It is a measure of the chaos of Donald Trump’s presidency that just months after the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, nobody in Washington seems to remember it. Congressional Republicans transitioned seamlessly from backing the president as he inflicted gratuitous harm on the economy in pursuit of his unpopular border wall to acquiescing as he declared a phony emergency to usurp Congress’ constitutional power of the purse. Now, they are back in their familiar role of defending his efforts to thwart an independent investigation into the links between his 2016 campaign and a hostile foreign power bent on subverting U.S. elections.
American governance, it seems, is in a bad way. But the crisis did not begin when Trump entered office. If Hillary Clinton had won the presidency in 2016, Washington would hardly be humming along. Instead, it would be mired in a more intense version of the ruinous politics that plagued Barack Obama’s presidency after 2010. Solutions to pressing national problems would still be stuck in partisan gridlock. Narrow, powerful interests would still dominate debates and decisions. And popular resentment—rooted in economic and demographic shifts and stoked by those seeking to translate voter anger into profit or votes—would still be roiling elections and governance alike.
For a generation, the capacity of the United States to harness governmental authority for broad public purposes has been in steep decline, even as the need for effective governance in a complex, interdependent world has grown. Almost every aspect of today’s crisis is part of this long-term shift. In 2017, for example, the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord, but Trump’s shortsighted decision was only the latest example of the country’s halting and grossly inadequate approach to climate change. The current radicalized debate over immigration reflects heightened racial and cultural resentment, but it also stems from three decades of failure to reach a consensus on reasonable reforms to the nation’s antiquated border and
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