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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.
Well, last night was a bit of a shock. I certainly got it wrong. Still, here are some thoughts on what happened.
1. This election was something of a primal scream of rage against the machine. Clearly, there are millions of Americans who feel disconnected from – and disrespected by – the political establishment. On the issues, they are right about some things, like crony capitalism and the bail out of Wall Street, and wrong about others, like trade and immigration. But, in the end this isn’t about issues; it is about feeling ignored. The world that these people knew is changing, and the political establishment won’t even talk to them about it. No doubt part of Trump’s support was driven by racial and class resentments, but it was more than that.
2. We remain a deeply divided country. While Trump’s Electoral College victory was impressive, the margins in each state were razor thin. Hillary may still win the popular vote. There clearly are two different Americas. One represents the coasts, the cities, and the suburbs. The other represents vast swaths of exurban and rural middle-America. These regions differ ethnically, in terms of education, and in whether they have benefited from a changing economy and a more interconnected world.
3. Those divisions are not going away any time soon. In fact, they are likely to grow worse. The economy is going to keep changing. Automation will continue to eliminate low-skill jobs and physical labor jobs. Education will have an ever higher premium. At the same time, demographic changes are here to stay. The America of the future will be less white. That will feel increasingly threatening to some people. This election was, to some extent, a backlash.
4. We will have to see if President Trump can soothe these fears and unite the country. His victory speech last night set the right tone. On the other hand, his campaign had played footsie with white nationalism, anti-feminism, and anti-Semitism. There’s more than enough reason to be concerned. I know this morning that many people are terribly frightened. But let’s all take a deep breath. This won’t be the apocalypse. We have survived bad presidents before. My God, we survived Nixon. For the most part our lives have little to do with politics or presidents. We need to be vigilant, defend our rights, fight back where necessary, but not panic.
5. This election was also a rejection of Hillary Clinton. Hillary was, of course, a deeply flawed candidate. Remember that she lost to Barack Obama in 2008, in a race she should have won. She nearly lost the primary to a 75-year-old socialist. Moreover, at a time when people were demanding change, there was nothing less-change than the Clintons. They have been part of the establishment forever. It seems like there has always been a Clinton on our TV screens, usually trailed by some sort of scandal or something else unseemly. Hillary was always going to be a tough sell this year. This year started out with people talking about another Bush running against another Clinton. With her defeat, maybe we can pass on to a new era.
6. The woman card didn’t play, and that’s probably a good thing. Hillary lost 2 to 1 among non-college educated white women. She barely carried college educated white women. Why didn’t the prospect of the first woman president count for more? Perhaps, it is because women have made so much progress that the idea of a woman president didn’t seem like a big deal. We see women Senators and women business leaders on TV everyday. Maybe we are getting sufficiently used to the idea of women in positions of power, that one more break through doesn’t seem unique.
7. This is one reason why libertarians have always opposed the accretion of government power. Liberals may love big government and a powerful executive when President Obama is in charge, but sooner or later a President Trump gets control of that “telephone and a pen.” It is always worth remembering that the new power or program you so love may someday be controlled by your worst enemy. Indeed, now might be a good time for liberals to join those of us fighting to curtail presidential power. Senator Mike Lee’s “Article One Project” would be a good place to start.
8. Gary Johnson’s poor showing showed the limitations of third parties. It is true that Johnson ran a very poor campaign. It wasn’t just the Aleppo moment. He seemed genuinely unprepared for the opportunity that this campaign presented. That said, any third party effort would have been doomed by the institutional barriers that our system presents, such as lack of campaign funds and exclusion from the debate. More importantly, Americans still think in terms of a binary choice. Many of us thought that given two choices that people hated, voters would look for a third choice. Instead, they fell back into voting against the candidate they hated most. Libertarians are going to have to reconsider what role the Libertarian Party can play on the national level.
9. No matter who won this election, I expected to be a minority and in opposition. I agreed with Hillary on virtually nothing. And, I agree with Trump on virtually nothing. This is a bad time worldwide for the sort of classical liberalism I espouse. But being on the winning side doesn’t determine correctness. Trumps election, and the rise of populist authoritarianism worldwide, means that those of us who believe in individual liberty, the rule of law, equal rights, and free markets have more work to do. Today, the job begins again.
10. I was #NeverTrump from the beginning. But, he is now my president. As with any president, I will give him the benefit of the doubt, and time to see what he will do. He may yet surprise me again, and turn out to be a better president than I fear he will be. If so, he will have my support when I think he is right — and my opposition when I think he is wrong. That’s the best any of us can do.
There are times when simple moral decency requires one to rise above politics.
