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Sizing up Trump’s presidency

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Trump’s supporters are people with grievances who want a disruptor, and that’s what we got when they elected him. His presidency is all about upending the way things were done. That’s not a good thing, because there were good reasons for doing things that way, before he started breaking the china.

Donald Trump, as a person, can be summed up in four words: Bad character, evil behavior. He’s unethical, dishonest, a bully, a liar and cheater, a deadbeat, an adulterer, a racist and bigot, a draft dodger, the list of personal failings goes on and on. But many voters seem not to care about that as long as they get what they want from him. (For evangelical voters, that’s anti-abortion judges.)

Of course, opinions of Trump are all over the map, and depend on the partisan biases of those expressing them. For what it’s worth, here’s what I think of Trump’s presidency:

He’s right about two major issues, but went about them the wrong way.

(1) I agree with stepping back from China. They’re ruled by a dictatorship with a bad human rights record and support North Korea’s odious regime. They steal technology from us, much of it having military applications. They sell us shoddy goods, and use the profits to build up military forces designed to threaten us. Their aggressive posturing in the South China Sea, enabled by that military buildup, eventually could lead to war. Chinese students attend our colleges to acquire knowledge that will be used against us. We should maintain diplomatic relations with China and try to negotiate peaceful solutions, and we can still trade with them, but we shouldn’t fling our doors wide open to them. In view of China’s intent to challenge the United States, we should greatly scale back what we allow them to get from us. Trump isn’t wrong to question our past leniency with China, although it should noted that our defense “pivot” to the Far East was begun under Obama, but Trump simply wants better trade deals and is willing to overlook their behavioral excesses. This fall shorts of what our side needs to do.

(2) Our immigration laws are broken, but the law’s the law. If you believe in the rule of law, illegals don’t have a right to be here, period. This point isn’t debatable, no matter how sympathetic you are (they work hard, have families, serve in our military, etc.). Mass illegal immigration was tolerated not only because of the practical difficulties in keeping them out and deporting the millions already here, but also because our economy needs their labor. This need will only increase; America’s future economic growth will depend on a labor supply that our own population can’t supply. (America’s birth rate has fallen below replacement rate, i.e., without immigration our population will shrink.) Ultimately, we need to reform our immigration laws to better serve our interests by creating legal entry pathways for these needed workers and their families, and paths to citizenship for those who earn it. Trump has failed to do this.

Deporting illegals isn’t wrong in principle, because it upholds the law, and puts us back in charge of who’s in our country. In fact, the Obama administration stepped up deportations compared to previous administrations, and the number of illegals in the country was already falling before Trump came to office (from ~11 million to ~9 million); also, a tough economy in the U.S. slowed immigration during the Great Recession. But Trump’s approach has been unprincipled, unintelligent, and uncivilized. He makes no distinction between good and bad immigration, his treatment of detained immigrants is atrocious, and he is motivated by racism. Morally, it’s better to have no immigration enforcement than his kind. Practically, his treatment of immigrants destroys our government’s credibility when it complains to other governments about their human rights abuses; he makes it easy for them to say, “You do it, too.”

The border wall is an expensive white elephant. It’s a Maginot Line. Border-jumpers will find ways over, under, through, and around it. Law enforcement sources say most drug smuggling occurs at ports of entry, not through the deserts and borderlands. It’s not money well spent. A much bigger issue is Trump’s misappropriation of money Congress approved for other purposes, such as military family housing, to fund the wall after Congress refused to. Congress, not the President, has the spending and appropriation power; and several judges have ruled against this misuse of taxpayer funds. The fact the Democrats won’t give him the border wall money he wants does not give him the right or power to take it from other programs. At the basic level, this is nothing more than Trump throwing a childish temper tantrum over Democratic obstruction of his pet project; but in constitutional terms, this is a severe violation of checks and balances and makes him a rogue president. We all have a vested interest in preserving the constitutional structure of our government, even when we don’t get what we want, because someday the shoe will be on the other foot. The right of Congress to say “no” to a president’s demands is one of our system’s basic bulwarks against one-man rule.

