When I walked into the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, this summer, I was struck by the glowering portrait hanging in the lobby. Donald Trump is president? It seems like something out of a dystopian film. But it’s not science fiction; it’s reality. Exactly a year ago Wednesday, the voters of America, in their dubious wisdom, chose the reality TV star and real estate mogul as their 45th chief executive.
I, like most people — including probably Trump himself — was shocked by the outcome. Actually “shocked” is far too mild a word for what I felt. Poleaxed is more like it. I went to bed late on the evening of Nov. 8, 2016, in a daze, incredulous that my fellow citizens could elect a man so unqualified for the presidency and fearful of what he would do in office. The past year has been both better and worse than I anticipated.
It has been better in that Trump has not actually carried out most of his lunatic campaign rhetoric. He has not ordered the torture of terrorist suspects. He has not pulled out troops from Japan, South Korea, or Germany even though those countries have not increased their subsidies for U.S. protection. He has not launched a trade war with China even though our trade deficit with China has only grown over the past year. He has not tried seriously to get Mexico to pay for his border wall; even Congress is unlikely to fund it. He has not lifted sanctions on Russia or reached a grand bargain with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has not “locked up” Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. He has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accord, and he decertified the Iranian nuclear deal, but NAFTA is still standing — for now. He has moved us closer to war with Iran and North Korea, but the bombs haven’t started falling — yet.
Trump supporters can argue that he is more moderate in practice than his rhetoric would suggest. There’s an element of truth in this, but the more compelling explanation for his failure to make good on his promises is threefold.
First, Trump doesn’t really believe in much beyond his own awesomeness. He didn’t run for office to get anything done; he ran to stoke his own ego and pad his own bank account by increasing his visibility. Thus he would say outrageous stuff on the campaign trail, contradict himself 30 seconds later, and immediately segue to some non sequitur. He didn’t mean a lot of what he said — it was just something to rouse the rubes at rallies.
Second, Trump has been utterly incompetent. Even if he wants to achieve more of his agenda, he doesn’t know how to do it. As Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star puts it, he “talks like a strongman” but governs like a “weak man.” Maybe tax reform will get done — maybe — but so far he hasn’t signed a single major piece of legislation. Actually that’s not quite true: Congress did pass a law strengthening sanctions against Russia over the administration’s protests. Aside from a Supreme Court appointment, the only things Trump has succeeded in accomplishing are those he can do by executive order, thus doing on a far larger scale what he once criticized Obama for.
The third reason why Trump has gotten so little done is that he’s surrounded by people who, by and large, don’t share his xenophobic, isolationist, protectionist “America First” outlook. Most of those who did — Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka — have been forced out because they were incompetent crackpots. Lacking any interest in ideas, Trump has staffed his administration with people based largely on superficial criteria such as appearance. That helps to explain why most of his senior appointees, including Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, John Kelly, H.R. McMaster, and now Jerome Powell as Federal Reserve chairman, look as if they are straight out of central casting. It also explains why former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton didn’t snare a job: Trump was said not to like his mustache. As a result, Trump is surrounded by aides who view him as a screwball to be contained, not a sage to be followed.
So does that mean Trump’s presidency has been just swell, as his fans claim? Not at all. In important respects, Trump has been worse than I imagined. If the past year has done anything, it has dispelled naive hopes that he would grow in office or become more presidential. He’s the same old Trump that he was for the previous 70 years: ignorant, petulant, unethical, avaricious, conspiratorial, nasty, shameless, bullying, egomaniacal.
One of the salient features of his presidency has been its lack of ethics. His former campaign manager Paul Manafort has been indicted on charges of money laundering, and former national security advisor Michael Flynn is said to be on the verge of indictment for acting as an unregistered foreign agent. Many of the president’s men, and even the president himself, had undisclosed business dealings with Russia, ranging from Trump’s attempts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the campaign to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s continuing investment in a shipping firm closely tied to the Kremlin. Trump and his aides, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have also consistently lied about their dealings with Russia. Former Trump foreign-policy advisor George Papadopoulos pled guilty to deceiving the FBI about his Kremlin ties; others may follow.