When Donald Trump implied that all Mexicans immigrants were rapists, Republicans rationalized that Hillary Clinton was worse.
When Trump made misogynistic comments about women, Republicans soothed themselves with the possibility that he might make good Supreme Court appointments.
When he threatened to ban an entire religion from this country, Republicans talked about the failures of Barack Obama.
When Trump re-tweeted racist nonsense about black crime, Republicans talked about party unity.
As trump welcomed the Alt-Right and openly avowed racists and anti-Semites into the ranks of his campaign, Republicans endorsed him.
But Trump’s recent attacks on a federal judge for the offense of being “a Mexican” is as morally offensive as any action by a presidential candidate in modern history. Set aside the fact that Gonzalo Curiel, was born in Indiana, and is as American as you or me. Set aside the fact that Judge Curiel is a courageous man who was actually forced into hiding after taking on the Mexican drug cartels. Set aside, even, the impropriety of a presidential candidate trying to intimidate a judge in a case where he is a litigant.
Set aside all that. Trump’s attack on Judge Curiel is plain and simply racist. The idea that Americans are defined by the ancestry and that people of certain ethnicity cannot be trusted to do their jobs, is the very heart of racism. It is wrong. More than wrong, it is morally repugnant.
So to my Republican friends, I say this is no longer about whether Trump might be slightly better than Hillary on this issue or that one. We would not have said, “well, David Duke had great views on the Second Amendment,” “I like George Wallace’s tax policy,” or “The Klan has a point about quotas.”
This is now about conscience. To continue to support Donald Trump is to acquiesce in the darkest impulses of mankind and stains the American soul. It is not about politics, it is about right and wrong.
I have known Paul Ryan since he was a legislative staffer. I know he is a fundamentally good and decent man. But in continuing to support Trump, he diminishes himself. The same is true for all those other Republicans, from Marco Rubio to John McCain to Bob Corker, who have sold their moral credibility for the sake of party unity or some other temporary political gain. It must stop.
When, someday in the future, your children or grandchildren ask you where you stood today, how will you answer them?
As the choices for president become clearer, people ask me if there are any circumstances under which I could support Donald Trump. The answer is a clear and unequivocal no.
It’s not that I disagree with him on nearly every major issue, though I do. His specific refusal to reform entitlements, combined with his proposals to increase spending, threatens to bankrupt the nation. His anti-trade position would take us back to the days of Smoot-Hawley. He supports eminent domain abuse and corporate welfare. He backed TARP and the bank bailout. And I could go on and on. But as a libertarian, I don’t ever expect to find a candidate I agree with on everything. Hell, I didn’t agree with Rand Paul on everything. I certainly don’t agree with Hillary Clinton on, well, anything. For me, voting is almost always choosing the lesser of evils.
And it’s not his fundamental dishonesty, both as a candidate and a businessman. If I’ve learned one thing in Washington, it’s that politicians lie. Besides, Hillary Clinton has turned lying into a high art form. She lies even when the truth is perfectly fine — just for practice. Compared to her, Trump is an amateur liar.
It’s not even his temperament, though I find his bullying and name calling to be absurdly juvenile. He is thin skinned, and tolerates no dissent. His trademarks are braggadocio and loud shouting. He thinks that leadership is jumping in front of the mob and giving them whatever they want. That’s not exactly the sort of person I want with the nuclear codes. But to speak of an egotistical thin skinned politician is practically redundant. And, while Hillary may be more cold-blooded, she is no less wedded to her own lust for power. And vengeance? Thy name is Clinton.
Rather, I oppose Trump because I believe he is truly dangerous for the American experiment. This is a man who casually promises to commit war crimes. This is a man who wants to rewrite libel laws so he can sue journalists who write negative stories about him. This is a man who has tolerated if not encouraged violence by his followers. After a protester was beaten up at his event, he said that “maybe he should have been roughed up. What he was doing was disgusting.” He said of another protester, “I want to punch him in the face.” He praised Putin and said the Chinese “almost blew it” in Tienanmen Square, but finally “showed strength.” Scary stuff.
Most importantly, the man has consistently tolerated and encouraged outright bigotry. In fairness, politicians cannot be held responsible for every action of their followers. And politics often means associating with unsavory characters. Ted Cruz shared a stage with a preacher who says gays should be put to death. Barack Obama hung out with Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. But Trump goes far beyond the usual necessities of politics.
He could barely bring himself to denounce David Duke and the KKK. (Aside from his wink and nod with Jake Tapper, consider his routine “I repudiate” of the Klan, with the 15 minutes he spends trashing, say, Vicente Fox.) He routinely re-tweets memes from white nationalist groups, and has tolerated their presence in his campaign. His misogynistic comments about women are legend. He mocks and denigrates Muslims, Mexicans, the disabled, and others. This is not about not being politically correct; this is about playing with evil.