He doesn’t understand how to govern.

In general, businessmen aren’t qualified to run government. They’re different skill sets. Running a business and governing have little in common. That’s why universities split their business and public management studies into separate departments with different faculties, courses, and degrees. A CEO’s job is to sell products and services, streamline operations, and maximize profits. In a democracy, objectives of governing include encouraging citizen participation and mediating differences between society’s competing interests and constituencies through negotiation and compromise. That’s a slow and inefficient way to get things done, but essential to our democratic values. In addition, government does things businesses don’t do, such as legislating and resolving disputes, and people from a business background usually don’t know how to do those things. Government also assumes responsibility for providing services that private businesses can’t provide, either because they’re unprofitable or require vast resources, often does it in circumstances where cost savings are not a significant objective. Paying the development costs for a Covid-19 vaccine, and distributing it free so everyone can get it, is an example of this. Nor should government services be expected to pay for themselves; they should be judged on their effectiveness and reliability (e.g., is the mail delivered? do the 911 medics show up in time to save your life?). We should elect people who have the skills to manage for these objectives.

We shouldn’t want government to be “run like a business.” Being thrifty can be counterproductive. If a city council appropriates $100,000 to provide winter shelters for 100 homeless people, and only $50,000 is spent to shelter 50 people, the program manager hasn’t done his job because 50 homeless people were left out in the cold. In government, you decide on objectives, determine how much it will cost to achieve them, and then spend the budgeted money to achieve the program’s goals (x meals served, y hospital beds provided, etc.). The goal is not to save money or return unspent funds to the municipal treasury; it’s to satisfy those identified needs in the community.

Trump understands none of this, and his administration’s accomplishments to date reflect this. He has weakened, not strengthened, such core federal functions as intelligence gathering, strengthening our alliances and facing down our adversaries, law enforcement, and protecting public health and well-being. But if you insist on judging him on the basis of “running government like a business,” he hasn’t done that, either. The federal government is not less expensive, or more streamlined, efficient, or productive under his tutelage.

I come now to the question of his management style. Governing requires a different approach from running a business. As owner and CEO of a private business empire, Trump was accustomed to issuing orders and expecting unquestioning obedience; and if his employees didn’t do what he wanted, the way he wanted it done, he could let them go. He doesn’t know how to manage any other way. That’s a problem, because you can’t govern that way. In our system of government, the authority a CEO has in a private company is shared with Congress and the judiciary, and decision-making power is distributed among hundreds of elected officials. No one person is, or should be, all-powerful. This is by design. It is a pillar of our freedom. A president presides, not rules. His insistence of getting his way at all times creates dysfunction, not effective governing.

He’s also having great difficulty adapting to presiding over the vast federal bureaucracy instead of a personally loyal and much smaller company workforce. The employees who staff public agencies owe their loyalty to us, not him. They must follow laws, regulations, and agency operating manuals. Trump doesn’t understand this, either. He has fired good public servants for bad reasons, gutted key federal agencies of experienced employees, and interfered in agency-level decisions, most notably at the Department of Justice where his politically-motivated demands displaced the professional judgments of career prosecutors (many of whom have quit in protest). This is causing damage to federal functioning that will be difficult to repair even after he leaves. Many of those people will not come back to government service, and it will take years to recruit and train replacements, and regain the experience that was lost.

