness and yes, some change. Let there be no doubt about change -- but in some cases while there may be change in particulars, some of the change has a familiar pattern.
It was 160 years ago that a French newspaper editor, Alphonse Karr, coined the popular epigram (as translated from French): "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
Trump has run roughshod over Washington and political tradition. And while much of this a matter of style, substance -- however disjointed it may be -- is also involved.
Controversy follows President Trump wherever he goes, but he retains the support of a sizable and loyal element of the public, many of the base supporters attracted by his promises of broad-gauged change.
However, for all the boastfulness and talk about change, some of it clearly misguided and premised on false foundations, what we often get is more of the same. Labeling actions as change doesn't necessarily involve meaningful change.
Let's look at some examples:
• Afghanistan -- Trump said his "original instinct was to pull out" of the 16-year war, but now says, like his predecessor, that would be a mistake. We seem to be in a state of perpetual warfare. Under Trump's "new" strategy, more military advisers and trainers will be sent to Afghanistan. Does that sound familiar? The specific number is undisclosed, but probably around 12,000.
• Troops overseas -- The recent deaths of American soldiers in Niger has brought attention to American military personnel in Iraq and Syria and many other locales, including long-standing forces in Japan, South Korea and NATO allies. Despite his "America First" campaign and vows to bring U.S. troops home, that hasn't happened.
• Permanent campaign -- Trump is most comfortable when he is in campaign mode or blazing a Twitter trail, but it is a well-worn path and the name-calling messages are repetitive, frequently aimed at Hillary Clinton as if we were still in the 2016 campaign. Governing can be much more challenging than campaigning.
• Russia -- Since the Bolshevik Revolution 100 years ago this week, what has not changed is that Russia remains a central factor (as was the former Soviet Union), not only in U.S. foreign policy but in our domestic politics. While cyber propaganda may be new, misinformation from Moscow is certainly not and shadows of McCarthyism are still with us. (A recent caller to Rush Limbaugh who wanted to "lock her up," said, "Hillary, the Democrats, the media, and Putin are all communists." Limbaugh let that assertion stand without comment.)
• Draining the Swamp -- Politicians of various stripes have long promised to "drain the swamp" getting rid of the "establishment" in D.C. Ronald Reagan was especially fond of that metaphor and it became a popular refrain in Trump's campaign. However, Trump, like others, has, in fact, relied on establishment figures and has filled rather than drained the swamp of sycophants, lobbyists, etc. And lobbyists will be very active in coming days in seeking to influence the tax bill. Speaking of lobbyists and swamp-dwellers, Paul Manafort, who served as Trump's campaign chair for several months, is the epitome of an influence-peddler and aspiring power broker, driven not by civic or ideological motive but by greed, often working on behalf of foreign clients.
• "Tax reform" -- Talk of tax reform is standard fare among politicians. But reform conveys the meaning of improving or making something better. There's considerable dispute as to whether the current proposals to revamp or overhaul the tax code would really constitute reform -- if, indeed, Congress does approve significant changes, certainly no guarantee after the health care debacle. The Republican tax plan would clearly have some significant benefits for corporations and the wealthy. Advocates argue the broader public would also benefit, with Trump claiming that "massive" tax cuts would result in benefits for all. However, one person's "reform" can be detrimental to others. In this case, critics point to potential loss of deductions important to many individuals and families, including state and local tax deductions, preferential treatment of retirement savings, certain medical expenses, and caps on mortgage interest. Further, charitable deductions may decline because an increased standard deduction might make some taxpayers less likely to make charitable donations to reduce their taxable income.
• "Deficit Hawks" -- Many of our politicians, including Trump, have regularly decried the budget deficit in alarmist terms. Some have even vowed to enact a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. For all the talk about this perennial problem, little has changed, and the proposed tax plan would result in a $1.5 trillion additional deficit.
We could go on with this list. And, speaking of change, there's the matter of climate change, which the current administration doesn't acknowledge.
What we see is that change can take on different meanings and sometimes it's just more of the same.
One area where we certainly haven't seen change in the last 12 months is in Trump's ability or willingness to express empathy or demonstrate humility. The current Asia trip may offer opportunities to change that, or maybe we'll get more of the same.
Commentary on 11/08/2017
Print Headline: Change not always meaningful