Posted by on May 6, 2017

So much has been written about the first 100 days of the Trump administration that I will try to keep my comments brief.  But I already know that I will fail.

First, let’s talk about the unambiguously good.

The clearest victory for common sense and decency is the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.  Some #NeverTrumpers have followed this to its logical conclusion: now, let’s get on with the impeachment!  But it may make sense to wait.  Justice Anthony Kennedy (80 years old) is widely rumored to be up next and Trump has received so much praise for Gorsuch that he will probably stick to his list of 21.  But they will have to take Ruth Bader Ginsburg (84 years old) out in a casket before she gives Trump another draft pick.

Next is Trump’s other nominations and appointments.  Although I have never completed the review of them that I began here, and probably now never will, these fall into the category of the ambiguously good.

I have to begin by apologizing for anything I have ever said even vaguely resembling praise for Jeff Sessions as the Attorney General.  I thought that Obama’s AGs, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, had set a standard low enough that it would be impossible to limbo under it.  I was wrong.  Sessions is a nightmarish example of Trump’s overvaluation of loyalty.

I have nothing to apologize for with Trump’s trade team: Peter Navarro as the Director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, Wilbur Ross at the Department of Commerce, and Robert Lighthizer as the nominee for the US Trade Representative.  Nothing even vaguely resembling praise for any of them has ever come from my mouth or pen, nor will it ever happen.  Between them, they have a flea’s butt understanding of economics or trade.

Lighthizer has a built-in excuse for his economic ignorance: he is a lawyer.  Ross also has a bit of an excuse: he has personally benefited so many times from protectionism and other forms of crony capitalism that he has grown to confuse them for the public good.  Navarro should know better: he has a PhD in Economics, but still makes rookie mistakes like misinterpreting trade data and macroeconomic identities (as lampooned  here and here).   His only excuse is that the PhD is from Harvard.

The capacity of these three for mischief is large.  The greatest hope we have is that their focus on America’s trade deficits gets diverted into a push for the opening of foreign markets (especially China’s) rather than the closing of the domestic one.  On this score, the early results are mixed.

The good news is that many of Trump’s other choices evidence some commitment to the “deconstruction of the administrative state” (to use the typically pompous phrase of one of Trump’s worst habits, Chief Strategist Steve Bannon).  This is an unexpected boon.  It was always difficult to predict which of Trump’s changing and often contradictory campaign promises would survive.  I am very pleasantly surprised that slashing regulations appears not to have become roadkill.

Trump’s appointments of people like Betsy DeVos (at Education), Elaine Chao (at Transportation), Rick Perry (at Energy), Tom Price (at Health and Human Services), Ajit Pai (at the FCC), Scott Pruitt (at the EPA) and Scott Gottlieb (at the FDA) give real hope that the deregulatory movement, which has been basically dormant since its heydays in the Carter and Reagan administrations, may resume.[1]

The characteristic that all of these people share is that they are confirmed critics of the departments and agencies they have been chosen to lead.  It is a measure of how clueless and unimaginative the liberal media can be that this fact generated the following comment from Larry King:

It’s almost funny.  To run the [EPA], he hires an anti-environment guy. To run Education, he hires someone who doesn’t like education, doesn’t like public schools. That’s weird, man.

No, Larry.  That’s not some kind of weird bug.   That’s the entire point.

The next ambiguously good thing is the Trump promises that have dropped by the wayside, most often wisely, sometimes not.   An incomplete list of Trump’s early reversals includes:  Not branding China a currency manipulator (wise, since it is no longer true).  Not terminating the Iran nuclear deal (“one of the dumbest deals I have ever seen”) (wise, since it is better than nothing).  Deciding to amend instead of terminate NAFTA (“the worst trade deal”) after a phone call with the leaders of Canada and Mexico in which they apparently all made kissy face (wise).  Deciding that NATO is suddenly no longer “obsolete” (somewhat unwise).  Deciding that maybe he likes Janet Yellen, and her policies of financial repression, after all (unwise).  Not starting construction on The Wall (wise), although he is still hanging onto this goal and the lie that Mexico will pay for it.  Not terminating the ExIm Bank after realizing, in another of his blinding glimpses of the obvious[2], that other countries are equally misguided (unwise).

Then there is the unintentionally good.

I have already mentioned that Trump may terrify liberals into a rediscovered respect  for federalism and the separation of powers.  But, truth be told, I think that any such commitment to the Constitution would be short-lived if the Democrats ever get back on top.

Holman Jenkins makes a related but more subtle point in a WSJ  editorial.  Reviewing Trump’s first 100 days, Jenkins thinks that Trump may be de-mystifying a politics where “Americans are too much encouraged to see their presidents as action heroes somehow intervening daily to influence the lives of millions.” He concludes with:

A cartoon in the Eisenhower era had the president saying to his cabinet, “Gentlemen, what should we refrain from doing next?” So much of Mr. Trump’s recent career involved pretending, not doing. The day may come when we have to admit this is one of President Trump’s chief virtues.

