The presidency of Donald Trump (those words still boggle the mind) is now a little more than a year old, and last night he delivered his first official State of the Union Address. It would seem a good time, therefore, to step back and take stock of what has certainly been an unconventional presidency.
However, trying to objectively evaluate Trump’s first year in office turns out to be more difficult than either his partisans or opponents would have you believe.
On strictly policy grounds, at least for believers in free markets, personal liberty, and peace like me, Trump has been the sort of typically mediocre President to which I have long become accustomed. He’s certainly done some things I have approved of. Tax reform was more tax cut than “reform,” but it will provide long overdue business tax relief, and should boost competitiveness and economic growth. Similarly, he has pursued an aggressive policy of deregulation that I have mostly cheered. Moreover, one can’t overlook the importance of Trump’s judicial appointments. Neal Gorsuch was a brilliant choice for the Supreme Court, and most of his lower court appointees (with a few conspicuous and sometime hysterical exceptions) have also been excellent. And, while Trump failed to repeal and replace Obamacare, he can at least claim repeal of the health law’s individual mandate.
The economy is doing well – unemployment down, the stock market booming, wages rising. While there is room to debate the degree to which Trump’s policies are responsible, I think it is fair to say that tax cuts, deregulation, and the president’s relentless boosterism has been an important factor. Certainly if the economy was doing poorly, we would blame Trump. It seems fair, therefore, to give him some credit for the upswing.
There have, of course, also been many policies that I vehemently oppose. One can start with the odious Muslim travel ban, and move quickly to a cruel and xenophobic immigration policy. He has too often championed crony capitalism and big spending, while ignoring the threat of a growing national debt. Trillion dollar deficits are expected to return perhaps as soon as next year. He steadfastly remains opposed to any serious reform of the entitlement programs that are threatening to bankrupt this country. Meanwhile, his protectionist trade policies threaten to undo the economic benefits from his tax and regulatory policies. And, the Trump Justice Department is ramping up the failed war on drugs.
On foreign policy, President Trump can legitimately claim success in the war against ISIS. While the larger strategy has generally been a continuation of one developed in the Obama administration, President Trump has pursued it much more aggressively, and significantly loosened the rules of engagement. The victory is on his watch, and he should get the credit. One caveat though: the new policies have significantly increased civilian casualties. Morality aside, this could mean more blowback and terrorism in the future.
Elsewhere, Trump’s belligerency has alienated allies, brought us to the brink of war in Korea, and threatened to bog us down in conflicts around the globe. Anyone who thought that a Trump presidency would mean less foreign adventurism should have been disabused by now. Pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (a position incidentally shared with Hilary Clinton) largely ceded American influence in Asia to China. He continues to see Russia as some sort of quasi-ally. And, far too often he has coddled dictators and authoritarian rulers from Putin and Sisi to Erdogan and Duterte. Human rights don’t just take a back seat to other interests, they don’t seem to be part of the conversation at all.
All in all, if I was grading solely on policy, I would give the Trump presidency my standard solid C (of course I grade on a curve). That’s pretty much how I’ve seen the last several presidencies – a mix of good and bad, drifting sadly toward ever bigger government and ever less freedom.
But, unfortunately, there is more to the Trump presidency than policies. There is also the petty feuds, bizarre tweets, and continuous streem of untruths. While pettiness and dishonesty are hardly unique to this president (just consider his predecessor or his opponent in the last election), President Trump seems determined to take those qualities to, dare we say, “Trumpian” levels. The same is true of his all too frequent attacks on our democratic institutions, particularly the free press. Much of it may simply be Trump blowing off steam, but it does raise concerns.
But most importantly, there is no way to evaluate the Trump presidency without considering the ways in which he has given aid and comfort to racists, misogynists, Islamophobias, and anti-immigration zealots. From smearing all immigrants as criminals (on display again during his SOTU address) to the Muslim ban, from his moral equivalency on Charlottesville to his wish for more white and fewer brown immigrants, Trump’s presidency has not just served up dog whistles to the most antediluvian forces in our society, he has sounded an entire marching band’s worth of drums and trumpets.
This is not just one factor balanced against others. Trump’s casual affinity for racism and other prejudices is fundamental affront to the American ideal. There is no way that people of color, women, the transgendered, gays, immigrants, and other minorities can feel like there are full participants in the American project while they are under attack from the highest office in the land. It is a stain, not easily erased, and it threatens both the unity of this country, and the hard won progress that we have made.
No matter what Trump’s policies are, no matter what other successes he enjoys, this will be the defining element of his presidency.