Trump’s Potemkin Policies

Some policies of the Trump administration are real, for example, those rescinding the executive order on Stream Protection issued by President Obama. But many of his policies are Potemkin policies. These are policies not intended to have a real effect, but simply done as a matter of appearance, so as to appear to address a problem or satisfy a campaign promise. The purely Potemkin policies have virtually no substance, and are done for appearance alone. An example is withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Since the TPP was not in force and politically pretty much dead when Trump took office, withdrawing from it was just done for appearance. A perhaps even clearer case is “directing the Department of Defense to develop a plan to defeat ISIS” (touted by the White House as one of eight key accomplishments of Trump’s first month in office). (DOD presumably had been engaged for years in extensive planning to defeat ISIS before issuance of the order.)

Other policies do have a real effect, although they are motivated primarily by appearance and their actual effect may make little or no contribution to the actual policy goal. One of the best examples so far is the travel ban. The travel ban did have a real effect, although it did nothing to make the U.S. safer (in fact, just the opposite, by alienating allies and providing fodder for ISIS recruitment). But its main purpose was appearance, the appearance of doing something to stem the flow of Muslims into the U.S. and the appearance of protecting the U.S. from terrorists.

Understanding that many Trump administration policies are just done for the sake of appearance makes it easier to understand some of them. This is also legally relevant. The courts tend to grant deference to the government, since it is presumed that the government is carrying out policies for valid policy reasons and is in a better position than the courts to analyze the policy consequences. However, in the case of policies that are motivated primarily by appearance, there is no justification for judicial policy deference. Given the pattern of Trump Administration Potemkin policies, courts should be wary of any policy justifications proferred by the Administration for any executive action.