Editor’s Note: This week’s cover story was written in two parts and shares two perspectives on the topic of Donald Trump’s presidency. To read the other perspective click here.
Disruptive? Definitely. Messy? Frequently. Unpleasant? Of course.
President Donald Trump’s personality has injected intemperate and impatient bluster into our national life, and all the critiques and condemnations over how Trump conducts executive leadership are well-known and well understood.
But that’s only half the analysis. Trump also delivers toxic yet necessary measures to save the American body politic. His opponents believe he is killing democracy. His supporters believe he is saving our nation from a steep decline into defeatism.
In the medical field, unlike surgery or targeted radiation, doctors use powerful chemotherapy to attack rapidly dividing cancer cells in the human body. In the process of easing symptoms, controlling the spread of cancer or curing the patient through the elimination of tumors, healthy cells may be harmed along with malignant ones. While there is no guarantee cancer cells won’t return, chemotherapy has been extremely effective in saving lives.
Trumpism is an attempt to put into remission, if not cure, what clearly ails the United States.
A shared complaint of both the political left and right in the U.S. is a fear of bullying and betrayal by the federal government, which ignores whom Trump calls the “forgotten men and women” in favor of self-serving multinational corporations, Silicon Valley “masters of the universe” (as Financial Review terms them), elite business leaders plotting at Davos and K Street lobbyists in “The Swamp” — all who promote agendas beyond the common public interest.
In recent years, leftist activists have organized around Code Pink, Moveon.org, Occupy Wall Street, the Women’s March, Antifa and Black Lives Matter.
Similarly, rightists seeking to reduce the dominance of Washington, D.C., have championed the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus on Capitol Hill, the libertarian movement and the call for an Article V Convention of the States.
Both older and younger citizens condemn U.S. political parties for ever-growing federal debt (now $22 trillion). Many Americans are concerned about IRS and FBI/DOJ bias and overreach. Others are anxious about perceived threats to their constitutional rights to religious liberty, freedom of speech, abortion (or fetal) rights, gun possession, and protection from illegal search and seizure (asset forfeiture).
Across the political aisle, too, U.S. workers feel squeezed. The rise of China, India, the Asian tiger countries and the liberated nations of “New Europe” after the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union has sharply increased economic competition. The U.S. share of global GDP has fallen from 50 percent to 25 percent of international output as young workers in developing economies produce goods cheaper than U.S. firms produce.
Globalism, mass immigration and a fear of declining sovereignty are causing Western citizens to rise up and ask, “Do you hear the people sing?” This question has startled government bureaucrats, politicians, media elites, the cosmopolitan cognoscenti and many academics throughout Europe.
By 2016, many GOP voters were looking for a dramatic rejection of then-President Barack Obama’s offenses against the American work ethic and spirit of self-reliance (“You didn’t build it”). They wanted a fighter who would reverse the anemic GDP growth rate under Obama — the worst recorded eight-year period since our national economy arose in the 1790s.
In his campaign, Trump focused on the manufacturing base in the Midwest. While coastal wealth had grown for tech workers in “the new economy,” wages had stagnated for decades in Middle America.
“Trumpism is an attempt to put into remission, if not cure, what clearly ails the United States.”
Therefore, Trump’s candidacy was a challenge to both Democrat and Republican establishments. Eschewing political correctness, Trump opposed illegal immigration and longstanding trade deals favoring foreign governments and globalist corporations.
Trump’s political appeal to Rust Belt workers has remained the biggest focus of his first term. For example, in his 2018 address to the General Assembly of the United Nations, he stated:
“For decades, the United States opened its economy — the largest, by far, on Earth — with few conditions. We allowed foreign goods from all over the world to flow freely across our borders.
“Yet, other countries did not grant us fair and reciprocal access to their markets in return. Even worse, some countries abused their openness to dump their products, subsidize their goods, target our industries, and manipulate their currencies to gain unfair advantage over our country. As a result, our trade deficit ballooned to nearly $800 billion a year.”
Trump’s policies of economic deregulation, opening energy pipelines and making the U.S. corporate tax rate competitive have resulted in stronger economic growth and employment, especially for women and minorities, increased wages for workers, rising family incomes and net worth, new investments in the manufacturing sector, sustained consumer confidence and significant declines in welfare, poverty and the use of food stamps.
The administration’s domestic successes also have included confronting public universities (which receive federal funds) from limiting free speech, promoting and signing into law bipartisan criminal justice reform and securing the Right to Try Act, which allows terminally ill patients access to experimental drug therapies.
