Art of the New Deal: Trump is a 21st Century FDR

To be a great president, Joe must emulate Donald (and Franklin).

START HERE, lest there be any confusion by the (admittedly clickbait-y) title of this piece: Franklin Delano Roosevelt is arguably the best president in the history of the United States; Donald John Trump is inarguably the worst. Our current president is a bully, a Fascist, a psychopath, and an analphabetic box of rocks—so stupid that I wouldn’t be surprised if he retweeted this column.

As I wrote two years ago, in what remains my pinned tweet, Trump is a mob money launderer, installed by his Russian whoremasters to sow chaos and weaken the U.S. and our allies. Every single thing he’s done since taking office is to achieve those purposes—that and to enrich himself personally. He is an abject, catastrophic failure. His singular “achievement” as president is the intentional sabotage of the covid-19 response, when he, Mike Pence, and Acting President Jared Kushner exploited the pandemic for what they wrongly believed was personal and political gain. Already, more Americans have died of the novel coronavirus than fell in the Second World War—you know, the one in which Roosevelt guided us to victory. But in one important way, Trump did indeed follow in the footsteps of FDR: he wasn’t afraid to try things.

When Roosevelt took office on 4 March 1933, the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. His predecessor, Herbert Hoover—a brilliant, earnest, go-getter of a man, but a stickler for precedent—had been reluctant to violate any norms, even when faced with crushing economic disaster. FDR had no such qualms. He skipped the usual inaugural balls and went right to work, throwing pot upon pot of executive and legislative spaghetti against the wall to see what might stick. He treated the presidency like an improv comedy show, always saying, “Yes, and—.” His First Hundred Days are the stuff of presidential legend. Historians dicker about whether any of this frantic activity actually pulled the country out of the Great Depression, which didn’t happen until we cranked up the war machine. But the point is, FDR did stuff, and he oozed confidence while doing stuff, and on his watch, the United States beat the Nazis and climbed out of an unprecedented financial sinkhole.

During his four years in office, Trump made like FDR—albeit a Bizarro FDR. He set fire to presidential norms. He upended tradition. He didn’t do anything he didn’t want to do unless it was expressly illegal—and even then, he often skirted the law. He made more Americans say, “But he can’t do that” than any president since…well, since the last guy from New York. He basically did whatever the fuck he wanted.

Whatever the fuck he wanted was, needless to say, always terrible:

  • FDR established the Securities and Exchange Commission; Trump fired the FBI director because he didn’t show loyalty.

  • FDR gave fireside chats, where he was frank with the American people; Trump tweeted, where he lied egregiously.

  • FDR created the Tennessee Valley Authority, the largest public works enterprise in U.S. history; Trump installed a crony to destroy the Postal Service.

  • FDR established Social Security to protect the elderly; Trump ignored the elderly dying in waves of covid-19.

  • FDR established the Fair Labor and Standards Act, which among other things outlawed child labor; Trump caged refugee children after separating them from their parents.

  • FDR ran for a third term, and then a fourth, which was then technically legal; Trump openly spoke of being president for decades, which was not.

  • FDR kept the top marginal tax rate at 94 percent during the war, and wanted it even higher; Trump gutted services to give tax breaks to billionaires.

  • FDR recalled General Douglas MacArthur to active duty, and gave him command of the armed forces in the Pacific; Trump named Mike Flynn national security adviser, begged the FBI director to ignore his crimes, and then, when Mueller convicted him, pardoned him and brought him back to the White House in the last weeks of his dying presidency.

  • FDR made nice with Stalin, to fight the Nazis in Europe; Trump made nice with Putin, and also with Nazis in the American heartland.

The point is, Trump, cowardly as he is IRL, wasn’t afraid to mix things up as president. That is to his credit, ultimately. It is the only thing he did that could even remotely be construed as “presidential.”

When Joe Biden is sworn in four weeks from tomorrow, he will become president of a nation in crisis. By then, the pandemic will have killed some 400,000 Americans—a staggering number. The economic fallout will verge on catastrophic. He will have a Democratic House but, in all likelihood, a Senate in the purple clutches of the obstructionist Mitch McConnell, who is more interested in Biden’s failure than the country’s revitalization. He will need to take swift, decisive action, but his hands will be tied.

