After failing to replace the Affordable Care Act and passing no major legislation during his first 11 months in office, U.S. President Donald Trump ended 2017 with the signing of a $1.5 trillion tax bill. That, combined with the smashing (for now) of the Islamic State, the appointment of conservative judges (some of them even qualified), and a few other achievements have Trump and his defenders in a cocky mood. They claim that naysayers like me need to get aboard the big, beautiful “Trump train” as it gathers speed. Or else.
Hollywood screenwriter and right-wing blogger Roger L. Simon offers a particularly choice example of Trump triumphalism: He writes that “more conservative goals have been achieved or put in motion in eleven months than in any time in recent, or even distant, memory,” which leads me to wonder whether he has any memories of the Ronald Reagan administration. Yet despite Trump’s supposed victories, Simon ominously predicts that a “war is coming” and prays “that it will be non-violent,” implying that it might not be. As he prepares to man the barricades to defend Trumpism from someone or other (special counsel Robert Mueller?), Simon beseeches the “remaining NeverTrumpers” to “please join” — but only after apologizing for our thought crimes and begging forgiveness.
The only possible answer is the one that Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe delivered during the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 22, 1944, when the Germans asked for the surrender of his embattled troops in Bastogne. To wit: “Nuts!”
That is not to deny that Trump has accomplished a few laudable things by my lights as a classical liberal — a label I now prefer to “conservative,” which today means “Trump supporter.” I applaud Trump’s decisions to provide Ukraine with arms to defend itself from Russian aggression, to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, to send additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and to accelerate former President Barack Obama’s strategy for fighting the Islamic State. Note, however, that any Republican candidate like Jeb Bush or even a conservative Democrat like Hillary Clinton likely would have done most of these things, except for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem — which is of symbolic value only.
It seems safe to say, also, that anyone in the White House today would be presiding over a growing economy — an achievement that Trump brazenly claims credit for despite having spent 2016 deriding the stock market (lower, then) as a “big fat, ugly bubble” and claiming that unemployment numbers (higher, then) were “fake.” Like the war on the Islamic State, Trump inherited the economic expansion from Obama but steals all the credit for himself.
Nor does Trump deserve much credit — if that’s the right word — for the passage of the massive tax bill. The cut in the corporate tax rate, to closer to the average of the developed world (21 percent), is a good thing, but the bill could and should have been written in a revenue-neutral way. Because Republicans in Congress added numerous other tax breaks, they will pile on at least $1 trillion in additional debt, endangering the United States’ fiscal health and crowding out defense spending. Although the legislation makes a mockery of Republican claims to be the champions of fiscal responsibility, it was crafted by Congress and would have been signed by any Republican occupant of the Oval Office.
No doubt any tax legislation would have looked quite different if Hillary Clinton had won, but before assuming that the economy would not have done well under her — Trump recently claimed, “If the Dems (Crooked Hillary) got elected, your stocks would be down 50% from values on Election Day” — it would behoove Republicans to acknowledge the record expansion overseen by her husband in the 1990s. Average GDP growth per quarter, at 3.8 percent, was higher under Bill Clinton than any Republican president in the postwar era — including Trump in his first year. Oh, and the budget deficit was eliminated, while under Trump it will soon top $1 trillion annually.
The best you can say for Trump’s first year is that he has not done as much damage in foreign and domestic policy as many, including me, had feared. But it is hardly a triumphant record, especially in light of Puerto Rico’s continuing failure to recover from a devastating hurricane. Trump had less legislation approved than any of his nine predecessors — an achievement deficit he has tried to mask by claiming credit for killing hundreds of already-shelved regulations and for getting people to say “Merry Christmas,” as if they ever stopped.
But what really stands out in Trump’s first year in office is not his policies. It is his unrelenting assault on the norms of American democracy.