Trump increased research for childhood cancer, improved services at the Veterans Administration, reversed Obamacare’s insurance mandates and penalties, and launched a sustained multi-pronged effort to curtail the opioid drug epidemic. The Republican president has produced a successful domestic agenda.
Similarly, in his 2017 U.N. General Assembly speech, Trump confidently outlined his America First vision in trade and security policy, asserting that sovereign nations dedicated to serving the needs and interests of their own citizens first then could unite in alliance for peace and prosperity, stating:
“It is an eternal credit to the American character that even after we and our allies emerged victorious from the bloodiest war in history, we did not seek territorial expansion, or attempt to impose our way of life on others. Instead, we helped build institutions such as this one to defend the sovereignty, security and prosperity for all.”
On sovereignty: Trump withdrew the United States from the misnamed U.N. Human Rights Council, and will provide no support to the International Criminal Court, which he said is “violating all principles of justice, fairness and due process. We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy.”
On trade: Trump has reworked outdated relationships with Mexico and Canada. With rare bipartisan support, he also is confronting decades of Chinese intellectual property theft, corporate espionage and forced technology transfers. This tough negotiation favors the U.S., as companies value the U.S. market and capital tends to flow to transparent, rule-of-law economies.
On Russia: Trump has strongly confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin by imposing economic sanctions, verbally supporting Ukrainian independence, recommitting to missile defense in Central-Eastern Europe, increasing U.S. military support for Poland, and challenging Russian energy dominance through support of a Baltic pipeline and increased U.S. liquified natural gas exports. By challenging NATO countries to fulfill their own defense obligations, the president has reinvigorated European collective security, which is necessary to deter an aggressive Putin.
In the Middle East: Trump updated the Rules of Engagement for U.S. forces to decisively defeat ISIS, enforced Obama’s red line to confront Syrian use of chemical weapons, reversed the Iran Nuclear deal and reimposed isolating sanctions on the repressive Mullah regime, hampering Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps support for regional terror groups and proxy allies such as Hezbollah.
Trump also moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and defunded U.S. taxpayer support for the corrupt Palestinian leadership. These actions, as well as a resolute defense of Israel at the United Nations, have improved the security posture of Israel and the prospects for peace between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors, who share concerns over Iranian behavior, intentions and capability.
On security: The president challenged the North Korean regime over its nuclear tests and missile launches, and offered carrots in the form of improved relations and economic support if North Korea moves beyond the misbehavior and threats, which, for decades, have extracted Western concessions.
U.S. military budgets have increased to replenish our modern air, land and sea forces with more planes, tanks and ships. The U.S. finally is taking China’s ambitious plans seriously in the South China Sea. The president also is focused on U.S. leadership in space and cyber security.
Further, Trump helped secure the release of more than a dozen American hostages held abroad, and he authorized raids on MS-13 gangs terrorizing innocents on our streets.
The results of this extraordinary first-term performance are clear. Polls consistently show Trump receives higher ratings for his policy achievements than for his personal approval.
Democrats realize Trump will be reelected if the 2020 campaign question is: Are you better off now than you were four years ago?
Therefore, the left has focused on attacking the president’s character, blistering his business practices and his bombastic, bullying and unpredictable style. Of course, there is merit to many concerns about the president’s character and behavior, but for Democrats who want to regain the White House, there are problems with this approach.
“For many, Trump is an outsider bravely rejecting a post-nationalist vision in which America declines and U.S. trade and security policies are subservient to international elites.”
At times, the “resistance” to Trump has been screeching, mob-like and violent. Revealing the home addresses of Republicans or disrupting their families in restaurants offends average citizens who increasingly are dismayed at the scenes of aggression from the campus left. From Madonna’s 2017 rallying cry of “I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House” and Robert De Niro’s 2018 “F Trump” Tony Award speech, to the recent public panic over the president’s Fourth of July speech (which was unifying and presidential), incessant left-wing vituperation has proved unappealing.
Capitol Hill Democrats lost the Justice Brett Kavanaugh confirmation battle in part because Sen. Dianne Feinstein played a last-minute trick instead of honorably working through her committee process. The idea that the nominee was assumed guilty of sexual assault, without evidence or corroboration, disturbed many as violative of our sacred assumption of innocence.
The long Russia investigations (FBI, House, Senate, Mueller) revealed as many legitimate concerns about Democratic collusion and misdeeds (the Hillary Clinton campaign-funded dossier, the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorized surveillance on a political opponent, FBI/Department of Justice senior leadership covering for Clinton while plotting against Donald Trump) as from the 2016 Trump campaign.