In some ways the left is suffering from too often crying wolf. Almost any opposition to President Obama has been denounced as racist. We live in an era of “microaggressions.” But this time the wolf is here.
To support Trump is to give voice and legitimacy to the darkest and most repressive forces in America. That can never be allowed. For that reason, I say #NeverTrump.
Students of politics will recall that the 1991 runoff for governor of Louisiana featured an unappetizing choice between the openly racist Republican David Duke and the three term incumbent Edwin Edwards who had twice been tried, though acquitted on corruption and racketeering charges. (Edwards would eventually be convicted following his third trial in 2000. The dismal options in that election spawned the famous pro-Edwards bumper sticker; “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.”
As I ponder the growing possibility of a Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, I begin to understand how those Louisianans must have felt.
On the one hand, we have Hillary Clinton, a woman with whom I profoundly disagree on nearly every issue. She would almost certainly wreck the economy, burdening our children with another layer of debt and drowning us in new taxes and regulations. And, the thought of Hillary Clinton appointing a Supreme Court justice fills me with dread. Worse, unlike most Democrats she doesn’t even have the virtue of being good on issues of war and peace. She is every bit as interventionist as the most hawkish Republican neoconservative. And whatever current commitment she makes to civil liberties, gay rights, and such, they ring more of opportunistic political conversion than genuine conviction. And on top of all that, I believe Hillary is fundamentally dishonest, a woman who simply could not tell the truth if her life depended on it. I would rather eat ground glass than vote for her.
On the other hand, we have Donald Trump. Even if you assume that he’s telling the truth about his ever evolving views, it is hard to find anything that I can agree with him on. OK, he would cut taxes (though his actual plan is economic nonsense) and protect Second Amendment rights, but that’s about it. His positions, when not simply incoherent, are dreadful on issues ranging from entitlement reform to health care, from eminent domain to corporate welfare. He has a terrible record on civil liberties, even worse than Hillary. His opposition to free trade is antithetical to economic growth as well as liberty. And, of course, there is his ignorant, xenophobic, and frankly racist position on immigration. Indeed, throughout his campaign, Trump flirts with racism and racists, from his casual retweeting of “white power” memes to his toleration of anti-Semitic and white nationalist elements within his campaign. He also has tolerated, and sometimes seemed to encourage violence by his followers. He exhibits utter contempt for constitutional norms, even if he understands them. At bottom, he scares the hell out of me.
What then should a lover of liberty and a believer in limited government do? The crook or the bigot?
My friend Jonah Goldberg suggests that the only real option remaining may be SMOD (the sweet meteor of death). https://twitter.com/smod2016?lang=en
Yes, SMOD would likely mean the end of all life on earth. But after looking at the way this current election is headed, wouldn’t we deserve it? Count me in SMOD2016!
According to polls the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is “liar.” Her number one challenger is a 73 year-old self-described socialist. After that, there’s what? Martin O’Malley? If there was ever an election when Republicans should feel that they have a good shot at winning the White House, it’s this one.
So why are Republican candidates collectively acting like someone slipped LSD into the drinking water at the RNC?
I’m not talking about the three-ring circus that is the Trump campaign. By now we should be used to The Donald saying outrageous or bizarre things. Most recently, he suggested that he would fight ISIS by invading Iraq and Syria and “taking their oil.” But, mainstream – supposedly more responsible – candidates are now saying the craziest things.
Start with Marco Rubio. The Florida Senator recently explained that his support for sugar subsidies is a matter of national security. If you are wondering why ISIS has been quivering in fear at the prospect of higher US candy prices, Rubio has an explanation for his stance – sort of. According to Rubio, without agricultural subsidies, including those for sugar, US farmers will stop farming and sell their land to real estate developers, who will pave over their land and put up condos. Then, once, all our farm land is gone forever, foreign food suppliers will cut us off. America starves. Makes sense, right?
Meanwhile, Scott Walker says that he is open to building a wall along the US Canada border. Walker, who cannot quite decide whether the 14th Amendment means what it says, is apparently frightened by the sudden influx of illegal Canadians flooding across our northern border. It has become Republican orthodoxy to advocate a wall along the 1954 mile border with Mexico, at a cost of at least $42 billion. Now Walker wants to build another one along the 5,525 mile Canadian border, including, I guess, the Great Lakes. But why stop there. Walls can be climbed over or tunneled under. What this country really needs is to be sealed inside a hermetically-sealed glass dome ala Stephen King.
