The reality television show with Donald J. Trump at its center has completed its second season. From the standpoint of ratings, all that matters in television, this past season was a roaring success. Once again the star commanded the rapt, widespread, and sustained attention of the United States and much of the rest of the world. Once again President Trump’s tweets and off-the-cuff remarks, often issued in pursuit of personal feuds, and the frequently angry responses to them, dominated the news coverage. The cable television channels that are devoted to public affairs, in particular, but also newspapers, magazines, and websites, were divided sharply in their attitudes toward the 45th president but had one fundamental feature in common: all found themselves in the Trump business.
The New York Times captured the President’s impact in a quotation in a news story about the efforts of the American Catholic bishops to cope with the backlash triggered by the scandals involving some of the Church’s priests. Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami said, “We should be grateful that Donald Trump is president because he dominates the news cycle. If he didn’t, we would have a lot more bad press.” Proving the Archbishop’s point, The Times buried the story deep inside its news section, on page A18.
The Trump Presidency, closely related but not identical to the Trump persona as expressed on television and via Twitter, and likely to have a greater and longer-lasting impact on the United States and the world, also completed its second year. That year exhibited some continuities with the previous one, but also brought some changes.
A Republican President
To his major achievements in year one—a tax cut, the easing or removal of regulations governing business, and the appointment of conservative judges to the federal bench, one to the Supreme Court—Trump added, in 2018, more deregulation and more judicial appointments, including of another Supreme Court justice.
These achievements amount to a classic Republican program of governance. Donald Trump captured the Republican presidential nomination as an outsider, at odds with the party’s establishment. In office, however, he has presided over the enactment of an agenda favored by that selfsame establishment. What he did, any Republican president would have done.
For this, the Republican Party embraced him. It had good reason to do so. He delivered what two of its most important constituencies desired. Businesses received tax cuts friendly to them, greater freedom to operate without government restraints, and, at least until the last months of 2018, a booming stock market. Social conservatives welcomed two Supreme Court justices unlikely to support—and perhaps willing actively to oppose—what they have come to see as a judicial attack on their values, beginning with the 1973 decision legalizing abortion, Roe v. Wade.
Because of this record, although Trump is the first president since the origins of modern polling not to reach a 50 percent approval rating during his first two years in office, he did become very popular with Republicans. Roughly nine in 10 believed he was doing a good job in office. His popularity in the ranks of his own party immunized him against against a serious challenge for the Republican presidential nomination in 2020. As things stood at the end of 2018—and like everything else in politics they have the potential to change rapidly—if he chooses to run, the nation will have the opportunity to decide whether to award him a second term as president.
A Weak President
Judged by the attention he commanded Donald Trump was, during the first two years of his presidency, a towering figure. Measured by his actual accomplishments in government, however, he qualifies as a weak president. Those accomplishments were by historical standards modest, and due as much to the Republican Congressional majorities as to the president himself, if not more so. He did not manage to shepherd to fruition the repeal of Obamacare, which he had promised to do during his campaign. Nor did he make appreciable progress in fulfilling another hallmark promise, to build a wall along the Mexican border.
To be sure, presidential achievements, when they require legislation, never come easily. The framers of the American Constitution feared concentrated power above all else and designed the American political system to prevent this, separating powers among three equal branches at the national level and adding a federal system that distributes authority to states and localities. The Constitution intends the president to be weak; but that is what makes a chief executive’s capacity to overcome the Constitutionally-imposed restraints a test of of his or her strength. True, in a sharply partisan political era Trump could not expect Democratic assistance in enacting any program; but he didn’t need it, since Republicans controlled both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
In addition, three particular features of this presidency weakened Donald Trump as president.
His lack of experience in government and his shaky grasp of the issues with which government must deal were handicaps. The presidency is not a test of knowledge—many other qualities contribute to effectiveness in the office—but ignorance is not an asset.
Furthermore, Trump did not enter the presidency accompanied by a group of loyalists adept at working the levers of government and dedicated to doing so for the purpose of carrying out his program. Successful presidents seed the federal departments and agencies with such people, who form the layer of personnel that connects the president and his senior officials with the permanent bureaucracy. Loyalists of this kind make the great, clanging machinery of government work on behalf of the president’s goals.
Finally, the senior officials Trump initially appointed often did not share his policy preferences and resisted implementing them. By the end of 2018 many of these officials—National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Economic Council Chairman Gary Cohn, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis—had left or were about to leave the Trump Administration. In politics and government personnel is policy, and these changes in personnel increased the chances that in 2019, for better or for worse, the policies of the federal government will reflect the wishes of the President.
