The incipient passage of the shockingly unpopular Republican tax bill has brought with it a wave of calls for a reassessment of President Donald Trump’s first year in office, with commentators breathlessly crediting the president with a laundry list of conservative accomplishments.
Some of these are overstated -- as Bloomberg View’s Jonathan Bernstein points out, the growing economy and the deteriorating of the Islamic State are largely the result of Trump “not messing things up” after inheriting a winning hand from President Obama, while Trump’s success in slashing regulation and installing conservative judges are par for the course for any president from his party. But yes, Republicans have unified control of government and are reshaping federal policy in line with the party’s priorities, which largely involve a smash-and-grab effort at enriching their donor class at the expense of the public while terrorizing vulnerable populations.
The demands for a reappraisal of the Trump presidency, however, seem curiously uninterested in how these “victories” will actually affect people, playing into Trump’s own stated desire for ill-defined “winning” at all costs.
Instead, for instance, you have the analysis of Beltway insiders like Axios’ Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, whose look at the president’s 2017 is headlined “Trump triumphant: a consequential, lasting end to 2017.” “You might not like his words or actions,” they write, “but measured in terms of what Republican voters want and expected, he's winning on important fronts.” The pair scoff that other journalists -- not, apparently, savvy ones like them -- often judge “presidencies and politics through liberal-tinted glasses,” and are missing out on the real story -- that Trump has delivered “wins” to his base.
What do those “wins” mean to actual human beings? Well, Allen and VandeHei acknowledge, there will be “consequences for millions of people and many years to come.” That might even include a political downside for the GOP if the tax bill results in people losing access to health insurance (it will) or if the benefits largely go to the wealthy (they do) or if this will result in “deficits threatening growth and stability” (which is implausible, but conservatives have snookered political journalists for years with baseless deficit fears, so it’s not surprising this got included alongside actual concerns).
Then there are the conservative columnists who largely support Trump, who are using the president’s record as a cudgel on their anti-Trump brethren. “If in, say, 2014, a Republican, of either the conservative or moderate variety, predicted that in 2017 a newly-elected GOP president and Congress would” have these accomplishments, Byron York writes in an example typical of this genre of commentary, “then a lot of Republicans would probably have cheered. Loudly.” While these pieces acknowledge the president has overseen what York calls “hair-on-fire, Twitter-fueled controversies,” the clear undercurrent is that Republicans who aren’t cheering now -- who remain harsh critics of the president -- are making a big mistake.
This strikes me as missing the point. Some conservatives criticized Trump from the right, on the grounds that he was a former Democrat and could not be counted upon to adopt boilerplate right-wing positions as president, and those critics have likely been won over by Trump’s robust adherence to party dogma. But the siren song of GOP policy wins does little to assuage two major concerns of anti-Trump Republicans: That Trump’s erratic behavior and proud ignorance coupled with the power of the presidency courted unprecedented disaster on the world stage, and that Trump’s corruption, bigotry, and manner made him manifestly unfit for office and would damage the national culture and poison the Republican Party. Conservatives who continued to oppose Trump after he won the Republican presidential nomination largely did so because they thought that those concerns outweighed the possible policy victories a Trump administration could bring. Conservatives who have supported him -- including Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell -- were willing to make a Faustian bargain, trading the risk of possible catastrophe for the likelihood of achieving their long-held political goals.
Eleven months into Trump’s tenure as president, there’s little reason to feel reassured by his behavior. Throughout the year, we have seen a wrathful and proudly ignorant president, one who grasps at conspiracy theories, spends his days watching cable news and ranting at the unflattering depictions he sees, and stumbles into international crises. At times, it seems that one bad cable news segment is all that stands between the president and a nuclear conflagration.
Meanwhile, the president has lied on an unprecedented scale that has demanded the delegitimization of all critical sources of authority; used his position as a profit center to benefit himself and his family; lashed out at everyone from the press to the FBI to a grieving Gold Star widow; used the presidency to direct a culture war targeting, among others, black NFL players; pardoned a lawless, racist sheriff; refused to unequivocally denounce white nationalism after protests in Charlottesville turned deadly; and fired the FBI’s director because he was unhappy with a federal investigation into his associates that has since led to charges against key members of his campaign team. Trump’s despicable manner is toxic and seeps into everything he touches, from white children using his name as a racial slur to taunt children of color to other Republican leaders who have accepted or even adopted his sneering attacks on journalists.
The tax bill that set off the stream of accolades is itself evidence of the Republican Party’s corruption under Trump (or, alternatively, that progressives have been correct for years about where its priorities really lie). The legislation is overwhelmingly weighted toward the wealthy and corporate interests that make up the party’s donor class, with provisions that seem specifically drawn to enrich GOP legislators and the president himself. The White House absurdly claims that the bill will actually “cost the president a lot of money,” a fanciful declaration albeit one that cannot be disproved because Trump has not (and likely never will) release his tax returns. It was hastily assembled through a norm-shattering process with the help of a swampful of lobbyists, and was pushed through on a party-line vote in the dead of night. The Republicans who voted for it have claimed against all evidence that the bill will lead to a surge in jobs and won’t increase the deficit, while gearing up to slash the social safety net next year.
“The regular Republican Party of tax cuts for the rich and deregulation of polluters and the financial industry once seemed to be set apart from its clownish demagogue presidential candidate,” New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote this morning. “In rapid order, the strands have merged together into a party disdainful of transparency and united in self-enrichment.” That’s the conservative “victory” some commentators want everyone to salute.