Chris Christie used an appearance last weekend on Fox News to declare war on…marijuana. Christie says he plans to send federal agents into Colorado and Washington to arrest pot smokers, despite the fact that marijuana is legal in those states (under state law). Neither federalism nor the manifest failure of the War on drugs seems to matter to Christie who says “when I’m president of the United States, and we won’t have people getting high on marijuana in Colorado and Washington if the federal law says you shouldn’t.” Of course. Because arresting 8.2 million people for the possession or sale of marijuana every year has done such a good job so far.
And, Rand Paul, who should know better, defended the Kentucky county clerk who is refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples despite the Supreme Court’s ruling that states cannot bar same sex marriages. Paul described the clerk’s defiance as “part of the American way.” Um, no its not. Civil disobedience is all well and good, but elected officials (and btw the clerk was elected as a Democrat) should obey the law and do the jobs that taxpayers – including gay taxpayers – are paying them to do. If their conscience won’t let them conduct those duties, they should resign. This is very different from those cases involving private businesses such as bakers and florists who do not want to participate in gay weddings.
Paul may be pandering to the Religious Right, but he is a piker compared to Mike Huckabee, who continues to suggest that he will send federal troops to close down abortion clinics. Huckabee insists that, as president, he would not be bound by little things like Supreme Court decisions.
And on and on it goes. Lindsey Graham wants to use drones to kill any American citizen who thinks of supporting ISIS. Jeb Bush still hasn’t come up with an answer about whether his brother was right to invade Iraq. Ben Carson wonders whether prison rape can turn people gay. It is as if the rise of Donald Trump has lobotomized the entire field.
It looks like it is going to be a very, very long campaign. Sigh.
I may have hit a nerve.
In this week’s column for National Review Online, I discussed crony capitalism and how too many supposedly free market Republicans were quick to grant favors for friends and constituencies. I particularly faulted some of the GOP presidential candidates.
One of the samples I cited was Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, pointing out, among other things:
His support for using $250 million of Wisconsin taxpayers’ money to build a new stadium for the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team is a quintessential example of crony capitalism. Among those who will benefit from the taxpayers’ largesse is real-estate mogul Jon Hammes, a partner in the investment group that owns the NBA franchise; Hammes has agreed to serve as the national finance co-chairman for the Walker campaign.
Apparently, my comments hit a nerve with the governor’s campaign. Within hours they had rushed out a reply from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Christian Schneider defending Walker’s support for the stadium. (At least I presume that the Walker campaign was behind it, given the speed at which it was put out).
Today, NRO senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru weighed in, pretty much shredding Schneider’s response.
Ponnuru really nails it, but I would add just a couple more points.
Schneider appears to suggest that the stadium financing will be offset by taxes paid by the Bucks and the NBA. That might be an argument if he was talking about new taxes that would be generated by an improved stadium or something. But Schneider makes a point of saying that “This isn’t expected revenue from future economic development — this is money already being paid to the state.” (His emphasis). If so, that money is already being spent on something. If it is now to be dedicated to the new stadium, won’t it have to be made up through other taxes, in which case the Wisconsin taxpayers will be indeed be footing the bill.
I suppose the lost revenue could be offset by cutting current spending, which would be a good thing. But if that spending could be easily reduced, shouldn’t it have already been eliminated and taxes correspondingly cut. Anyway you look at it; it appears Wisconsin citizens end up paying more than they should in order to benefit wealthy and connected private businessmen.
That the beneficiaries are private businessmen is also an important point. Schneider compares the stadium deal to funding for a chemistry lab at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse. But there is an obvious difference between spending money at a state-owned university and spending it to benefit private businesses.
Walker’s camp also warns that without the stadium deal, the Buck’s owners might have taken their team and left town. This was a legitimate worry. But I thought Scott Walker’s claim to fame was that he was a tough leader who faced down the unions – Wisconsin’s version of Donald Trump, as it were, when it came to negotiations. That his spine suddenly turned to jelly when confronted by irate millionaires is less than inspiring.
Finally, on the merits of the deal itself, Cato has published several studies showing that there is little if any economic benefit from government-financed sports stadiums, including: Dennis Coates and Brad R. Humphreys, “Caught Stealing: Debunking the Economic Case for D.C. Baseball,” Cato Institute, Briefing Papers No. 89, October 27, 2004.
I am not suggesting that support for the stadium disqualifies Walker for president, especially since his opponents are far from pure. But let’s not pretend this deal is something other than what it is.
PS: My colleague David Boaz has been blogging on the deal as well.
PPS: My NRO column also criticizes Marco Rubio’s support for sugar subsidies. Jim Bovard makes the same point in yesterday’s USA today.