To take but one example of many, consider his unprecedented attacks on the nation’s highest-ranking law-enforcement agency. Trump claims the FBI’s reputation is in “tatters” (only true among Fox News viewers), and he throws out offensive accusations that it is guilty of conspiring against him, when its only sin is that of investigating his ties to the Kremlin. His partisans go even further, comparing the FBI to the KGB. Trump has launched a political purge of the bureau, firing Director James Comey and, more recently, forcing James Baker to step down as general counsel. Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who is one of the president’s favorite piñatas because his wife received Democratic Party funds when running for a state Senate seat in Virginia, is now rumored to be retiring at age 49. Just before Christmas, Trump taunted Baker and McCabe — two of the most respected officials in the FBI — on their way out the door. He now claims the “absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department,” as ominous a threat to the rule of law as any president has ever made.
Trump has similarly taken his blowtorch rhetoric to the press (which he calls the “enemy of the American people”), the judiciary, the civil service (“the Deep State”), and any other individual or institution that curbs his lust for unbounded power. He has even suggested that his political opponent, “Crooked Hillary,” should be locked up for her innocuous role in approving a merger in the uranium industry, and that his predecessor was a “Bad (or ‘sick’) guy!” who was guilty of crimes comparable to Watergate based on, so to speak, trumped-up charges of wiretapping.
Folks, this is not normal. This kind of behavior is utterly “unpresidented,” as Trump would say — and completely revolting. You expect this from the president of a banana republic, not from the heir of Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. But because Trump says and does so many offensive things, his outrages have become a normal, and therefore accepted, part of the political landscape. They shouldn’t be. We should rise in outrage when we read a reliable report that the president thinks that all Haitian immigrants “have AIDS” or that Nigerian travelers to America will never “go back to their huts in Africa.” The White House, naturally, derided this New York Times scoop as “fake news,” but the sentiments expressed are all too recognizable coming from a man who launched his presidential campaign defaming Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and “rapists.”
So, too, we should not lose our capacity for outrage when the president claims that there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville, or when he pardons racist former Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio or champions Confederate war monuments or threatens to deport immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. It matters a great deal that we have such an unabashedly prejudiced president: He is dividing our country, exacerbating racial and ethnic tensions, and destroying norms of civility that are necessary to make our polity function.
While inflicting incalculable damage on our society at home, Trump is also diminishing American standing abroad with his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accord; his demands to renegotiate NAFTA, a successful trade treaty; his demolition of the State Department; his vitriolic criticisms of allies such as Germany’s chancellor and Britain’s prime minister; his indulgence in anti-Islamic rhetoric (e.g., retweeting anti-Muslim videos posted by a British far-right leader); and his kowtowing to autocrats such as the leaders of Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, China, and Russia. His devotion to defending the republic is called into question because he won’t even acknowledge that Russia attacked us last year by subverting our election.
As if that weren’t enough, Trump is raising the risk of war with his juvenile taunting of the North Korean dictator (“Little Rocket Man”) and his decertification of the Iran nuclear deal without having any better alternative to offer. All this is part of the anarchist-in-chief’s larger project to destroy “the rules-based postwar international order” that he says is “not working at all” but in fact has underpinned American security and prosperity for more than 70 years.
The standard retort of Trump’s defenders is that his unhinged rhetoric doesn’t matter — pay attention to what he does. But that’s to overestimate the merit of his actions and to underestimate the impact of a president’s words and example, for good or ill. Conservatives claimed that the “character issue” was all-important when they were attacking Bill Clinton as the second coming of Caligula. But now that they are defending a president who lies an average of six times a day, uses the presidency to promote his own real estate holdings, hides his tax returns, attempts to obstruct justice, stands accused by 19 women of sexual harassment, and endorses an alleged child molester for the Senate, they argue that character is irrelevant. They were right the first time.
Like any other president, Trump will do a few good things that are worth applauding, and I will continue to point those out when appropriate. But more than any previous president — even Warren Harding and Richard Nixon — he is a moral abomination who disgraces his office on a daily basis and embarrasses the country he purports to lead. Sorry, Trumpites, the rule of law, the standards of presidential behavior, and the norms of civilized society are too precious to sacrifice for the sake of a few — very few! — policy achievements. They are worth far more than $1.5 trillion.