The Senate appears poised to acquit President Trump at his impeachment trial, and to essentially greenlight any and all presidential actions as being literally above the law and outside congressional restraining powers. What would an honest third-party observer say if they were invited to give the State of the Union on February 4 in lieu of Donald Trump?
As we approach the 2020 election, it’s time to give an honest accounting of Donald J. Trump’s time in office.
Let’s start with the bottom line: dollars and cents. On the surface, the economy is humming along — based in large part on mechanisms put in place during the Obama administration, as well as this administration’s relentless focus on the short term — though the escalating global coronavirus outbreak could easily cause economic mayhem over the coming months.
The decent economic indicators of the past few years, however, hide deep, systemic problems. The Trump administration summarily discounts all the future harm caused by deregulating workplace safety; undermining environmental rules; opening up public lands to the fossil fuel industry; turbocharging inequality through tax cuts skewed to the rich and cuts to public services used by the poor; eviscerating our public rainy day funds by running historically unprecedented deficits during boom times, thus leaving nothing in reserve for smoothing out the rough edges during the next recession; and pushing to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act, (ACA) to further reduce spending on the safety net, leaving a million more people without insurance in 2019 than in 2018, and creating the possibility that, at Trump’s urging, the U.S. Supreme Court will, soon after the election, strike down the entire ACA edifice.
Unemployment stands at 3.5 percent and median income is on the rise (although, notably, the gulf between rich and poor continues to grow, and the “recovery” has disproportionately benefitted the rich). Some of the ongoing growth is the legacy of Obama’s careful stewardship of the economy in the post-recession years. Partly it is also due to the Federal Reserve keeping interest rates historically low. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, except in part it’s the consequence of Trump bludgeoning the Fed’s chair, Jerome Powell, to keep those interest rates low, at least through the November election, no matter the long-term cost. Low interest rates during boom times — priming an already primed pump — turbocharges investment and borrowing but can stack up a host of inflation-related problems down the road. The long term, however, as repeatedly demonstrated by Trump’s malign business practices before he became president, has always been viewed by The Donald as being for losers. In Trump’s mental universe, only the now matters — only the instant gratification. Only the consumption, the grabbing of whatever is near enough to grab.
But truth be told, it’s not the economy that seems to get Trump’s juices flowing. And, in all fairness, why should he be excited by good economic indicators when a majority of the public doesn’t buy the argument that the good data is enough to qualify him for re-election? In normal years, if a president were presiding over an economic boom like this, that president’s popularity would be stratospheric. But Trump’s isn’t; instead, his support hovers at somewhere between 38 and 44 percent.
No, what gets Trump excited is the fact that his base loves him – and always will. To a depressingly large degree, his 2016 prognostication — when he infamously said he could shoot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue and those guys would stick with him — has been proven right. Yet his supporters have been outnumbered by people who have hated him and his administration from day one. In fact, Adam Schiff’s legally compelling presentations at the Senate impeachment trial have resulted in majorities of Americans now saying he ought to be removed from public office. He won’t be, we all know that; but that has nothing to do with his guilt or innocence over the Ukraine quid pro quo. It has much more to do with the GOP’s willingness to be complicit in his myriad crimes. His attorney, Alan Dershowitz, has advanced the breathtaking argument, apparently now bought into by the vast majority of GOP senators, that anything Trump does to advance his personal interests as president can be conceived as being in the public interest. L’etat c’est moi, as the French kings used to say — not that Trump, in his tasteless MAGA cap, can or wants to speak a foreign language.
Trump’s as guilty as sin on the Ukrainian “drug deal,” but Mitch McConnell’s happy to keep him along for the ride, to cater to his vastly inflated ego, so long as he keeps delivering up fanatically conservative judicial nominees whom the Senate can then process onto the benches at factory-line speed to eviscerate voting rights, undermine anti-poverty programs, attack immigrants and, of course, shred a person’s right to reproductive choice. And even if Mitch-the-Machiavellian weren’t enjoying how much raw power Trump’s handed him, the GOP in Congress is now so scared of the president’s cultist base — and The Donald’s ability to use Twitter to instantly turn mobs against whoever opposes him — that most GOP senators probably wouldn’t convict the president even if he sexually assaulted someone on camera (as opposed to just boasting about it on a hot mic).
