We are frequently reminded of W. B. Yeats’ quote: “The center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” For those immersed in political ideology this reference to the “center” conjures up Clintonian refrains regarding triangulation and even Jerry Brown’s great response to a question about whether he was liberal or conservative: “I paddle a little on the right,” he said, “and I paddle a little on the left.”
For those of us in public service who were repeatedly being analyzed as to whether we were liberal or conservative, the traditional lateral construct of left to right became sufficiently tedious that, at least in my case, I created a contrasting vertical pole that went from the past at the bottom to the future at the top. I’m not sure I ever sold it to a political journalist because that industry is totally wedded to traditional left-right, liberal-conservative categories so helpful to its shorthand purposes.
Now comes Donald Trump who, in his own way, resists categorization. The Trumpian resistance grows with every sharp, 180 degree reversal he is currently patenting. The resistance to the still undefined Trumpism convinced itself that if he carried out, with a compliant Republican Congress, all of the startling reversals from accepted (should we say mainstream) policies at home and abroad the United States would become a totally different country, Ebenezer Scrooge in its disregard for those left out, and isolationist—with a rightward tilt—in its relations to the world.
Suddenly, the “center” took on new meaning. The many of us wedded to a plodding and sometime erratic progressive domestic agenda and internationalist foreign policy based on alliances, treaties, and agreements found what might be a new center, not one looking to avoid categorization but one that represented truly bipartisan consensus and most of all stability.
The institutional defenders of this post-World War II center included, among other institutions, the U.S. military and Wall Street. Contrary to those on the left who traditionally think the Pentagon is a hot-bed of crack-pot generals conjuring up new wars to fight, those of us who know better see senior military commanders as a bulwark against wacky Strangelovian adventurism. Remember, Dr. Strangelove was not military man. The right-wing plot to invade Iraq did not emanate in the Pentagon but in a White House populated by those who had never worn a uniform.
On the other hand, Wall Street presented ample evidence of wackiness in the run-up to the financial collapse of 2008, and forfeited any claim to reasonableness, true conservatism, and maturity. Because of its greed, it enabled an unprincipled group of twenty-somethings to experiment with other people’s money and put the entire U.S. economy in the ditch.
But today, some more traditional bankers and money managers, including one or two in the Trump administration are closing doors to Mr. Trump’s more bizarre schemes to alienate our largest lender China, our neighbor and trading partner Mexico, and even greater Europe itself. The most serious economic thinkers know we live in a global trading market with currencies calibrated to the dollar, huge corporate enterprises linked to multiple nations, jobs dependent on exports, and trading rules meant to level playing fields. Nothing like having tens of billions of dollars at stake to sober up most mature bankers.
Obviously, there are a variety of other private and public sectors with a stake in stability and maturity that form a center resistant to Trumpian excesses. A rudderless, erratic, inexperienced national leader must sooner or later respond to the adults in society who care about the nation’s long term future and their children’s future. Only a few “advisors” with little or no governing experience are at liberty to pursue dangerous and destabilizing ventures in a twilight word of conspiracy, demons and dragons, and bet-the-farm dice rolls.
After a chaotic opening round of Trump government, or version thereof, a head-snapping series of 180 degree turns on NATO, Russia, China, taxes, health care, and daily U-turns still to come give evidence that the cool-aid drinkers of the campaign are sobering up. Perhaps there is a real center to America that flirts with excess for a time but then sees the cliff toward which the nation is heading and the peril its experiments in novelty and hilarity represent.
Too soon to say. But a few days of sober Trump suggest reality may be setting in and that the world he promised is not only impossible to achieve, it is downright dangerous.