Trump Pro and Con
I am a serious liberal. I have spent much of my life as a civil rights, consumer, and environmental activist. I admire Hillary Clinton and strongly supported her for President, and believe that the widespread hatred and distrust of her is the product of persistent, extreme and dishonest Republican disparagement. And I found Donald Trump personally repugnant, spouting cruel, ignorant and dangerous views, and totally unqualified for any political office, much less the Presidency.
But Trump won a near-majority of voters, regardless of whether or not the electoral college system, Russian hacking and James Comey’s remarks threw the election to him. Since I respect the voters, that victory has made me rethink a lot of my liberal assumptions, both about Trump himself and about the policies that America now needs.
Let me start with Trump himself. I think his boastfulness, his constant self-reference, his repeated exaggerations and falsehoods, and his ostentation are odious. But that’s as much a prejudice about his lifestyle as a moral or political condemnation.
Let me explain. Consider first his retrograde and contemptuous attitude toward women. It is certainly unfair and unpleasant, and hardly what we want from a leader, but as a matter of private behavior it is merely contemptible—not dangerous or criminal. Like many men of his age with arressted development, his notions of manhood are primitive, selfish and competitive.
The racism, sexism, and hostility to immigrants that permeated his campaign and his personal history are, by contrast, deeply troublesome for a President. Although I doubt that Trump privately subscribes to these prejudices, it hardly matters: he certainly uses them for his own political advantage, unleashes hate crimes and public violence, and is advancing cruel and harmful policies.
Some of Trump’s repeated dishonesty is explainable as sales puffery that he has persuaded himself to believe, and some falsehoods may be honest mistakes, actual beliefs based on what he learns from the far-right bubble in which he apparently swims. Moreover, we know that many of Trump’s falsehoods are uttered to protect his self-image as a “winner,” and therefore more a compulsion for him than an evil calculation.
Nevertheless, as a candidate and now President, the falsehoods he relays in tweets and off-the-cuff remarks, or through his compliant press secretary, are inexcusable and deeply disturbing. It may be true, as journalist Salena Zito memorably said, that the press took candidate Trump literally but not seriously, whereas his supporters took him seriously but not literally. But the press takes him literally because his position gives great credibility to what he says, and consequently his falsehoods distort reality for many people, damaging relationships and democracy.
With his cabinet and advisory selections, we now see that Trump’s administration will be perhaps even more radical than his rival Republicans would have chosen. From a liberal perspective, the administration has now made it clear that it aims to implement many of Trump’s campaign hints and promises: to cancel Obamacare, destroy unions and employee legal protections, demolish environmental protections and dismiss the Paris Accord on global warming, promote coal and oil, privatize public education, deregulate Wall Street and industry, eliminate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, allow unlimited industrial consolidation, deport millions of illegal residents, terminate voting and other civil rights protections, make an enemy of China, cancel or render inoperable existing trade agreements, favor Russia and Putin, and possibly scuttle the Iran deal, NATO and the EU.
In addition, Mr. Trump’s inauguration speech showed frightening hints of authoritarianism. He asserted, as does every dictator, that his oath of office was a pledge to serve “the people.” But we live in a constitutional Republic, and Trump’s oath is actually to defend the constitution, the bulwark that protects the people. And immediately thereafter he virulently attacked the press.
From a liberal standpoint, then, the Trump administration appears set to overturn traditional American norms and values, trash the liberal world order, and even threaten the continuation of real democracy in the United States. As my admirable contemporary James Fallows recently wrote in The Atlantic, “I view Trump’s election as the most grievous blow that the American idea has suffered in my lifetime.”
On the other hand, Trump was the first major political figure to understand how frustrated and cheated American employees and active business owners were, and also to understand how to use social media and blogs effectively, bypassing the fact checking of a mostly critical media. Whatever his actual net worth and business success may be, and however dubious his ethics and personality, Trump proved to be an original and ingenious politician. So what might his administration actually do?
I will discuss the possibilities under three headings: economy, rights, and international relations.
As I see it, the crucial economic question is whether Trump’s policies will rescue American workers from the disappearance of good-paying jobs and the stagnation of wages that has crushed so many families and communities since the Reagan Presidency, or will his policies instead accelerate the process.
Since the Reagan Administration, American business has consolidated to an enormous degree, and as a recent Council of Economic Advisors brief puts it, “Several indicators suggest that competition may be decreasing in many economic sectors, including the decades-long decline in new business formation and increases in industry-specific measures of concentration. Recent data also show that returns may have risen for the most profitable firms.”