Russia aside, Trump uses his office to promote his own properties in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution. He has refused to disclose his tax returns as every president has done more than 40 years. And while private-sector figures from Harvey Weinstein to Michael Oreskes are being fired for sexual harassment, the president remains in office despite credible accusations of misconduct from at least 16 women. Trump himself basically admitted to the allegations in his infamous “grab ‘em by the pussy” video, but now the White House press secretary shamefully labels his accusers as liars. The real liar, of course, is Trump himself. According to the Washington Post, during his first 263 days in office, he made 1,318 false or misleading claims. That’s an average of five falsehoods a day.
Trump presides over what is easily the least ethical administration since Nixon’s — and in all likelihood “Don the Con” will be judged by history to be a great deal worse than “Tricky Dick.” The major difference between them? Nixon sought to subvert the rule of law in private. Trump does it out in the open for all to see.
It has become routine for the president to demand criminal investigations of his political opponents based on, so to speak, trumped-up charges (Donald Trump Jr. even accuses the Clintons of murder); to call for the broadcast licenses of critical media outlets to be revoked; to attack the special counsel investigating him; to impugn the FBI, the judiciary, and the Justice Department; and to suggest that his own attorney general should resign for not doing his political bidding. Granted, most of these threats have been empty ones — but not all. Trump did fire FBI Director James Comey in a blatant attempt to obstruct justice. Moreover, his very words — coming from the man charged with ensuring “that the laws be faithfully executed” — corrode trust in our legal system.
When Trump is not undermining the rule of law, he is demeaning the presidency and embarrassing the country. Trump uses Twitter to carry out unseemly vendettas against Gold Star parents, the mayors of London and San Juan, lawmakers from “Liddle” Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to “Pocahontas” Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), journalists from those at the “failing New York Times” to “Crazy” Mika Brzezinski, and an endless array of other targets, many of them women and minorities. Trump’s tweets are frequently vituperative and full of errors in spelling and grammar. They sound as if they are coming from a mental institution, not from the White House.
What most troubles me about Trump’s presidency is the extent to which he is dividing Americans by race and ethnicity in service to his own political ambitions. Having won with overwhelming support among white, working-class voters, Trump notoriously hesitates to criticize white supremacists: He thought there were “very fine people” on both sides at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, and he has defended Confederate statues as part of “our heritage.” When white killers go on a rampage, as they did recently in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas, Trump labels it a tragedy about which there is little to be done beyond “thoughts and prayers.”
By contrast, he exploits every terrorist act committed by a Muslim, such as the Halloween attack in New York, labeling the perpetrators “animals” and calling for Draconian immigration restrictions. He has gone on an extended tirade against the African-American football players who kneel when the national anthem is played to protest police brutality. He has pardoned racist former Sheriff Joe Arpaio. And he has revoked the executive order that former President Barack Obama used to protect “Dreamers” — immigrants brought to America illegally as children — from deportation. Sadly, other Republican office-seekers, such as gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie in Virginia and Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama, have imitated Trump’s noxious example by seeking to rally white voters with blatantly racial appeals. Gillespie failed, but that won’t stop other Trump imitators from trying their luck.
Trump took a divided nation and instead of trying to heal those divisions, he has exacerbated them. A Boston Globe reporter who traveled to York County, Pennsylvania, an area that Trump won, found that “the class resentments, racism, and xenophobia that became flashpoints during the election have hardened, not healed.”
And that’s what Trump has done in just the year since he won the presidency. Imagine what the next three years — or, God forbid, the next seven years — will hold. The United States will survive Trump, but we won’t be the same nation after him. The very fact that much of his misconduct is now so routine that it’s hardly noteworthy indicates his success in, as former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) put it, “defining deviancy down.” Far from making America “great again,” he is reducing a once-great country to his tawdry level.