Trump, Two Years In

The day after Donald Trump was elected, I made the dire prognostication that he would “at best be a terrible president, and at worst, permanently cripple our republic.” Two years later, how does my ominous prediction hold up?

At a glance, not very well. There’s a long way to go — at least two years, and more likely six — but so far the Trump presidency is not even the worst of my lifetime, and the republic is far from crippled. Let’s begin by evaluating Mr. Trump’s policy record. In so many ways, Donald Trump is not a traditional republican, but in the realm of substantive policy his administration has been, for the most part, traditionally republican. It’s looked a lot like a Cruz or a Rubio or a third Bush presidency might have: a sweeping tax cut that favors red states, corporations, and the wealthy; moderate progress in dismantling Obamacare; loosening of financial and environmental regulations; and packing federal courts with reliably conservative judges.

The most notable exception is in foreign policy, where the President’s mercantilist impulses and bizarre affinity for Vladimir Putin are fully at odds with decades of republican orthodoxy, which has always championed free trade and talked tough on Russia. (It is worth pointing out, however, that the President’s coziness with Putin has so far had little material effect on policy, as congress has maintained a strong sanctions regime against Russia.)

As a liberal, I tend to disagree with these policies. With an already inflating economy and inequality at its highest point in a century, it makes no sense to issue a massive tax cut that disproportionately benefits the wealthy and explodes the deficit. The attempts to roll back the Affordable Care Act serve more to stir the base than to improve the American healthcare system. Exiting the Paris Accord was embarrassing and stupid. And the policy of separating children from families at the border is draconian, inhumane, and counterproductive.

But I also acknowledge that elections have consequences, and that these are almost precisely the political consequences we should reasonably have expected of a republican president. In fact, I don’t even think they’re all bad. As someone who works in financial regulation, I agree that there’s a lot of red tape that isn’t doing any good and ought to be cut. Though I often disagree with them, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh are eminently qualified jurists who deserve seats on the high court. And if the North Koreans follow through on denuclearization, then I think President Trump really might deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.

From a pure policy perspective, then, I must acknowledge that I missed the mark. The Trump Presidency has not been good, but it is far from the catastrophe I predicted, or that CNN likes to conjure up. If it ended today, the Trump presidency would rank well above the Bush presidency, which squandered so much of America’s blood, treasure, and global standing in Iraq.

But a president is not merely a policymaker, and a presidency cannot be judged on policy alone. A president is also a spokesperson for American ideals, the loudest, most important, voice in the body politic, and perhaps the nation’s highest moral authority. And on these fronts, my prediction has come true: the Trump presidency has been a catastrophe, and may yet “permanently cripple our republic”.

The list of President Trump’s abdications and abuses of his moral authority is long, but some of the highlights include his petty feud with a dying John McCain, his failure to condemn Nazis in Charlottesville, his utterly embarrassing capitulation to Vladimir Putin, and his firing (or attempts to fire) any servant of justice who threatens him. These are the highlights, but almost every day the President does something to demean his office. He lies an average of 2.5 times per day, he berates his opponents like a schoolyard bully, and he demonstrates precious little appreciation for — or understanding of — the norms and ideals that are the foundation of our democracy.

In these respects, President Trump is as unfit to be president today as he was on November 11th, 2016, when I made my prediction. But what are the consequences of the president’s amorality, mendacity, and brutishness? Should we forgive his bad behavior, given the roaring economy and his modest policy successes?

The consequences of the president’s boorish conduct are not yet obvious, nor can they be easily measured by job reports, judicial appointments, or legislative accomplishments. But they are no less consequential. In an age of sharp inequality and a splintered media environment, our democracy had already begun fraying, but Donald Trump has undeniably accelerated its decline. It was already becoming hard to see ourselves in each other; the president has made it nearly impossible.

Already, we see the effects of this coarsening of our politics. Bipartisanship is impossible. Democrats are ineffectual; their only organizing principle is opposition to the president. The media landscape is even more divided than it was before Trump’s rise. Americans distrust each other more than ever and disagree over basic facts. The very idea of objective truth is in question. Paid only occasional, tepid lip-service, the ideals on which the country was built feel like distant echoes.

At first, Donald Trump was a symptom of these problems, but now he has become a cause, too. He further weakens our democracy every time he cozies up to dictators, alienates allies, lies outright to the public, and violates democratic norms.

Eventually, the economy will fall back into a recession. Taxes will rise again. Conservative judges will retire and be replaced by liberal ones. The policy achievements of the Trump administration will eventually be effaced as the pendulum of power swings back and forth. His most enduring legacy, then, may be the damage he has done to American democracy.

That much I got right.

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