Trump, cued by his supporters (many of whom readily believe absurd conspiracy theories), believes there’s a “deep state” determined to thwart him and out to get him. “Deep state” refers to the government bureaucracy. All presidents are frustrated at times by what they feel is an unresponsive bureaucracy; FDR famously likened it to a “featherbed” that, no matter how much he punched it, wound up in the same shape as before. But the bureaucracy contains the know-how that makes government work. It’s the training, experience, and dedication to “following the manual” that results in rule of law, instead of rule of whim. The IRS employee who reviews your tax return is trained in her job and knows how to do it; you don’t want someone in that job who doesn’t know the rules and dings you for tax assessments you don’t owe. You don’t want incompetent FDA employees approving bad drugs for your consumption; that’s a job for expert scientists. In the State Department, the Defense Department, the CIA and NSA, and all the other agencies, we’ve invested huge resources in developing expert knowledge of the subjects for which they’re responsible, so these agencies are on top of things and can help policymakers make the right decisions. It’s important that we have accurate information about what Iran and North Korea are doing in their nuclear programs; that we have people who can tell the difference between a satellite launch and an ICBM launch; that we can evaluate the efficacy and safety of new drugs. This is the “deep state” that Trump and his supporters want to dismantle. At the risk of repeating myself, driving career public servants out of government is counterproductive and everything from our defense and foreign policy to food and drug safety will suffer because of Trump’s mindless and stupid attacks on the “deep state.”

As a political leader, Trump engages in three toxic behaviors: He lies, vilifies and demonizes opponents, and doesn’t play by the rules. Add a fourth: his rhetoric encourages violence against political opponents (and anyone else he doesn’t like, including journalists). Recall that his 2016 campaign slogan was “Lock her up!”, i.e., jail his opponent (who, unlike many of Trump’s close political associates, hasn’t been found guilty of any crime). He has other egregious failings, too, flowing from his character weaknesses: He refuses to accept responsibility for his actions, he’s ill-informed and rejects expertise (resulting in poor decisions), is thin-skinned and quick to anger, and seeks to avenge disagreement or criticism, an ugly misuse of the powers entrusted to him.

In political contests there are winners and losers, and elections have consequences; but in a democracy, it should never be all-or-nothing, and there should be accommodation and compromise. Politics has been described as “who gets how much of what.” When the system works, everyone gets some of what they want, and no one gets all of what they want. But Trump is president of his base, not the country, and consciously governs that way. Ignoring the majority of our people isn’t successful governing.

A major part of the president’s job is uniting the country and healing its divisions. That’s what holds together the “United” states of America, and this unity enables us to be a superpower, which is what keeps us safe in this dangerous world. For that reason, maintaining this national unity must take precedence over our internal differences. Trump exacerbates and widens these differences, instead of bridging them.

Civility in our politics had been deteriorating before Trump, but he has taken incivility to new lows. Most Americans are tired of the extreme partisanship and rancorous political discourse now dominating our national life, and want things to go in a different direction. They haven’t gotten that from Trump, and won’t if he’s re-elected. This likely is a factor in his unpopularity, consistently low approval ratings, and sagging polls as the election approaches. But Trump is Trump, and don’t expect him to change, especially given that he believes his calculated incivility is a key part of his appeal to his supporters. But in the larger society, it’s divisive and unhealthy.

Rule of law.

“The rule of law is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as: ‘The authority and influence of law in society, especially when viewed as a constraint on individual and institutional behavior; (hence) the principle whereby all members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes.’ (Quoted from Wikipedia,) I find this a somewhat awkward and cumbersome description of the concept. “Rule of law” also has been described as “government of laws, not of men.” Some people may find that vague and confusing. Rule of law simply means that rules, not arbitrary decisions of individuals, govern us. To illustrate, if you appeal a traffic ticket, the judge decides the case by applying the traffic laws to the facts of your case, not based on whether he likes the police officer. That’s what rule of law is.

America is a nation based on rule of law. The law is found in federal and state constitutions, statutes, regulations, and court decisions. We devote substantial resources to creating, changing, interpreting, and enforcing laws. Our entire system is based on the premise that the law as interpreted by the courts will be followed by everyone concerned. Generally it is, and that’s why we have the property and personal rights we take for granted. This doesn’t exist in dictatorships.

