2017: Tampering with the U.S. Odometer

As 2017 yields to 2018, the political and cultural terrains look strangely familiar. That may be because America is driving in reverse.

If life is a journey, the preferred American mode of transport is definitely an automobile (usually a pickup truck). That’s why I like using a car analogy to think about our political system. It isn’t a perfect match and breaks down occasionally, but then, so do most analogies and even the best cars. Anyway, here goes—

Progressives cannot wait to get to the better place they envision

  • Where change is needed, they prefer the fast lane, making it hard to take their foot off the accelerator or their eyes off the road.
  • They believe good government and progressive public policies are the best available vehicles to take society where they want to go.
  • Their navigation system is full of signposts charting forward progress:
    • the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, and 19th Amendment, recognizing voting rights for women,
    • the Civil Rights Act of 1964,
    • the Clean Air and Clean Water acts,
    • the Supreme Court’s affirmation of marriage equality, etc.

Conservatives feel more comfortable where they are and often prefer where they’ve been

  • They find change unwelcome or unneeded, except to go back to the way things were before.
  • Conservatives hug the slow lane, constantly tapping the brakes, keeping one eye on the rear-view mirror and the other watching for opportunities to turn around.
  • For them, “good government” is an oxymoron. They see progressive public policies as vehicles a mob will use to kidnap them and take them where they don’t want to go.
  • Like a navigation system screaming, “Recalculating” or “Find the nearest safe place to make a U-turn,” the conservative roadmap features:
    • “Repeal and replace,”
    • “Take our country back,”
    • “Make America Great Again,”
    • landfill-size piles of scrapped regulations, overturned executive orders, etc.

Elections function like a steering wheel, and the economy serves as an engine

When the economy is roaring, voters usually stay the course. When it’s sluggish or begins to sputter, they may jerk the wheel hard, pulling into the nearest repair shop, sometimes on the right, other times on the left. These “repairs” can put us back on a sustainable path or steer us into a ditch.

In 2008, with the economy collapsing after a bender fueled by late-1990s banking deregulation and a decade of financial chicanery, voters handed the wreck to Barack Obama and the Democrats. They installed policies to prevent the problems that led to the Great Recession.

Despite nonstop grumbling by Wall Street bankers, financial markets recovered steadily, albeit slowly. Jobs and income growth on Main Street lagged, particularly in rural “flyover” areas that have been disadvantaged by decades of free-market, internationalist policies long favored by almost all Republicans and most Democrats.

In 2016, with the economy stable but increasingly offering a smooth ride for the wealthy and a bumpy one for the many, voters faced a stark choice.

Hillary Clinton was a seasoned mechanic with years of experience upselling customers at the slick dealership, where service comes guaranteed but with a hefty price.

Donald Trump was a lone tinkerer, well versed in tearing apart and rebuilding his private collection. He descended a gold-plated escalator in his Fifth Avenue skyscraper, donned a working man’s baseball cap and promised to make somebody else pay for the tune-up.

Voters headed to the polls like distracted drivers, preoccupied with the polarized sniping and foreign-paid troll bots filling their smartphones. The exact cause of the accident may never be determined. It appears they took their eyes off the road long enough for a nudge of the wheel—maybe gerrymandering, voter suppression, the Electoral College or a combination of all three—to overturn the vehicle, leaving the popular vote-getter pinned beneath the winner.

As 2017 yields to 2018, the political and cultural terrain looks strangely familiar. That may be because America is driving in reverse.

You’re not getting your 2017 model back the way you left it

After a year in the shop, our vehicle restoration project is making more and more people nervous. The new boss has elbowed his way around and pissed off so many long-timers that staff turnover has reached 34 percent.

The makeover itself seems a cross between the work of a chop shop and “Pimp My Ride.” Trump’s team claims that the new motor will go faster than anyone believes and will even make its own gas. They have blacked out the dashboard indicators because they say nobody should believe those numbers anyway. “Consumer Reports” wants to test drive the thing, but Trump calls them fake news. In the glove box sits paperwork showing a very large new loan taken out to finance the work, due for payment by the grandchildren.

Neighbors have complained about the loud noises coming from the workshop, and some say they’re afraid the place might blow up and burn everyone alive.

Some of his cronies want to roll back the odometer, arguing that doing so will make the car ride as good as it did long ago, like during slavery, when the whole family could cruise together enjoying sarsaparilla and views of cotton being harvested. A few are whispering that with self-driving technology they can remove the steering wheel altogether to make more room for the new driver, Mr. Trump.

Work continues, and time will tell whether the job is a total loss.

Would you buy a used car from Donald Trump? I doubt most people would.

One thing is certain. Whether his tenure is eight years, four years or fewer, we are going to get back a used government from Trump that needs a complete overhaul. And a strong deodorizer.


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Eric F. Frazier

Eric F. Frazier is an independent writer, editor, book reviewer and co-author of GPS Declassified: From Smart Bombs to Smartphones.