Trump's America Revisited, 4 years later

Nearly 4 years ago, just after the 2016 election, I wrote a few thoughts about what I would be watching. As we approach the next election, I thought it would be interesting to revisit what I wrote and see what we’ve learned. Here’s what I was watching (quoted) and what I think now below:


Observation 1

Trump has said progressive things and conservative things and populist things and fascist things, sometimes in the same hour. He has held wildly opposed positions on nearly every issue, from immigration to abortion over the past 4 years. Only time and what he does will tell us what he is — I expect he continues to be a bit of everything.

He continues to say a bit of everything, but what he has done has been pretty consistent. He talks big about defending manufacturing and labor, fixing healthcare, and protecting medicare. At nearly every opportunity, he has failed to deliver, or actively promoted the opposite. Take a look at his latest budget, and see medicaid and medicare changes for the worse, a labor policy (tarifs) that has raised costs for Americans without restoring or retaining jobs for American workers, and more.

There is an alternate world where Trump played his popularity against both the right and left to get policies that delivered real change for people hurt by the current safety net, healthcare system, labor protections, and more. He could have also delivered reforms that provided a better functioning business environment. More to come below, but in short, he has largely delivered handouts for the wealthy and graft for the connected. Even with unified control of government his first two years, he failed to delivery any signature reform. If the metric of success is just undoing what Obama did (and maybe it is for his supporters), he has many wins to point to. But it’s unclear if his trade policy, leaving climate and Iran deals, and historic tax cuts will have any lasting, positive impact. It’s unclear what the signature policy of his tenure will be.

Observation 2

Which wing of the party takes power? Will Paul Ryan stay speaker? If so, does he stay a “Romney Republican” or does he change with the tide. What percent of the cabinet will be Trump loyalists, political outsiders, neocons, little C conservatives, competent moderates?

There have been and will be books written about this one. My short summary, is that Trump has pretty clearly pulled the party towards loyalists over time. The well respected careerists that staid in the orbit have been bent towards loyalism or broken.

Maybe the easiest comparison is looking at the tenure’s of Jeff Sessions vs. Bill Barr as attorney general. I don’t agree much with either on the fundamentals, but I can say that Jeff Sessions conducted himself with respect to the rule of law, where Bill Barr has bent himself to the absolute authority of the office at best, and the authority of Donald Trump at worst. His criticisms of the president tend more towards “I’d have an easier time doing what you want if you shut your mouth more” than acting as any sort of check on authoritarian impulses. Loyalty tests (and purges for those who fail them) are common. The trappings of bipartisanship in the name of auditing the function of government and checking executive authority are out the window.

Paul Ryan is gone, and his legacy is everything he said he stood against. Countless “normal republicans” are gone, the administration is left staffed by various representatives of far right fringe, corrupt capitalists capturing or delivering graft in various ways, and absolute loyalists. You need graphs to stay on top of it all.

I’d say this bent in the direction of my worst fears, but it is too soon to say how badly and for how long. My fear is that some of this damage is permanent - the cracks in the system are visible to everyone, and only something that massively restructures the system can stop the future incentives to abuse them.

Observation 3

It is easy to be in opposition. Now that they have power, they have no excuses (not that they won’t spin for some). For example, Obamacare was originally a conservative think tank policy. It insures millions of Americans directly and indirectly (medicare expansion, coverage for preexisting conditions, etc.). Repeal and replace is no longer a slogan, it’s a “to do” — what does Trump replace it with, and how do Republicans do it without hurting millions?

His goal here was clearly more about dismantling Obama’s policy than by making his own. His failure to lead on replacing Obamacare (which is by no means perfect) and fixating only on making things worse by repealing it, squandered political capital while revealing the republican party to be more aligned on obstruction than on solutions / governing. The mishandling led to the democrat’s winning control of the house in the midterms, and Republican’s abandoning any plans for healthcare. As I alluded to 4 years ago, it’s easy to criticize a policy, it’s hard to make one that’s better. The GOP attempted and failed, badly.