Many people, especially liberals, feel that rule of law is in jeopardy under Trump. He has stoked these fears by mocking judges, threatening to have people shot, encouraging police to rough up people, ordering Border Patrol agents to ignore court orders, and other actions. He famously claimed he could shoot someone and get away with it. And then there’s the infamous photo-op assault on peaceful demonstrators exercising their constitutional rights, which smacks of a dictatorship and police state. CNN says, “Since his early days in office, Trump has scorned legal norms …. He publicly encourages prosecutors to reward his friends and punish his enemies,” which is exceedingly dangerous, and reeks of persecution. “Over the years, he has proclaimed people guilty or not guilty before trial,” which violates their due process rights. “What makes Trump’s [behavior] different from that of past presidents is the way it fundamentally attacks the rule of law.” For a representative liberal commentary on this, see this article. If you want a conservative point of view, there’s Fox and their talk show hosts.

Trump’s animosity toward the rule of law is aggravated by his lack of any sense of fairness. He continued to assert the “Central Park Five” were guilty and call for punishing them even after they were officially exonerated and it was clear (from a confession and DNA evidence) that someone else committed the crime. Trump isn’t interested in justice or fair play. To him, the only thing that matters is getting his way. Where does this come from? Probably from having spent his life with total control over those around him and never having anyone (since his father’s death) in a position to challenge him. He’s not had to accommodate anyone, and doesn’t know how. He lacks a simple skill most children learn early: Doing as he’s told. Even presidents get told what they can and can’t do, by advisers, lawyers, congressmen and senators, military leaders, etc. We don’t care what he does in his private life, but unless we’re prepared to live under dictatorship, that’s no way to run our country.

A fundamental danger lurking in Trump’s psychological makeup is that he doesn’t seem to have any boundaries. Stating this another way, there’s no line he won’t cross, or at least none are visible. He has demonstrated this repeatedly, so we must ask ourselves: if he recognizes few constraints now, what will he be like when he won’t have to face voters again?

His economic policies are smoke and mirrors.

First of all, Trump’s claims that Obama managed the economy badly aren’t true. When the Great Recession hit, government leaders (starting with Bush, and continuing under Obama) mostly did the right things, and another Great Depression was averted. It could’ve been much worse, and we should be grateful it wasn’t. Obama deserves a share of the credit for that, although the credit doesn’t belong to him alone. The recovery was slow, which became a big factor in Trump’s 2016 win, and long-term growth remains sluggish (even under Trump), but this is due to structural factors in the economy beyond any President’s or administration’s control (e.g. demographics and slower productivity growth).

In any case, Presidents can’t manage the economy. Their policies may have some influence, but they have little control. The proof of this is no President wants a recession on his watch, but recessions happen anyway. At least two other factors emanating from government — Congressional fiscal policies and Federal Reserve monetary policies — also exert influence on the economy, and the President doesn’t control those. But Congress and the Fed can’t control the economy or prevent recessions, either.

However, there are a few things a President can do to temporarily “goose” the economy, and Trump is doing them — tax cuts, deficit spending, etc. Many economists argue this merely pulls future growth forward, which implies slower growth later. For example, if you use a tax rebate to buy a new car now, you won’t buy that car next year. There is little evidence that Trump found a silver bullet overlooked by his predecessor which sped up real growth; before Covid-19, the U.S. growth rate was oozing back down from the tax-cut sugar high to the post-2009 trendline growth rate of about 2% annually. This isn’t surprising, given that the structural factors mentioned above haven’t changed.

Trump got elected by promising a better economy, so there’s no logical reason to re-elect him on that basis, if his economic policies are only gimmicks that pad the present at the expense of the future, which is what they are. The economy isn’t better, its ups and downs are merely timed a bit differently. But there’s no denying that even an illusion of greater prosperity is enough to sway many voters. Of course, all presidents play this game; political watchers expect a bump in fiscal spending in election years, and it’s fairly standard practice for newly elected presidents to jigger policies so they’ll eat the inevitable recession in their first year or two in office, as Reagan did, so the economy will be booming again by the time they run for re-election. Trump did things differently, pursuing stimulus policies right out of the gate, and the economy was already slowing going into the 2020 election year because — one surmises — he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Then coronavirus tanked the economy, almost as if God doesn’t want him to be re-elected (but I’m not saying that). Trump can’t be blamed for that, but he will be blamed for that, as is clearly evident in his dropping poll ratings.

