Reasonable conservatives who took a dim view of Trump in the 2016 campaign have recently been reassessing the president’s record, and they’ve given it high marks. From societal and economic deregulation, to a cascade of judicial appointments, to restoring American leadership abroad; there is plenty for a conservative Republican voter to be thankful for in 2017. Conservatives who have determined that Trump’s achievements outweigh the sacrifices associated with his presidency, however, have adorned themselves with blinders.
Maybe it is because over 90 percent of mainstream reporting on the Trump administration is negative? Maybe it’s because even conservative media are more animated by the alleged anti-Trump conspiracies from within the government than his administration’s accomplishments? Whatever the reason, a plague of overcompensation has descended on the conservative media landscape. The verdict on this presidency is still out, but that doesn’t mean we cannot take stock of the drawbacks of the Trump era along with the achievements. They’re myriad.
When Trump won the presidency, conventional conservatives had every reason to believe their ideology could be transformed from a small government ethos into a movement that favored a ruthless Leviathan, so long as it was their Leviathan. People like former House Speaker John Boehner lent credence to this notion when he cast aspersions on the virtue of ideology itself and praised Trump’s debt-financed $1 trillion simulative infrastructure proposal because it would be “popular.”
Trump justified a national “Big Dig” by invoking the classic Keynesian idea that you have to “prime the pump” (e.g. inject liquidity into the market to get capital flowing again) in a time of economic crisis. But there was no crisis. GDP growth for 2017 will hover around 3 percent, just as it did in 2015. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ unemployment rate has remained under 5 percent for nearly two years. Amid a burst of speculative enthusiasm for Republican governance, the stock market reaches new plateaus on a near-daily basis. Still, the idea that we are economically in dire condition remains key to Trump’s posture, especially since the argument has it that the crisis is taking place in rural white areas the elites don’t know, don’t care about, or actively seek to harm. Altogether, in response to this, conservative opinion makers have become anxious creatures who appear to fear the very government their allies control.
Donald Trump’s habit of introducing stray voltage into the national political dialogue has only intensified the right’s paranoia. Trump has spent decades leading the right into distracting culture wars in which the stakes are virtually non-existent. In 2017 alone, the issues that burned white hot for a time now seem like utter wastes of energy. From making flag burning illegal, to ferreting out the millions of illegal immigrants voting in American elections, to comparing crowd sizes on the National Mall, to taking on the menace of kneeling football players; conservatives are constantly on edge in the Trump era. They are consumed with the notion that their prohibitive political dominance is illusory because the culture is arrayed against them.
This isn’t a harmless distraction. The controversy involving the “unmasking” of Trump campaign officials by Democratic political operatives in the Obama White House is still a live issue. Similarly, the revelation that Justice Department agents were surveilling Trump campaign officials in 2016 has legitimately unnerving implications. Anyone interested in good government should want to see these issues litigated dispassionately by America’s elected representatives. But they cannot be, not so long as Donald Trump has a mobile phone with a Twitter app and an addiction to self-destruction. It was Trump’s reckless tweets about “wire-tapping” at Trump Tower and Rep. Devin Nunes’s sloppy efforts to confirm the validity of that tweet that resulted in his joining Jeff Sessions in recusal. It was Trump’s baseless tweet about the existence of “tapes” of James Comey’s interactions that resulted in Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe. And now, Republicans who once threatened to block Trump from making a move against his own Justice Department legislatively appear to be laying the groundwork for Robert Mueller’s dismissal—an eventuality that would likely spark overwhelming calls for impeachment proceedings.
The damage done by Trump’s big mouth is not limited to Twitter. His habit of giving aid and comfort to the worst elements of American society is contributing to the odor about the GOP. Trump made Steve Bannon, the proprietor of a blog Bannon dubbed “the platform for the alt right,” his chief strategist. He preemptively pardoned Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who faced penalties for defying court orders. Trump endorsed Roy Moore in Alabama, who was also guilty of contempt for the law and bigotry. He spent a week publicly wrestling over just how forcefully to condemn the white supremacists who took to the streets in Virginia in August, one of whom killed a young woman. These actions undermine the GOP’s brand on race, which Republicans have spent years trying to repair. They render Republican legislative initiatives, like the reformation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and ending positive racial discrimination on college campuses, racially suspect and close persuadable minds to the GOP’s case.
As for the Republican agenda, the notion that the GOP deserves more than qualified praise for finally getting around to one major legislative initiative in the final week of 2017 is a form of what George W. Bush called the soft bigotry of low expectations. But congressional Republicans aren’t entirely to blame. Trump’s presidency began with a slapdash executive order banning travel from some Muslim-majority nations into the U.S., which could not survive court scrutiny. That, and the several flawed iterations of this order that followed, poisoned the well in Congress. There would be no bipartisan cooperation with Democrats on any agenda item (after all, Trump had catalyzed the creation of a new Democratic coalition in the streets).
The original failure of the GOP’s ObamaCare replacement bill was attributable to many conditions, but one of them has to be the fact that Republicans no longer know what Republicans believe on health care. After arguing for years for the full repeal and replacement of the law, the party elected a president who endorsed universal coverage the individual mandate. Republicans took another swing at the piñata over the summer, only for Trump to declare the effort “mean,” devoid of “heart,” and in desperate need of “more money.” The failure to pass a health-care bill and save real money shortchanged the tax-reform process by $300 billion. Congress therefore had to settle on tinkering with individual rates, saving the real transformative reforms for the corporate tax schedule. That’s no small feat, but it’s not the feat Republicans initially had in mind. In the process, they will repeal the individual mandate—the most unpopular provision in ObamaCare. But they will get no credit for it. That initiative is buried in an unpopular bill that no one seems to have any interest in selling. And the backlash against the GOP’s tactics is building.
The Alabama special election demonstrated that Trump is no longer in control of his brand. His voters know Trumpism when they see it; prickly, provocative, and offensive to all the right people. This has made the GOP’s primary process a runaway train in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, Democrats are wildly over performing in both special and general elections. The GOP House majority is in serious jeopardy. The Senate may now be, too. And if even one chamber falls to the Democrats, as Obama learned in 2010, the legislative phase of the Trump presidency will be over. Or will it? If Donald Trump is as anti-ideological as Boehner suggested and his chief concern is securing “wins,” no matter the form they take, what is to prevent Trump from signing compromise or even Democratic legislation? And if that is the course he takes, his supporters on the right will surely follow him, thus transforming the GOP’s voters into cheerleaders for liberal policy priorities.
Surely, the Trump presidency has more to recommend it for conservatives than a Hillary Clinton presidency would have. But arguing that Trump is better than Clinton is a hurdle that any Republican could clear. It does conservatives no favors when they do not take the Trump presidency as a whole, the good and the bad. The good has been done and done well. It’s time for conservatives to reckon with the other side of the coin.