At 78, Biden will be the oldest first-term president in history—eight years older than Trump when he took office, nine years older than Reagan. In his long political career, he was known as a middle-of-the-road Democrat, a centrist. For his presidency to succeed, the proverbial old dog must learn—must master—some new tricks. He must make like FDR and try stuff, and not be afraid to fail. He must out-Trump Trump.

His work, as the saying goes, is cut out for him: Joe and Kamala must end the pandemic—distribute the vaccine, implement federal mask regulations, provide relief to struggling families and businesses, handle any complications that may come. They must safeguard the United States from further cyberattacks from Russia and other adversaries, and respond in kind to the audacious Russian attack on our computer systems. They must rebuild the State Department, reestablish good relations with our allies, and reassume America’s role as leader of the free world. They must revamp the education system, broken by four years of Betsy DeVos and a lost year of slipshod Zoom schooling. They must fix the USPS. They must safeguard our election systems. They must stop the sclerotic obstruction in Congress, so bills can be voted on, so compromise can be achieved. They must right—or, rather, “left”—the imbalance on the pro-dude, pro-landlord, pro-corporation, anti-little-guy Supreme Court. They must root out corruption and prosecute Trump and everyone in his circle who sold out the country. They must go after organized crime, by exposing and seizing offshore accounts, shell corporations, and other dark money. They must combat domestic terrorism, fomented by four years of white nationalist radicalization by Trump and his alt-right allies. And they have to do all of these things as quickly as possible, because all of them are blinking-red urgent.

The Biden Administration cannot be timid, as the Obama Administration too often was, as the Pelosi House too often is. When Mitch McConnell refused to vote to confirm the universally-respected Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, Obama sat back and did nothing, assuming Hillary would win. When Trump won the election in November 2016, Obama—who must have known the truth about Trump’s criminality, and Russian interference—did not immediately establish a Special Counsel, in deference to tradition; after the transition, while the nation faced the horror of President Trump, he went windsurfing in the South Pacific. When Trumpist lickspittle after Trumpist lickspittle ignored Congressional subpoenas, Nancy Pelosi did not use the powers of inherent contempt, and instead let all the scofflaws skate. What if Obama had forced the Senate to vote on Merrick Garland, instead of acquiescing? What if a Special Counsel had been named by Loretta Lynch in December of 2016 instead of by Rod Rosenstein in 2017? What if the House had locked up Bill Barr and Wilbur Ross when they defied Congressional subpoenas, and fined them both to the Stone Age? None of these ideas are especially radical. Nor did they just come to me this week, in hindsight; I proposed them all at the time, in the moment. And I was hardly alone.

But the Dems didn’t try any of that stuff. As usual, we were too nice. Remember the scene in A Fish Called Wanda, where John Cleese’s Archie Leach has a gun trained on Kevin Kline’s Otto, and Otto says, “Put it down and fight like a man,” and nice guy Archie does, and then obnoxious Otto immediately picks up the gun and points it at Archie? The Democrats are Archie. The Republicans are Otto (who would absolutely be MAGA!). We need to stop assuming that their side has honor. We need to stop bringing knives to gunfights. We need to scrap and claw like the very future of the republic depends on it—because it does.

In practice, this means that we MUST try stuff. Here at PREVAIL, I’ve published pieces by Moscow Never Sleeps and Lisa Marie Kerr on, respectively, how to fix the Supreme Court, and how to neuter Mitch McConnell. Maybe those things will work, maybe they won’t. But we won’t know until we try. Better to die trying than surrender to inertia.

Trump’s loss in November stopped the republic from falling off a cliff. But the old red-white-and-blue jalopy is still teetering precariously on the edge. It’s up to Joe and Kamala to get us out of this mess. That won’t happen by sitting in the car and waiting to see which way the wind blows. To truly save the country, they need to go full FDR.