Crises and bad luck.

Presidents go into office with plans. Trump was no different in this respect. Then events disrupt their plans, and they have to deal with something they never expected to face. For Jimmy Carter, it was the hostage crisis; for George W. Bush, it was the 9/11 attacks. Trump isn’t different in this respect, either; he got clobbered with the worst pandemic since the 1918 Spanish flu.

Despite hints of such a possibility from the 2009 swine flu pandemic, the HIV/AIDs epidemic, and the Ebola scare, and the fact many experts believed something like this eventually would happen, perhaps no president would have seen Covid-19 coming. Now it’s here, and we’re forced to deal with it. This pandemic, in the words of an epidemiology expert quoted by Barrons magazine several weeks ago, is “the big one.” (Although we’d better not forget there may be even bigger ones over the horizon.)

Trump didn’t create this problem, but we judge presidents by how they deal with problems that land on their desk, and they get the hardest ones. That’s what the job is. The easy ones are handled at a lower level. Covid-19 is the big crisis of his presidency, and his place in history will be determined by how he handled it.

What matters to us in the here and now is no longer that Covid-19 happened, but how Trump responded when it became a crisis. He was slow to see a threat, and when he did, he perceived it as a threat to his re-election, which led him to try to silence the medical experts, push for reopening the economy too soon, and search for scapegoats (e.g., China). The virus wasn’t contained, his administration didn’t deliver badly needed medical supplies, or come up with testing and contact tracing to stop its spread, and he didn’t even offer sympathy for its victims. He didn’t save the economy. He deserves credit for supporting an economic bailout package and committing government resources to facilitate rapid development of vaccines, so it’s somewhat of a mixed bag, but in the bigger picture the negatives far outweigh the positives. How much suffering, how many deaths, could have been avoided with better presidential leadership is hard to say. But, in any case, what matters now is where we go from here, and the signs aren’t encouraging. Trump promises more of the same — shunting experts off stage, dodging responsibility and shifting blame, and dumping the problem on governors. Meanwhile, he’s trying to push kids into schools, and teachers are quitting their jobs because they feel their classrooms are unsafe. What’s needed is national coordination and leadership to deal with a problem nationwide in scope, and too big for any state or local government to manage on its own, but we’re unlikely to get that while he’s president.

There’s a saying that “you don’t change horses in midstream.” But there’s no compelling reason not to change leaders at this stage of the crisis. While a vaccine may be near and the economy on the mend by January, the Covid-19 pandemic almost certainly won’t be over by then, and it will take years to return to normal. Unemployment is expected to be 10% in December, and likely will remain high for a long time, because many businesses won’t survive. Businesses, individuals, and the economy will continue to need government support. The nation’s battered morale needs calming and steady leadership. Americans are a tough and resilient people who will get through this, but they could use a father figure to help them persevere through the tough times still to come. Trump is not that. This may read like a pitch for electing Biden, but I write it as an assessment of Trump’s crisis leadership, which like the rest of his leadership has been deficient and given us poor results.

Summary

Historians will judge Trump’s presidency better than I can. In my view, what he started with China and immigration shouldn’t be reversed but needs to be done better, by someone else. His divisive governing style will leave wounds in our society that will take a long time to heal. I think undermining the rule of law is the most dangerous of his many pathological behaviors, and the most compelling reason to replace him. A calm leader, and one people can trust, is just what America needs for the next few years. We’ve had a good thing going in this country — our freedoms, our prosperity — but it’s fragile and we could lose it, if we’re not careful. Trump doesn’t respect our democratic values, our laws, or the 60% of Americans who aren’t his political base and supporters. Those are huge red flags. He frightens many people. This necessitates taking the vast powers of this office away from him. This has nothing to do with agreeing or disagreeing with his ideology or policies; it’s about his lack of character, his belligerent behavior, and his authoritarian impulses. If we want to keep our democracy, we can’t give unlimited power to anyone, least of all someone like Trump. My personal assessment of his presidency is that he never should have been president, and electing him was a huge mistake.


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