Observation 4

The rule of law: Trump already promised to be a president to all Americans. However, he has also advocated things that are currently illegal (war crimes, torture, voter intimidation). Will he change laws? Will he break laws? Will he keep his promise to represent everyone? For example, during the election, federal courts kept smacking down partisan voter suppression efforts by. states controlled by the GOP (Wisconsin, North Carolina, Texas). Will a Trump Attorney General / Justice Department pursue and protect the rights of voters? Also, will he appoint a special prosecutor to “Lock Her Up” despite the opinion of the FBI that there was nothing to prosecute?

In short, this doesn’t look good, especially writing this week. This section is about if the standard applied to Flynn is applied to everyone. It’s clear that the vast majority of defendants who plead guilty would still be prosecuted by the DOJ today. Flynn is getting special treatment because of who he is. If that was paired by broader reform of the system, that would be one thing. But it will be back to business as usual, at best.

It’s clear that the Trump administration uses power for political reasons - it lightens legal oversight of it’s allies, chooses cronies over independent oversight at every turn, and is very willing to attack their opponents using the full extent of their power. (Remember when it was bad for an attorney general to have 5 minutes of contact with people with conflicts of interest, not just passing evidence in?)

Observation 5

Conflict of Interests and Scandal Potential: Obama had a historically scandal free administration — they prioritized hiring “no drama” staff who would move the chains forward. Just looking at Donald’s campaign advisors (Christie, Manafort, Ailes), that looks unlikely to continue. Also, as he governs, his policies will impact his businesses and his supporters’ businesses. If his cabinet is full of outsiders, the conflicts of interest will be compounded, even if he doesn’t descend into outright cronyism. Imagine if Obama owned shares of Solyndra — that kind of story will keep happening. I’m curious to see how the country and his administration react.

Again, there will be dozens of books. No administration is clean - theya re too big, too much money is on the table. But the Trump administration takes the novel approach of “flooding the zone”. They’ve had so much winning scandal it’s hard to keep up. That said, here are a few lists that have tried to keep

Observation 6

Center of Attention: the press that has split attention between Trump and Clinton has only one camp to focus on. No more weeks of digging through leaked emails. The focus will be on Trump and the other Republican leaders. Their actions will be watched and criticized. They will be criticized for things out of their control, just because they are in power. How will they react to the spotlight. Will they be graceful or get angry, defensive, and vindictive?

They have been angry, defensive, and vindictive. People seem not to like that, but it’s hard to say if people’s dislike will translate into electoral consequences. The unique thing, the thing that is hard for me, is we’ve reached a point where if you are shameless, you can clearly get away with a lot, at least for a few years. That’s deeply concerning for any administration, and this is a category that I fear may become a permanent part of our politics.


Overall

Looking back, we are definitely far from the best case that I hoped for. People like to say that the Trump administration was not the cause, it was a symptom. The system has cracks, cracks that can be exploited. Looking forward, I care less about what happens in this election, and more about whether the system gets reformed, or the cracks get exploited in deeper and more cynical ways go forward.

I think I can come off ambiguous sometimes, because I am both pragmatic and optimistic. I know that some of the tactics the Trump administration and it’s supporters have used have resulted in short and long term wins - those tactics will continue to be used until they are fixed or turned into liabilities. Yet I am also optimistic. The midterm elections revealed the GOP where all hat and no cattle when it comes to healthcare reform, and they lost for it. There are areas with an emerging new consensus (universal basic income, universal healthcare coverage), and areas with broad public support that hasn’t been turned into legislation (gun control, marijuana, prescription drug cost reform). Those seem like the basis for new electoral victories or gran bargains that can deliver improvements to the country (it’s people AND economy). Individual industries could lose, but the nation as a whole stands to win from the waste that could be locked from those issues implemented well.

It’s far too early to tell what the future holds, and there are plenty of poor incentives to keep politics locked in the crisis it is in now. But hopefully new ideas, and the new reality we are forced to live in can serve as a positive shock to the system, driving much needed reform and rebuilding of institutions. The post WWII world served the country well for decades and unleashed a generation of prosperity. I hope the post coronavirus consensus can do the same.