The president repeatedly has rejected anti-Semitism and white supremacism, although you wouldn’t know it from the sustained meme of Democrats running for office and their cheerleaders in the mainstream media suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome.
The facts don’t bear out former Vice President Joe Biden’s opening campaign claim that Trump said there are good Nazis. Trump said there were good people on both sides of the debate over removing Civil War-era statues. As liberal public intellectual Sam Harris has soberly counseled, retelling this smear over and over doesn’t make it true. With so much to critique about Trump’s tweets (there now is a Museum of Tweets), why assert rebuttable fake claims?
Democrats are radicalizing at the policy level in response to their inflamed base, with proposals on the following:
On immigration: open borders, sanctuary cities, decriminalization of illegal entry, advocacy of increased health care entitlements, voting rights and driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, and non-cooperation with or the elimination of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
On race: national calls for reparations (payments to those who were not slaves from those who were not slaveholders).
On economics: higher income taxes, a value added tax, new net-worth taxes, free college tuition and cancellation of student debt, “Medicare for All” to replace employer-based and private insurance policies, and a radical Green New Deal agenda that would transform our society altogether (with the goal of eliminating air travel).
Other radical proposals include voting rights for violent felons, the abolition of the Electoral College and the packing of the Supreme Court; government unregulated late-term abortion; a neutral posture between Israel and Hamas; and less than full-throated opposition to the socialist, anti-American Nicolas Maduro regime in Venezuela, which has imposed misery on that nation.
All this does not make for a winning policy agenda.
The ever-increasing size and role of a bureaucratic, nanny state government means many citizens fear more for their future from congressional legislation, administrative regulations and judicial court rulings than they are concerned about the public rhetoric or reversible executive orders of a president whose term(s) in office is limited.
CHARACTER: The question of character itself is far more nuanced than is broadcast.
The left asserts Trump’s style and tone inflicts damage to our democracy by calling for a travel ban on unvetted Muslim migrants from war-torn nations (approved by the Supreme Court); by calling out “deep state” U.S. intelligence or law enforcement leadership as partisan; by labeling some members of the media as “the enemy of the people”; and by jawboning the Federal Reserve. But all these institutions will outlast this president’s coarse and undiplomatic language.
Criticisms of Trump’s bravado are valid but long ago were discounted. Yes, he is disruptive to the establishment. Everyone knows this. But the country was in crisis. For many, Trump is an outsider bravely rejecting a post-nationalist vision in which America declines and U.S. trade and security policies are subservient to international elites.
The more Democrats hate on Trump, the more many Americans will rally to a president they believe is fighting for them and showing success. He seems unnaturally indestructible.
The obsessive case against Trump as a thief who stole the 2016 election as a Russian puppet or, alternatively, as a white nationalist endangering civil society, has been analogized by author Victor Davis Hanson to the Democrats’ search for the Great White Whale:
“The Democratic establishment has become something like novelist Herman Melville’s phobic Captain Ahab, who became fatally absorbed with chasing his nemesis, the albino whale Moby-Dick. … Even if the quest to destroy Trump eclipses every other consideration and entails the destruction of the modern Democratic Party, it seems not to matter to these modern Ahabs.”
Smearing conservatives, Republicans and working-class white voters as racists, “bitter-clingers” to their guns and religion, or “deplorables,” doesn’t seem to be working. The problem with character attacks is that those who throw mud usually get dirty in the process.
Our nation’s first president, George Washington, the general who led the successful American Revolution and the indispensable advocate for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, deeply cared about his personal character, believing it mattered to our national destiny that he be seen as honorable and thoroughly decent in his treatment of others.
Unfortunately, many citizens today seem not to note the part of Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address that stated: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
In fact, Democrats set the standard of measuring the character of our presidents not by their personal morality, but merely by their policy achievements.
Examples include Thomas Jefferson, who had slaves, and Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson, who were quite retrograde on race. Franklin Roosevelt interned Japanese Americans, promoted quotas on Jews at Harvard, serially turned away Holocaust refugees from Europe and opposed the establishment of the State of Israel in collusion with the Saudi king. Fellow Democrats John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton were disloyal spouses.
Republican Donald Trump joins a long list of presidents whom history likely will judge more for his public accomplishments and agenda for the people than for his widely critiqued character and personal flaws.
Yes, the chemotherapy Trump applies often has been ugly, unsavory and divisive. George Washington would not be pleased. But many Americans have learned to tolerate the failure of private virtue from mortal politicians. Instead, they judge political effectiveness in reviving American economic vitality and national pride, and the sense that America can, indeed, be great again.
Larry Greenfield is a fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship & Political Philosophy.