Point Austin: The Age of Trump
As D.C. moves backward, cities must lead forward
As its header reflects, the default beat of "Point Austin" is city politics, and its conceptual premise is "think globally, write locally." I'll occasionally wander into national and international subjects, at least attempting to link them to an Austin perspective and context. And as is likely the case with many Austinites this post-holiday season, the City Hall hiatus has left me brooding over the national condition. Even prior to Donald Trump's looming inauguration and the planned nationwide protests, we are entering very uncertain times, amidst a public polarization more sharp than I can recall since the Sixties and the Vietnam War, as even a skim of the Chronicle's online forums will attest.
Beyond the obvious racial and gender polarizations that were reflected in the national vote, equally striking is the rural/urban dichotomy: Trump's strongest support was in the least populous regions, meaning that he could win the electoral college – like the U.S. Senate, with a historical imbalance of representation – while badly losing the national popular vote to Hillary Clinton. In our local context, that means cities will become the default front lines of the new conflicts, and of the new resistance. We're long familiar with that default line in Texas, of course, where suburban and rural legislators impose a reactionary agenda on major cities – prioritizing "border security" and "gun rights," for egregious examples, over public education and health care.
The same pattern is about to be repeated on a national scale, as Congress is poised to gut the Affordable Care Act – which Texas and other states have done their best to undermine and render ineffectual – and Speaker Paul Ryan has targeted Medicaid and even Medicare for various "block grant" and "voucher" alternatives, in his vision of a feckless Ayn Randian utopia. How much of this vandalism can be accomplished before an effective public backlash occurs remains uncertain. But just as the Legislature has gerrymandered Texas for Republican domination, similar redistricting projects and national restrictions of voting rights will continue to make state governments even more unrepresentative of their constituents.
Ways to Resist
Austin is already in the crosshairs. GOP legislators have indicated their intentions to undo City Council's work on workers' rights, immigrants' rights, transportation regulations, environmental protections, and so on. More broadly, they've reiterated their biennial determination to starve local governments of resources by further constricting taxing powers beyond the already tight property tax "rollback" standard. It's not news to most Austinites that despite all their rhetorical breast-beating over "local control," a majority of Texas legislators arrive at the Capitol with a reflexively authoritarian ideological agenda, bristling with unfunded mandates while eager to repress any local community movements for more autonomy, more independent thought, more progressive governance.
That also means that city leaders, here and elsewhere, will need to bow up once again and defend their communities from state overreach. Under current political conditions, it won't be an easy fight, but neither are victories impossible. Austin's leadership on renewable energy, for example, has led both the state and nation in creating facts on the ground that can't be wished, lobbied, or bullied away by traditional fossil-fuel money and power. It is just possible that model can become a template for similar local actions (e.g., the creation of local ride-hailing companies as alternatives to corporate giants) that pre-empt state power by establishing economic or political conditions too difficult for state lawmakers to undo.
No, it won't be easy at the state level, nor certainly under the incipient Trump regime at the national level. Although Trump himself seems permanently preoccupied with building and propagating his personal brand – whatever the priorities of his nominal party – the glowering crew he has nominated for his Cabinet is largely old-school right wingers determined to reimpose what they recall as the natural order of the 1950s – the supremacy of wealth, power, and whiteness.
Yet as happened in this week's reversal of the Republican gutting of the Office of Congressional Ethics, broad public pressure and political embarrassment forced a retreat that even The Big Tweeter endorsed, describing the House move against the OCE as bad for the optics of his new administration. Similar divisions between partisan ambitions and presidential pandering are likely to emerge over the next several months – over taxes, over immigration, over health care, and so on – that local advocates and activists will need to identify and exploit wherever they occur.
The rapidity of the GOP retreat on ethics was remarkable, and suggests that these guys will be running in all directions trying to claim mandates and the high ground while imposing policies that are in fact broadly unpopular. That they will succeed in many instances will only reinforce that contradictory dynamic, leaving openings to expand the popular resistance to Trumpism and its already ragged implementation. How much damage he and they can do in the meantime, is as much in our hands as it is in theirs.