The Trump Conundrum

Top Stories of the Year: #2

I’ve been counting down the top news stories of 2017, and after covering the ineffective flailings of the “Resistance,” I promised a look at the conundrum posed to the right by the Trump administration.

In judging the administration so far, I think it’s fair to look back at my expectations after the last election about the positive things I thought we might get from a Trump presidency. I listed four main things: withdrawal from the Iran deal, withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on global warming, the appointment of at least one good Supreme Court justice, and the repeal of Obamacare.

There were also some distinct negatives that I expected, and the results have been mixed on those. Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal—which still continues, but now we’re being shut out of it.

On the more positive side, there are some broken Trump promises that I’m not so torn up about. Trump has pretty much caved in on immigration and the “Dreamers.”

On foreign policy, aside from free trade, Trump has done some good things that I didn’t even think to expect: the defeat of ISIS and the incorporation into his foreign policy of some elements borrowed from George W. Bush.

On my positive expectations from last year, we have not quite withdrawn from the Iran deal, but we did withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and somehow the Earth did not immediately become a withered husk. Trump even appointed a global warming skeptic as the head of the EPA, who set about turning it into a pro-energy agency. This is reflected, most recently, in the removal of “global warming” from the official list of national security threats.

[T]hey’ve gone beyond merely eliminating global warming as a national security issue. They have been allowed to openly acknowledge that a pro-energy, pro-fossil fuels, pro-economic growth policy is in America’s interests–which is to say that it is the attempt to stop global warming through restrictions on our energy supply that is the real threat to national security.

Obamacare has been weakened in a few key ways, but the attempt at repeal was a bust. On the other hand, that’s not entirely Trump’s fault. After the last election, I urged Republicans to look to the newly re-elected GOP Congress for leadership. Unfortunately, Congress has massively under-delivered particularly on Obamacare, and that has been the biggest disappointment of the past year.

Trump’s Supreme Court appointment is an area where he delivered, and then some.

Neil Gorsuch’s key distinction on the federal bench has been his criticism of “Chevron deference,” a 30-year-old judicial doctrine (named after a case involving the oil company) in which the courts defer to executive agency rulings on certain issues. It is a doctrine that allows those agencies, which have already usurped legislative authority by engaging in expansive “rule-making,” to also usurp judicial authority and interpret the law for themselves….

This is a hugely important issue. One of the central political problems of our era is that the government bureaucracies have become laws unto themselves. Little can be done to change the direction of government without taming them. The rejection of Chevron deference would embolden the courts to start taming them. Moreover, an older generation of conservative legal scholars, including Antonin Scalia, were so dedicated to the idea of “judicial restraint” that they generally endorsed Chevron deference on the grounds that it made judges less “activist.” Yet that is precisely the problem.
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In other words, with Neil Gorsuch, it looks like we’re getting an appointee who is better than Justice Scalia. Which is more than we expected and probably more than we deserve.

And it doesn’t stop with Gorsuch.

[T]he Trump administration’s judicial legacy is going to be much wider. And it’s not just Donald Trump’s legacy. It’s Harry Reid’s. The Democratic former Majority Leader killed the use of the filibuster against judicial nominations in order to break down resistance to Barack Obama’s appointments. Nobody could possibly have predicted that this would come back to haunt the Democrats.

Now Trump and the Republican Senate leadership are taking advantage of the opportunity to fill the federal judiciary with some pretty good appointees.

Gorsuch’s apparent willingness to challenge the unchecked authority of the regulatory agencies is part of the biggest positive development of this administration: a massive restraint of the regulatory agencies. I have hailed Trump as the Great Non-Regulator, and in retrospect, it’s not that big of a surprise.

Donald Trump is not an ideological person, and I wouldn’t expect him to begin quoting the arguments of free-market economists. But for him this is an issue that is not abstract or ideological. He has a businessman’s concrete, practical annoyance with the tangled web of restrictions the government puts in the way of getting anything done. So it should be no surprise that his administration has rapidly reduced and in a few cases rolled back the flood of regulations from executive agencies.

But I also pointed out the limitations of this approach.

[W]hile President Trump has slowed down the use of regulatory power, he has not actually curtailed the power itself, and the anti-regulatory direction he has set could easily be reversed by a new administration…. Trump buys a reprieve from the regulatory onslaught, but if he undermines the ability of Republicans to gain and hold the presidency, the reprieve will be very temporary.

That brings us to the central question of the Trump Conundrum. On policy issues, Trump has generally exceeded expectations. But balanced against those immediate gains are some serious potential long-term consequences.

I remember the old debates we used to have during the Reagan administration, when we argued over how much he had really delivered and whether it was significant enough. Yet over the long term, what people took away as Reagan’s legacy—as Reaganism—was the idea that free markets and strong national defense were essential to America’s revival, which had a hugely positive impact on the national political debate.

What will people take away as Trumpism? Even if many aspects of Trump’s actual policies are consistent with free markets, I’m concerned that the lesson people will draw is not about free markets but about an economic nationalism that is fundamentally the opposite of Reagan.

Bannon explained Trump’s protectionist policies by declaring, “we’re a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders.” He got this formulation from Jeff Sessions, our new attorney general, who once wrote that “the United States is a nation with an economy, not an economy with a nation.”… [A]ll of this is reminiscent of a famous aphorism from Ronald Reagan: “We are a nation that has a government, not the other way around.” Except that the meaning of the new Trump version is the exact opposite.

