Top Stories of the Year: #3

During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump famously boasted that his supporters were so loyal that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

Recently, a CNN reporter talking to panel of Trump supporters had the presence of mind to ask them about this. Here was the response.

In a panel segment that aired Wednesday, Pennsylvania native Crystal Arlington told Camerota there was nothing Trump could do that would make her waver in her support.

“If he shot someone on Fifth Avenue, would you vote for him?” Camerota asked, quoting Trump’s famous 2016 remark about his loyal backers. “We’d have to know why he shot him,” another Pennsylvania voter said, and Arlington agreed. “Yeah, why did he shoot him?” she asked.

You really have to see the video and check out the look on Arlington’s face after she says that. It has such an oppositional-defiant character, with the pursed lips, the narrowed eyes, the jutting jaw. She know what she’s saying is wrong and she doesn’t care, because she just wants something to throw in the face of this smug, slick-haired CNN reporter, some way to hoist a middle finger at the “media elites.”

If you keep this in mind, you will understand everything about the story I’ve put at #3 in my countdown of the top stories of 2019. This was the year Trump shot somebody on Fifth Avenue, and his voters stuck with him.


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I mean this metaphorically, of course. He didn’t actually shoot anybody, but he did abuse his power in a way that was flagrant and provable. And the entire Republican Party has lined up behind him.

The case against Trump can be stated simply, as I did early on.

The latest revelation, which has revived the impeachment investigation against President Trump, is that our president used a July 25 telephone call with Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to demand as a “favor” in exchange for US support that Ukraine launch an investigation into Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

This is a clear abuse of presidential power. Donald Trump is using the diplomatic powers of the presidency, which are supposed to be used only on behalf of the national security interests of the United States, and employing them for his own private benefit, in this case for domestic electioneering. This is exactly the kind of abuse of power for which the process of impeachment was devised.

That was two and a half months ago, and that story has been confirmed in every particular. The Republican response has been to bury it under a pile of obfuscations.

The factual obfuscations—the conspiracy theories about Crowdstrike and about Joe and Hunter Biden are annoying to those of us who didn’t start paying attention to Ukraine a few months ago but have been following events there all along. But I’ve been much more interested in the ideological obfuscation, particularly when it comes to the nature of presidential power.

In a rambling letter to Congress denouncing impeachment as a “coup”—despite it being an established mechanism of our constitutional government—Trump hit on the central argument his apologists have been making: “You are turning a policy disagreement between two branches of government into an impeachable offense.” Behind this is a broader theory of presidential power over foreign policy, as stated by former Fox News anchor Brit Hume: “the president is the constitutional author of foreign policy, so the idea he is ‘subverting’ it is illogical.” Current Fox host Laura Ingraham took that idea a step further when she characterized one of the diplomats who testified against Trump as treasonous because he was “working…against the president’s interest.”

I took this idea apart.

“The president’s interests” are not the goal of US foreign policy. More important, the president is not the sole author of US policy. In the case of Donald Trump and Ukraine, these two facts ought to be obvious, because the whole scandal is about the president arbitrarily withholding aid to Ukraine that had been approved by the US Congress.

The president takes the lead in the implementation of US foreign policy—but as with his other responsibilities, he does so in partnership with Congress. The US Congress influences foreign policy through its ability to grant or withhold its approval for the president’s chief foreign policy and military officials—including the secretary of State, the secretary of Defense, the National Security Advisor, and US ambassadors—through its ability to grant or withhold its approval of treaties, and through the power of the purse, which allows Congress to mandate financial support for some countries or programs while withdrawing it from others.

The president doesn’t make foreign policy by himself, nor does he make it for himself.

He holds an office of trust on behalf of the people of the United States and is required to act in their interests alone—not to sacrifice their interests for his own personal ambitions. Which is precisely what Donald Trump is accused of doing right now. Heck, it’s what he has admitted to doing….

The foreign policy of the United States is not the president’s foreign policy. It is the foreign policy of the United States.

Similarly, I struck back at Trump’s dark ruminations about the “deep state”—by which he means the prosaic fact of bureaucracy—by pointing out that he is the one who bypassed the normal operations of the US government to pursue his interests in Ukraine.

