If nothing else, it has become clear that Donald Trump is adept at defining a media cycle. When the news last Wednesday was likely to be about the Senate’s health-care debate, he grabbed the spotlight back by announcing a bar on transgendered people in the military via Twitter, for example.
It’s not wrong, necessarily, for a president to try to define the news cycle — others have tried mightily to do so — and it’s one thing this president is particularly effective at. Probably that’s a skill set we should expect from a president who comes from reality television where success is defined by the ability to do interesting things that keep the camera’s attention.
As media focus on the Trump-assigned topic of the day, though, it creates a swirl that too often obscures deeper currents. One of these is particularly important: The Republican Party is in danger of losing one of its principled values, which is an unyielding expectation of personal responsibility.
As a lifelong Democrat, this focus on individual duty was something I always found appealing about the Republican Party and its best representatives. Sure, I saw hypocrisy in Republicans’ failure to hold corporations to the same standard of responsibility, but I also saw that value upheld many times. As a prosecutor, I expressed that value in court and still believe that, though we lose proportionality too often, we need to hold individuals to account for hurting others .
I also see the need for most of us to be responsible for our own support; at a time when jobs are available for nearly anyone willing to show up every day and pass a drug test, getting a job should be the first resort for most people in creating their own destiny.
So what is changing?
Donald Trump threatens to provide too many excuses for those who struggle and suggests that the government can fix things. Unable to find the kind of job your father had? Not making enough money? The problem is immigration policy, we are told, or free trade. And who will fix that? The government, of course. There is no suggestion that the better outcome for an individual might come about by adapting to the new economy.
In his inaugural address, Trump made clear that government was going to save the day: “We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams.” In other words, you will not get a better job because you went back to school or took a risk — you will get a better job because the government will change policies to make things the way they used to be. The government will save you.
And thus the coal miner will wait for the coal mine to re-open. The auto worker will wait for the high-paying job his dad had making Thunderbirds to magically re-appear. The government will take care of that, Trump says. But it probably won’t, even if policies change. Coal is more expensive than natural gas these days, and people are accustomed to going to a Walmart full of cheap goods from Asia. What will make individual lives better in this entrenched new economy will more likely involve personal sacrifice, like moving to a new town or training for a different kind of job.
The promise government can help people avoid those sacrifices is going to prove empty more often than not, whether Democrats or Republicans do the promising. Republicans will likely respond by saying that Democrats are no better at honestly promoting an ethic of personal responsibility, and they would be largely correct. But Democrats haven’t tried to differentiate themselves as the party of personal responsibility. Some might say Democrats provide jobs not by shifting policies but by bloating government with make-work jobs, but that doesn’t seem true. Under President Obama federal employment grew by less than 1 percent per year — and 44 percent of the new full-time hires were veterans.
In the end, we need at least one party to return to this value. Our political discourse works best as a back-and-forth between two parties arguing from different but valid principles. For decades, one such principle has been an ethic of personal responsibility. Republicans’ advocacy for that value has deeply affected people on both sides, including me. To see them walk away from that value and promise that government can now make things better is disappointing but hopefully not permanent. America is great when there is a tension between personal responsibility and governmental action — and it takes two parties to keep that rope taut enough to walk on.