The point may be driven home when Trump supporters realize that most of his Executive Orders are the presidential equivalent of selfies.  They are full of sound and fury, but without any legislative backup or funding, signifying nothing.

Economist Scott Sumner has recently noted another unintended good in “Might Trump actually end up promoting liberalism[3]?”  Sumner points out that since Trump arrived on the scene, agreement with the statement that foreign trade is an opportunity (and not a threat) for the American economy has skyrocketed in the polls.  Support for some kind of amnesty for illegal immigrants (who have been working for a number of years, know English and are willing to pay back taxes) has also risen to over 90%.

Sumner closes with:

I’ve had a very negative view of Trump’s policy goals as well as his personal characteristics. What I never imagined is that his personal characteristics, which are pretty unpopular with the general public, might actually end up working against the very policies that Trump is trying to promote. Donald Trump may be Trumpism’s worst enemy.

In a similar vein, the Cato Institute reports that 68% of Democrats agree with the statement: “When it comes to healthcare, the government should take care of everybody and the government should pay for it.”  Their support drops to 47%, however, when they are told that this is a quote from Donald Trump.

Numerous commentators have noted that political opinions are often tribal.  Logically unrelated issues – such as abortion rights and gun control – are in fact highly correlated in the minds of voters: if you are against the former, you are very likely against the latter (and the reverse).  This suggests that voters are not forming independent judgments on each issue, but simply falling into line with the views of their tribe.  By stealing some of the traditional totems of the left-wing tribe – protectionism, anti-immigration (which was a union goal before it became a xenophobic one), corporatism and even more government involvement with health care – Trump may actually be unintentionally reshaping politics in a way that is beneficial to my uniquely rational tribe, the libertarians.

So, this is the unambiguously good, the ambiguously good, and the unintentionally good.  So what is the bad?  That’s easy: everything else.

But a few things bear special mention, in addition to the comments I have already made about the Syrian strikes.

The ongoing attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare, which is far from a done deal even after last week’s vote in the House of Representatives, show the limitations of Trump as a radical reformer.   Reform is always politically difficult because it steps on toes.  In addition to providing ideas, where Trump has been an absolute nullity, much of the presidential role in the process is using the bully pulpit to create the air cover necessary for members of Congress to take hard decisions.  But a president cannot be an effective salesman if he doesn’t at least have a basic understanding of what he is peddling.  This one hasn’t even tried.  Unlike Obama, who hit the road in favor of his healthcare plan, Trump has limited his activities to threatening Representatives and denouncing Obamacare, which is not the same as promoting its alternative.  With the polls sitting at a 17% approval rate for the American Health Care Act, this didn’t have much effect.

Trump apparently thought that governing would be like most of his other businesses: just a question of branding.  Slapping his name on steaks and wine didn’t work.  Why he thought it would work with major legislative reform is just another one of the mysteries of the mind of Donald Trump.

The interim budget to fund the government until September is another failure of Trumpism.  It has been appropriately nicknamed “The Status Quo Protection Act” by Senator Rand Paul.  This bill shows the impossibility of reining in Washington when you have thoughtlessly ruled out tackling entitlements and thoughtlessly ruled in more military expenditure, despite the fact that the DOD is the definition of “the swamp.”  It also shows that, as David Stockman always points out, Washington politics mean that you cannot get more guns without paying for more butter, too.  And that bipartisanship is vastly overrated.

The fiasco with Obamacare, and the rollover on the budget bill, also show why Trump’s tax plan is DOA.

Finally, there are the lapses into authoritarianism, very unlikely to be realized but sickening nonetheless.  Like sending out Reince Priebus, who resembles more and more Doctor Faust, to propose loosening the libel laws to make it easier to stifle the media.  (Someone forgot to tell Trump that libel is governed by state law and cannot be affected by the federal government.)

Even worse was Trump reciting the poem “The Snake” at his recent rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  This was directed at Mexican immigrants.  The historical illiterates at the White House were apparently trying to prove Mark Twain’s statement that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”  Like “Harrisburg” and “Nuremberg.”

To sum up, nothing has happened in Trump’s first 100 days that would lead me to change my fundamental opinion.   The impulse of the American voting public that put Trump into office was basically correct: Washington is incompetent, mendacious, self-serving and out of touch.  However, Donald Trump is about the worst possible expression of this impulse.

Roger Barris

Weybridge, United Kingdom



“…is more work than in my previous life.  I thought it would be easier” by Donald Trump, when asked a question about the difficulties of the presidency


[1] The fact that the Republican-controlled Congress and Trump have used the Congressional Review Act to repeal 13 midnight regulations of the Obama administration, an ability that has previously only been successfully used once in the Act’s 20-year history, is further evidence.

[2] Trump is so obtuse that these probably deserve their own acronym: a “TBGO.”

[3] Sumner is basically libertarian and he means “liberalism” in the good, classical, sense.

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