Thomas Frank’s recent book, Listen Liberal, argues powerfully that the Clinton and Obama administrations joined those of Reagan and the Bushes in ignoring these developments and actually diminishing the power of labor. As a result, nothing has checked the growing disparity between the shares of productivity flowing to labor, on the one hand, and to top managers, owners and financiers, on the other.
Trump promises to reverse this trend. We don’t yet know whether, apart from publicity stunts, Trump will actually take measures to improve the lot of working people. To do so would mean flouting long-standing Republican traditions and harming the immediate financial interest of his business supporters. But Trump’s disruption of the traditional relationship between Democrats, Republicans, and labor, and the support he got from working people, are important factors suggesting he might radically revise the traditional political positions and take useful measures to benefit workers. It’s at least conceivable.
Apart from jobs and income disparity, the two factors most often cited as potentially troubling in a Trump economy are the impact of his tax policy and the impact of his foreign trade policy. The received wisdom is that the tax policy will result in sky-high deficits while primarily benefiting the privileged, but we don’t actually know yet what he will propose. So speculation seems to me premature.
In the early days of his administration, Trump’s likely impact on trade has become clearer. We know that he wishes to rewrite trade agreements, raise tariff barriers against importing American products manufactured abroad, and provide a tax holiday for corporate profits stored overseas. In short, Trump’s stance is that the US has allowed itself to become an international commercial sucker, and he wishes to reverse that trend.
Although I am ignorant about the details of trade agreements, I agree with both Trump and Bernie Sander that they have largely ignored the grievous costs to workers, their families, and their communities. Free traders argue that more jobs are created than lost by such deals, and the population’s benefit from resulting lower prices exceeds the cost to those workers who do lose their jobs or have to accept lower-paying ones. But a focus on the workers themselves ignores the lasting impact of job loss, and the effect on families and communities.
How might Trump’s stance work out well? For a start, he seems to be compelling American manufacturers to reconsider plans to move jobs abroad. Perhaps, then, Trump is re-setting the rules under which American producers of consumer goods can operate, and perhaps this will in fact be highly beneficial.
With respect to trade relationships, I hear a lot of noise about China and Mexico, but have not seen any actual measures suggested. Perhaps jawboning will work here as well. I do understand that a trade war with China would be very damaging to us as well as to them, but the threat of such might get us better terms, and reduce our payment gap. As to the tax holiday idea, I think there could be less costly ways to force the repatriation of overseas profits, but decades have passed without any action at all. Consequently, I think Trump’s suboptimal approach would be better than continued inaction, and perhaps when fleshed out by Congress may be much better.
The massive deregulation of business that Trump plans will have immediate bad effects, to be sure. But the path of regulation that our country has followed since World War II cannot really continue to coexist with a risk-taking, entrepreneurial, and competitive economy. Deregulation is not an acceptable answer, but it can be a necessary first step. Regulation by administrative agency rule has become and continues to grow so slow, complex, out of date, and onerous that it seriously stifles smaller businesses and risk-taking initiatives, and with each passing year it gets worse. Better forms of regulation can replace what we have in many instances, and perhaps Trump’s deregulation initiatives will ultimately lead in that direction.
I see no good results in the field of rights, including constitutional law. My best hope is that the committed anti-abortion lawyer whom Trump appoints to the Supreme Court will be more committed to the constitution and fairness than some of the current conservative occupants. It may be that the Court will not want to create the political firestorm that would follow overturning Roe v. Wade. But a Jeff Sessions Justice Department will be more opposed to than supportive of the rights of minorities, women, or immigrants. I do not see a Labor Department or NLRB supporting unions and employee rights. I do not see the EPA, the Dept. of Energy, or the departments that operate our national forests and parks protecting the environment. And I do not expect Net Neutrality or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to survive under this Presidency.
An important Republican criticism of President Obama’s policies was that he did not strongly enough support US interests abroad. The argument that a more strenuous foreign policy would have been better has also been made by the likes of Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. With Mr. Trump we will see how that works, and I cannot rule out that it will be better. For instance, Trump’s complaint that our NATO partners don’t pay their fair share rings true, and why shouldn’t we make sure that they do? On Israel and the Palestinians, the reality is that none of the last three administrations has made things any better. Perhaps a radically different approach will work. I am not averse to trying.
The election was a triumph for Trump and a powerful statement of protest from his supporters. I have therefore done my best to overcome or suppress my prejudices, to put aside my misgivings and understand how matters look from their point of view, and to see what good might come of his Presidency. This essay may well be seriously mistaken in its hint of optimism, but it's the best I can do.
That said, I think we are entering a time of both domestic and international danger. Many people will unquestionably suffer grave injury from the avowed policies of Trump and his cabinet, and the possibility that some of his policies on the economic and international front will work out ok is rather small. At the moment, however, I prefer to hope for the best instead of fearing the worst.