The point of Reagan’s quote was to say that there are myriad aspects of our lives as private individuals and members of civil society that precede government—both historically and in order of importance. These include family, religion, science, ideas, art—and yes, commerce….

But Bannon is trying to do to economic freedom what Reagan did to Big Government: cast it out as something distinct from and subordinate to “the nation.” For Reagan, Jefferson, and Locke, economic life was one of the things that was part of “the nation” that was distinct from and prior to government. For Bannon, it is government that is part of “the nation” and more important than the free choices of private individuals. That’s why he and his ilk tend to end up sounding like British Loyalists of the Mercantilist school—or like good old-fashioned 20th-Century Democrats: railing against big corporations and the rich for not doing enough to meet the goals set by government.

Beyond that, there is the damage Trump has done to standards of behavior and decency, particularly in his raw appeal to a kind of tribalistic partisanship.

The great danger of this era is that I see it causing a permanent change in people’s method of thinking. Trump’s one and only real political skill—and unfortunately, many of us underestimated it—is his ability to connect with a certain kind of voter on a raw sense-of-life level. He exploits that connection to strip away the part of their brains that claims to care about ideology or policy. So he can totally fail to deliver on any or every policy issue—see the wreckage of Obamacare repeal, or tell me what is being done to build that wall on the Mexican border—and nobody cares. Instead, he engages a part of their mind that is reactive, tribal, and emotionalistic. It’s the kind of mentality that wants to identify with a group and gang together to beat up its enemies, deriving an emotional charge from the mere fact of tribal conflict, with no rational, impartial consideration of abstract ideals and principles. That is all that our politics now consists of.

Nowhere was this more clearly on display than in Trump’s totally inadequate response to the revival of white nationalism. It’s not just that he gave validation to the left’s default assumption that everyone who opposes them is a racist. It’s also that his appeal to tribalism unnecessarily divides the political right.

Right now there are otherwise good people who, out of partisan habits or long-borne outrage at biased media, are trying to concoct excuses for why Trump’s Q&A wasn’t so bad and all of the criticisms of it are just fake news.

It’s time for that to stop. It’s time to stop looking at the latest Trump statement in relation to how bad you think the alternative is on the left, or how biased the media is, and instead to compare it to what we should actually expect from a president. In a country where 99% of the population is opposed to Nazis, it should be the easiest thing in the world for an American president to unite the country by appealing to our shared values. Only Donald Trump could take one of the most uncontroversial ideas in American politics, the Indiana Jones Rule, and turn it into a wrenching national argument.

I don’t believe in the supernatural, but if there were a devil, he would be laughing his head off right now as we all whip ourselves into a murderous frenzy against each other.

In practical terms, this raises the prospect that Trump could do to Republicans what Obama did to Democrats: deliver political and policy victories at the top level, while hollowing out the party in Congress and in the statehouses. Our warnings on that are the recent off-year elections in Virginia and in Alabama, where Roy Moore’s loss offers a very specific warning about Trumpism.

No one could have predicted specifically that Moore would end up having a history of showing creepy sexual interest in teenage girls back when he was a district attorney—though this was apparently whispered about in some political circles in Alabama. What we could have predicted is that he is the kind of personality that is a constant source of random political embarrassment….

This is why, despite the fact that President Trump initially endorsed Moore’s primary opponent, the Moore campaign is still going to be associated with Trump. It’s because Moore borrowed Trump’s shtick. He borrowed his personal style and communications playbook. We all know this, because everyone on the right lives in a kind of holy dread of what random embarrassment Trump will produce next….

Reports from exit polls indicate that it was a surprising surge of turnout from black voters, and particularly black women, that put Moore’s opponent over the top. This is the deeper flaw with the Trump/Moore approach to politics. Trump upended conventional wisdom with his constant, off-putting combativeness and willingness to pander to a relatively narrow conservative base at the expense of everyone else. But with Moore, the obvious downsides of that approach are becoming obvious. He may have retained the loyalty of his die-hard, core supporters, but at the expense of alienating everyone else.

Politics is a long game, and at this point eight years ago, I seem to recall Democrats high-fiving each other about their spectacular success. Let that be a lesson to us.

But I’m also worried about something much larger than election results. We’re headed toward much bigger crises that require us to build up the cultural and ideological reserves that Trump is draining.

What are we going to need in the coming era of crisis? We’re going to need to defend the idea that liberty and the rule of law are more important than embracing a strongman who fights for our tribe. We’re going to need to be willing to subordinate partisan brawling and find common ground in shared American values. And we’re going to need someone who remembers what those values were.

We’re going to need to value clear thinking and deliberate action over impulsive emotionalism, and we’re going to need to value the long term over the illusion of a superficial, short-term “win.” We need to realize that men who put fame or ambition above principles are the kind who make our crises worse, not better.

Above all, we need to focus on the importance of ideas, values, and norms as bulwarks against the forces that are about to drive us to chaos. When the chips are really down—and it can get far, far worse from here—it might not be much of a comfort to know that the grandstanding creep in the Senate (or the White House) has your party’s initial after his name.

This the conundrum posed by Donald Trump’s first year in office. Precisely because it has turned out much better than expected, it could blind us to some of the long-term costs of Trumpism.

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