When Trump and his apologists talk about the Deep State, they mean the normal, formal workings of the State Department. They are talking about the people who are actually appointed to be in charge of policy, working through official channels, keeping records of their activities, and being accountable to oversight both within the executive agencies and from Congress—which is why they have been able to give such detailed and consistent testimony to Congress.

This machinery is in fact the opposite of a Deep State.

In an attempt to counter this delusional theory of a Deep State, President Trump constructed an actual Deep State of his own: a quasi-governmental apparatus operating largely in secret, with no accountability or oversight.

That’s the big story that has emerged from the testimony so far. Every one of the officials who was supposed to be conducting US foreign policy toward Ukraine reports coming up against an unofficial parallel channel that went through [Gordon] Sondland and [Rudy] Giuliani. They report how the official State Department bureaucracy was frequently in the dark about what this parallel channel was doing and why.

Trump’s Republican defenders, I concluded, see him as “a kind of elected, short-term autocrat who is neither accountable to Congress nor bound by any sort of principle or precedent.”

As I predicted, Republicans are intent on ignoring everything uncovered about Trump in the impeachment hearings. Democrats passed the articles of impeachment this week without a single Republican vote (and losing the votes of two Democrats from strongly pro-Trump districts; never let it be said that our leaders don’t follow the people). Aside from the obvious partisan motives, Republicans might feel that they owe loyalty to Donald Trump given what he has delivered for them on the issues. So let’s take a quick look at that.

Donald Trump has done some things I really like, such as appointing EPA officials who have stopped cold the agency’s crusade for global warming regulations—for now. And he has presided over a vast regulatory reprieve—but only a reprieve. This is a great era of non-regulation, rather than an era of de-regulation.

But whatever constitutionality points Donald Trump gets for not using his vast executive powers in some areas, he loses for abusing them in others—particularly his penchant for arbitrarily declaring “national emergencies” to allow himself to do whatever he wants, and his attempt to dictate the trade decisions of private businesses by tweet.

[T]he key sentence is this one: “Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China, including bringing your companies HOME and making your products in the USA.”

“Hereby ordered”—on what authority? Unfortunately, the authority is sort of there already….

Special credit goes to Columbia Sportswear Vice-President Peter Bragdon, who told reporters, “We follow the rule of law, not the rule of Twitter.” And that’s the issue here. Part of the initial promise of Trump to the right—and boy does that seem like a long, long time ago—is that he would be “pro-business.” But he really just wants to be the nation’s economic dictator, issuing his directives through social media.

This is all part of our national emergency of presidents declaring national emergencies. Nor is it just about Trump, because he is not the one who created the mechanisms for economic dictatorship. That was done by people who called themselves “Liberals” while scheming to claim more power for the government over the individual and called themselves “Democrats” while scheming to shift power from the legislature to the executive.

It is a predictable irony that they ended up giving all of that power to a president that they regard as erratic, ill-informed, and hungry for power.

Then there is the fact that Trump has presided over the final death of the Tea Party movement in the form of enormous (in both senses of the word) spending bills.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress just got together on a budget deal that approves deficits in excess of $1 trillion forever—at a time of relative peace and prosperity. So we aren’t borrowing money because of some unforeseen emergency or crisis. We’re doing it because this is just how we run things now.

Then there is his foreign policy, which has mostly consisted of overriding his advisors to order American withdrawal in the world, usually to the benefit of Russia. One of the reassuring things about the Trump administration at the beginning was that he appointed a group of serious strategists (H.R. McMaster), widely respected generals (James Mattis), and committed hawks (John Bolton, later on) to top national security posts. These are the kind of people you would select if you were serious about projecting American power in the world to promote our interests. They’re all gone now—ignored, treated with contempt, chased out of the administration, and eventually chalked up as “deep state” enemies. The real exodus started early in the year when Trump impulsively announced a plan to abandon our Kurdish allies against the Islamic State in Syria. The result, by the time all the serious experts were chased out, was the implementation of that policy—and a wider policy of hostility toward US allies.

Asked about whether this move could serve to alienate US allies, Trump proceeded to alienate US allies, going on an extended tirade against NATO, which he capped off with this doozy: that we shouldn’t support the Kurds because “as somebody wrote in a very, very powerful article today, they didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy.” He’s wrong about that, by the way, but the whole thing is a non sequitur. I mean, the Germans didn’t exactly help us at Normandy, either. Does that mean we can’t be allies today?