In 2017 and 2018, however, the Trump Administration often functioned like a car whose steering wheel is unconnected to its chassis. It had difficulty, to choose a different vehicular metaphor, in steering the ship of state where the captain wanted it to go.
To the patterns of Republican orthodoxy and a weak presidency the year 2018 brought a major exception: the Trump trade policy, which included a threat to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement (it was ultimately renegotiated) and the imposition of tariffs on products from Europe, Japan, and particularly China. These measures counted as both a major departure from the historic preferences of the Republican Party (they received a warmer welcome from Democratic legislators) and a major change in an important area of American public policy. Three things made them possible.
First, the President has the legal authority to act unilaterally on trade when the national security is threatened. Trade with Europe, Japan, Canada and Mexico posed no such threat, but Trump exploited the provision for his own purposes. Second, trade is one issue about which the 45th president seems genuinely to care. He has complained about the international commercial disadvantages that he believes burden the United States for three decades. Third, he appointed as United States Trade Representative the Washington lawyer Robert Lighthizer, who had worked on trade issues in and out of government for the better part of four decades and who, unlike many Trump officials without Washington experience, knew how to get what he wanted.
By shielding selected American industries from foreign competition through tariffs, Trump was, in a sense, reviving an old American tradition. From the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the New Deal the United States practiced a trade policy of protection, putting up barriers to imported goods. Yet Trump acted, in 2018, not simply as a protectionist. He professed a broader goal than merely helping particular firms and industries. He made it clear that he regarded the country’s deficit in trade as harmful and that he was seeking to reverse it. This made him a mercantilist.
Mercantilism governed the foreign policies of the major European powers between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Its chief aim was to achieve a trade surplus, and for logical, indeed compelling reasons. The medium of exchange for trade in that era was gold and other precious metals, which the monarchs of Europe used to recruit armies to fight on their behalf. The larger the supply of these metals in their possession, the larger would be the armies they could employ and the better able they would be to conquer more territory and fend off their rivals.
In the world of the twenty-first century, however, with its nationalism, military conscription, and industrial and high-tech warfare, the trade balance has nothing to do with national strength. Nor does a mercantilist policy hold the key to national economic well-being, a point at the center of Adam Smith’s classic work The Wealth of Nations. That book, widely regarded as the founding text of modern economics, appeared in 1776, which means that the definitive refutation of the 45th president’s main economic idea is almost 250 years old.
All apart from the fundamental soundness, or lack of it, of the Trump approach to international commerce, his trade policy is likely to prove disappointing. It is unlikely to bring much in the way of benefits to an important constituency on behalf of which it is ostensibly being implemented: blue collar workers. During his campaign Trump traveled to western Pennsylvania and declared that he would revive the steel industry there. The disappearance of well-paying jobs, in steel and other industries, does owe something to the expansion, over the last three decades, of American trade with lower-wage countries such as China. Virtually all studies show, however, that technological change contributes more to job loss than does trade. Donald Trump could not hold back the march of technology if he tried; nor could any president. Moreover, blue-collar workers are also consumers. Tariffs raise prices for them, along with everyone else, thereby reducing their standard of living.
Nor will the Trump tariffs substantially reduce the American trade deficit, which is largely determined by other economic forces. Even as he was erecting his trade barriers, the nation’s overall trade deficit was widening.
One of the countries on whose products the president has imposed tariffs—China—is indeed guilty of economic misconduct; and Trump’s willingness to confront the People’s Republic has the potential to bring economic benefits not only to the United States but to many other countries as well. Unfortunately, he has taken aim at the wrong target and employed the wrong tactics. China’s trade surplus with the United States is among the least of its economic sins, if it counts as a sin at all. More egregious, and costly, violations of global economic rules are its restrictions on foreign investment, its subsidies to favored industries, and its theft of intellectual property. To their credit, Trump trade officials do recognize the importance of these practices and are trying to use the tariffs to change them. To achieve this goal, however, requires the kind of leverage that only a broad coalition of like-minded countries demanding them can wield. Far from building such a coalition, Trump has offended and alienated its potential members by imposing, or threatening to impose, tariffs on them. This is not a winning strategy.
Errors of Omission
Donald Trump’s many critics believe that he has done serious damage to the United States, chiefly by violating the norms of conduct that have grown up around the presidency and that more broadly have come to govern American public life. The President has certainly not unfailingly behaved in a dignified, well-mannered fashion. He is hardly alone in this regard, however, as was evident in the ugly Democratic campaign against Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Nor has the conduct of public life in the United States always proceeded decorously. The Trump era, whatever its shortcomings, has not, for example, produced the kind of violence in the chambers of the Congress that occurred prior to the Civil War.
