One year after Donald Trump took the oath of office, a popular take among the savviest members of the chattering classes is that the Trump administration is in disarray, historically unpopular and unaccomplished.
This assessment is not entirely baseless. Trump’s approval rating has fluctuated between 35 and 40 percent for most of the past year, a nadir in the history of the modern presidency. Hardly a week passes without a new sensational report on the internal dysfunction of the White House and the rages of the addled president.
Due in part to Trump’s negligence, congressional Republicans failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), one of their party’s primary goals for the past eight years. Through deceit and disregard for procedural norms, Republicans managed to pass a major overhaul of the nation’s tax code, yet their bill remains detested by a majority of the public. Moreover, Robert Mueller’s investigation of l’affaire Russe continues apace. Whether or not it implicates the president personally, it has further cemented the perception of scandal among all but the most unctuous Trump apologists.
Closer scrutiny of the Trump administration’s record reveals a strikingly different reality. Through appointments to the federal judiciary, executive actions and regulatory policies — or perhaps more accurately, lack thereof — Trump has managed to overturn a substantial portion of Barack Obama’s legacy and shape American domestic politics and policy for years to come. Thanks to the brevity of our collective attention span, the Republican tax bill has now faded from the public consciousness, but its lasting impact upon the nation’s already grievously unequal distribution of wealth should not be underestimated. Even if Democrats regain the White House and Congress, they will find it difficult to do away with this legislation, despite the unpopularity of its specific provisions (see Obama’s extension of the Bush tax cuts). Additionally, although Trump failed to repeal the ACA, he has managed to cripple it through executive actions and the tax bill’s repeal of the individual mandate.
The reshaping of the federal judiciary under Trump is something of which most casual observers are only vaguely aware, yet its significance can scarcely be overstated. In Neil Gorsuch, the right gained a young (as Supreme Court justices go), reliable vote for corporate power and against civil rights. In addition to the stolen Supreme Court seat, Trump has filled a record 12 circuit court seats and 10 district court seats. A few lower court appointees have been forced to withdraw due to embarrassing ineptitude or fondness for the Ku Klux Klan. But as Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick notes, it is Trump’s respected, credentialed appointees who will do grave damage to “women’s rights, workers’ rights, voting rights, LGBTQ protections, and the environment…capably and under the radar.” Unless a future Democratic administration and Congress resort to court-packing or impeachment, the federal judiciary will be flush with right-wing zealots for at least the next decade.
At the EPA, Scott Pruitt continues to do the bidding of his superiors (i.e., Exxon et al.) with great alacrity. Since taking office, he has scrapped the Clean Power Plan — the Obama administration’s crucial attempt to reduce carbon emissions and limit climate change — and rolled back protections for drinking water, among other regulations. In addition, he has presided over a massive exodus of skilled professionals and scientists from the agency and appointed industry lobbyists and advocates to key advisory positions.
Much has been made of the rift between the president and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, due to the latter’s hesitation to sufficiently obstruct justice. In fact, Sessions has overturned the policies of the Obama-era Department of Justice with striking efficiency. He rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — leading to the current situation, in which thousands of Americans brought to the country as children are at risk of deportation if our famously responsive, highly functional Congress fails to act. He reversed the Obama administration’s laissez-faire approach toward marijuana in states that legalized the drug. No policy is too obscure for him to make it worse: he even retracted a 2016 Justice Department memo meant to curtail the use of debtors’ prisons. A Democratic attorney general can reinstate such policies, but in the meantime, countless lives will be ruined by Sessions’s senselessly punitive, discriminatory approach.
What do Trump’s policy successes mean for the opposition — or resistance, if you prefer? First and foremost, it must be political, a concept Democrats and liberals have had difficulty understanding in recent years. In this case, “doing politics” means persuading the majority of Americans that the Trump administration is making their lives worse and that the opposition will, if elected, wield power to make their lives better.
It goes without saying that Trump personally embodies virtually everything odious to people of humane and liberal sentiments. Nearly every vile prejudice is attributable to him. He is devoid of intellectual curiosity and believes his ignorance the height of knowledge. Lacking civic virtue, he uses his office to enrich himself and — in his more generous moods — his vacuous progeny.
Yet focusing primarily on Trump’s ignorance, vulgarity or violation of norms is a recipe for political disaster. After all, the number of people who are motivated to vote by such matters numbers somewhere around 30 or 40, and every one works for the editorial board of the Times or the Post. The majority of potential voters, by contrast, want something to vote for which will benefit themselves and their families.
Shortly after the election, Luigi Zingales, an Italian-American economist, penned a column for the New York Times in which he argued that Democrats should emulate the successful challengers of Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister of Italy. A media mogul known for his authoritarian proclivities and demagogic brand of right-wing politics (the parallels are obvious), Berlusconi fell from power not because his opponents fulminated against his corruption and lack of character, but because they treated him as an “ordinary politician” who failed to fulfill his vague campaign promises.
Democrats, Zingales suggested, should treat Trump similarly and demonstrate the discrepancy between his populist appeals and the reality of his plutocratic policy agenda. This argument has empirical support: Trump’s approval rating has taken the most precipitous plunges in the midst of the policy debates concerning the repeal of the ACA and the passage of the tax bill.
While criticizing Trump’s policies is necessary, it is hardly sufficient. As I have previously alluded, Democrats and the left must also articulate an alternative agenda. Here the British Labour party offers an instructive example. The United Kingdom’s 2017 general election was widely expected to be a landslide victory for the Conservatives, led by Prime Minister Theresa May. The tide began to turn after a draft of Labour’s manifesto was leaked. Outlining an ambitious social democratic agenda, the manifesto included pledges to increase spending on health care, abolish tuition fees and strengthen trade unions. Thanks in large part to the enthusiasm generated by such proposals, the Conservatives lost more than a dozen seats in Parliament while Labour gained nearly 30.
House and Senate Democrats attempted a similar gesture when they unveiled their “Better Deal” platform last July. Although it was nothing like the sort of sweeping vision needed to confront crises such as ecological collapse and declining life expectancy, it included laudable proposals, such as vigorous antitrust enforcement and an infrastructure jobs program. Within a few weeks, however, Democrats forgot about the Better Deal and returned to a defensive crouch, reacting to each outrageous pronouncement from the White House.
A few might contend that Trump’s remarks and sundry provocations are so vile as to demand our attention. I do not mean to argue that we should not confront Trump’s bigotry, but rather that when we do so, we focus on discriminatory policies he has proposed or implemented. Despite the appalling tweets and public behavior, Trump has managed to pursue a radical right-wing policy agenda with notable success over the past year. As long as political discourse remains centered around his personality, he will likely continue to do so. Democrats and the left must learn to surmount the distractions and foreground Trump’s destructive policies, contrasting those with their own boldly reformist vision.