But what about the confirmation of conservative judges? One of the campaign promises Trump has actually delivered on has been to turn over the federal judiciary to the Federalist Society, an association of lawyers and judges dedicated to an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution. So they will definitely be guardians of limited government, right? In many cases, yes—though I don’t buy the logic of accepting a big-government president and a big-government Congress in order to get a small-government judiciary. In practice, I can tell you that for most conservatives, judicial appointments are actually about the hope of overturning Roe v. Wade and clearing the way for states to ban abortion.

But if we’re hoping for the Federalist Society to save us from the abuse of government power, I refer you to a speech given to the Federalist Society’s most recent annual gathering by US Attorney General Bill Barr. It is a giant love note to unchecked executive power and a long litany of complaints about the other branches seeking to question what he sees as the sole prerogatives of the president.

He offers this analysis of our current constitutional issues:

Unfortunately, over the past several decades, we have seen steady encroachment on Presidential authority by the other branches of government. This process I think has substantially weakened the functioning of the Executive Branch, to the detriment of the Nation.

This is the exact opposite of the real constitutional problem of the past century, which is the abdication of legislative authority to the executive branch in the form of vast grants of regulatory discretion and emergency powers. There is also this passage, which can be viewed as an attempt to fire back at the impeachment inquiry.

The Executive Branch and the Supreme Court have long recognized that the need for confidentiality in Executive Branch decision-making necessarily means that some communications must remain off limits to Congress and the public. There was a time when Congress respected this important principle as well. But today, Congress is increasingly quick to dismiss good-faith attempts to protect Executive Branch equities, labeling such efforts “obstruction of Congress” and holding Cabinet Secretaries in contempt.

Much of what Barr said was correct, so far as it goes, but one-sided. He presents the case for the prerogatives of the executive but glides over any consideration of its limitations. By the time this nuanced case filters down to President Trump, it becomes, “I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” Trump said that on July 23, two days before his attempted shakedown of Ukraine. So we can see how conservative arguments in favor of presidential power become a green light for the abuse of that power.

Needless to say, when Barack Obama was in the White House, Republicans were a lot less enthusiastic about this supposed unilateral authority of the executive.

That indicates part of the problem: the drug of partisanship. One of the things that really stuck in my mind from this whole affair is this line from Rush Limbaugh: “This is the reason you love Trump…. Whatever it is that upsets them [the ‘Washington Media’], he doubles down on it, and gives ’em another dose of it…. [T]his is the stuff he does that just coalesces his support with his voters and his base…. This is the stuff he does that they love.”

As I summed it up.

If Trump has done something that “upsets the Washington media,” conservatives no longer have to bother asking whether it was good or bad, whether anyone is right or wrong to be upset by it. The very fact that it upsets “the media” is justification enough.

The big thing we’ve discovered over the past four years is the number of people for whom the actual content of ideas and policy is largely irrelevant, compared to the pure tribal satisfaction of venting their hatred for the “elites” and the “mainstream media.” The source of Donald Trump’s bizarre allure among conservatives is the constant, unrelenting intensity with which he allows them to indulge in this—a form of tribal hatred that is all the purer precisely because it has been freed from any pretense of having to be loyal to abstract principles.

Donald Trump has been able to get away with the political equivalent of shooting someone on Fifth Avenue because the conservative movement has abandoned many of the ideas they used to insist they cared about. Checking the abuse of executive power is not even the biggest of those ideas.

The irony of the Trump era is that this unintellectual and anti-ideological man has had a definite and undeniable ideological impact on the American right. That is a much bigger story than Trump’s misconduct on Ukraine or his impeachment—and even if you’re skeptical about impeachment, this wider ideological transformation of the right has become undeniable.

That is the story we will turn to in the next installment of our countdown of the top stories of 2019.

The effect of the Trump era is something I have seen very concretely in the right-of-center media, where those who are skeptical of Trump and the new “nationalist” trend often find themselves out in the cold. That makes me appreciate all the more having an independent base of support in you, my readers and subscribers, which allows me to give you the facts as best I understand them and ignore the pressure to pander to the prejudices of a faction.

Help me keep doing it with your subscriptions and support. If you want to buy a friend a gift subscription to The Tracinski Letter, use that link to order by noon on December 24 to make sure they will get a notice of the gift before Christmas.—RWT