Trump’s critics have gone farther and accused him of subscribing to, embodying, and encouraging two of the most toxic political ideas of the modern era: racism and fascism. These accusations are inaccurate.
Anyone who believes that Donald Trump is a racist either has forgotten or, happily for him or her, never knew what real racism looks like. Real racism—systematic discrimination and serious oppression on the basis of race—was an all-too-prominent feature of American life through the first half of the twentieth century but since then has become, fortunately, dramatically weaker and not at all respectable. Donald Trump is, at his worst, a barstool loudmouth. America’s genuinely racist presidents—and there have been a number—would never have dreamed of appointing an African-American such as Ben Carson, Trump’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to their cabinets. A boor he may be, but Trump is no more inclined to try to restore legal segregation, let alone chattel slavery, than he is to climb to the roof of the White House, flap his arms, and fly to the moon; and he would have no better chance of succeeding if he tried.
As for the second charge, if Donald Trump aspires to be a fascist he is going about it in an odd way, for he has neglected to recruit a paramilitary force that operates outside the law on his behalf to visit violence on his political adversaries. The chant directed at Hillary Clinton that still punctuates his political rallies—“lock her up”—may be unedifying, but under a genuinely fascist regime she and others like her would long since have suffered far worse fates.
Instead, such harm as Trump will inflict on the country that freely and democratically chose him to be its president is likely to come not from what he does but rather from what he fails to do. The most costly such failure would come in a military or financial crisis that the Trump Administration mishandled through inexperience, incompetence, or both. Even if the country is spared such an event, the United States has an agenda of problems and unmet needs to which this president is not attending. It includes a social safety net that needs revision to take account of fiscal and demographic changes, a slower-than-desirable shift away from reliance on fossil fuels, and an ever-increasing national debt.
Beyond America’s borders, the nation’s major challenges include three aggressive foreign powers seeking dominance in their respective regions and ready to use force to achieve it: Russia in Europe, China in East Asia, and Iran in the Middle East. While Trump has displayed an affection for Vladimir Putin that does not, to say the least, advance the American national interest, in dealing with the other two disturbers of the peace he has made some improvements on the policies of his predecessor. He has been willing, as Obama was loath to do, explicitly to call China a rival, which is how the Chinese government sees the United States. He has withdrawn from the Obama-negotiated Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, which had dismal long-term prospects for preventing the disaster of Iranian nuclear weapons.
Each of these challenges, domestic and international, will become more serious over time. None will be simple or easy to meet. None is susceptible to solution in a single presidency, and Trump’s predecessors did not compile sterling records in dealing with them. Nor does the responsibility for coping with them fall entirely on the federal government, or indeed on government at any level, or even, for some of them, on the United States alone. Still, Washington does have an important role to play in each, and for such a role, in the twenty-first century, there is no substitute for presidential leadership.
The Next Year
In the 2018 midterm elections the President and his party suffered a setback, from which a lesson for him about the next two years emerges. The Republicans fared poorly in the nation’s suburbs, the voters in which have a major and often decisive influence in presidential contests. Suburbanites, especially women, were, it appears, put off by Mr. Trump’s public manner and either stayed home on Election Day or voted for Democratic candidates. For that reason the President would be well advised, in 2019, to moderate his deportment, tone down his belligerency, and adhere more closely to the familiar norms of presidential conduct.
That is advice that, in the weeks following the midterms, Mr. Trump showed no sign of taking. He displayed more interest in rousing the enthusiasm of the supporters who populate his rallies than in trying to ingratiate himself with Americans who wouldn’t dream of attending them but who might consider voting for him in 2020.
As for the Democrats, the same lesson applies to them. Candidates who were politically conservative by the Democratic Party’s standards won Republican-held seats in the House of Representatives, which gave the Democrats control of that body. That result argues for the wisdom of a sober, programmatic approach to the next two years rather than an all-out assault on Donald Trump.
Like the President, however, the Democrats appear unlikely to act on that lesson. If the voters prefer to elect a president located somewhere near the middle of the American political spectrum, the energy of the Democratic Party resides on its left wing; and in pursuit of its 2020 presidential nomination the aspirants to that prize will court these activists, not the swing voters who ultimately decide general elections. The subpoena power that comes with control of the House of Representatives, as well, perhaps—depending on its contents—as the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the association, if any, between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia, will likely encourage, on the part of Congressional Democrats as well as the Republican president, the escalating, mutually reinforcing and overheated tweets, feuds, and accusations of 2017 and 2018. The Donald Trump reality show seems set to run for at least another year. If it does, during the next twelve months American politics will give new meaning to the term “race to the bottom.”