Throughout his life Trump has been dogged by allegations of violence, including bullying while at school, sexual assault charges as an adult, and the hectoring and intimidating of employees. These days, what he seems to really enjoy as he sits at the apex of power is the utter debasement of one public institution after the next, the bending of regulatory agencies, and the manipulation of the other branches of government to his personal will. There’s something deeply Nietzschean about it; Trump views himself as the Übermensch, the superman above of and outside of all normal moral limits. Despite the fact that he almost never smiles, Trump seems to genuinely revel in the fact that he has the power to get Bill Barr’s Justice Department to investigate his political opponents, to get the Pentagon to reinstate convicted war criminals, to get the Environmental Protection Agency to rewrite climate change science and the national weather service to support his lies about the path a hurricane might take.
More than three years into his presidency, Trump is glorying in the corrosion and degradation of public discourse; in the establishment of what a few smart alecks back in 2017 and 2018 were calling a “Kakistocracy,” a realm where the shit rises to the top, where the crudest, cruelest people are amply rewarded for their service, and where humane world visions are replaced by loyalty, fealty, devotion to the Dear Leader, the man with, as he so piquantly put it, “great and unmatched wisdom.”
Trump is clearly enjoying the implosion of empathy and human rights, seen most prominently in how the country and its bureaucracies now treat immigrants: caging children; enforcing mandatory DNA and pregnancy tests; bottling would-be asylum seekers up in fetid, disease-riddled, violent camps; sending asylum seekers from Guatemala to Honduras, and from Honduras to El Salvador. The president appears to be having fun seeing immigration attorneys in fits of horror at new public charge rules that essentially impose wealth tests on those seeking to make the U.S. their home. He seems to be at his happiest when flirting with the idea of dramatically expanding the Muslim travel ban — now that the Supreme Court has given him carte blanche on that front — or proposing new ways to lock down the southern border.
The scale of this political tragedy is vast. Every time Trump journeys to a conference or a summit or a meeting of allies overseas, he ends up pissing off yet another leader from yet another country that we have enjoyed close ties to for the better part of a century. He has asserted his unilateral authority to assassinate foreign officials he doesn’t like — and to threaten to obliterate their countries’ cultural and population centers if they dare to respond. He has scrapped the INF nuclear arms control treaty, and threatens to withdraw from the treaties limiting intercontinental ballistic missiles, increasing the likelihood of an atomic Armageddon. Now the world stands on the precipice of what the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists calls “midnight,” that moment when nuclear proliferation ceases to be controllable.
Trump’s nuclear recklessness is matched only by his appalling disregard for the environment and for the perils of climate change. He is doing everything in his power not just to roll back Obama-era environmental rules aimed at tackling climate change, but also to actively push policies that would further increase CO2 in the atmosphere rapidly. He is even ending California’s authority to regulate tailpipe emissions, even though many of the world’s biggest car manufacturers had agreed to design more fuel-efficient, less-polluting cars that would meet those standards.
Internationally, in embracing Brexit and its aims, Trump and his nationalist team have managed to undermine the coherence of the European Union and put the post-war stability of Europe at risk. On a near daily basis, for reasons that often seem as random as whether Trump woke up on the right or wrong side of the bed that morning, he throws wrenches into the works of international trade systems and partnerships. His negotiators work on trade agreements with other countries only for Trump to arbitrarily threaten to impose tariffs on erstwhile partners. And as the U.S.’s commitment to these relationships fades, trade spats around the globe, including between allies like South Korea and Japan, are escalating.
Domestically, white supremacist violence is on the rise across the U.S., and neo-Nazi groups such as The Base and Atomwaffen are on the march — openly participating in gun-pride events and using the internet to threaten race war. For these groups, Trump is a talisman, a symbol of how their worldview can triumph.
But, while Trump flirts with white nationalism, he’s also, primarily, concerned with numero uno. He self-deals shamelessly, channeling business to his hotel in D.C., to his golf courses and resorts in Florida, to his overseas properties in Scotland, in Turkey and elsewhere.
He loves the Saudi government’s leadership. Since Saudi Arabia buys huge amounts of American weaponry, Trump forgives its government for its involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He wants to do more business with Turkey and thus doesn’t think twice about giving Turkey free-range to attack and kill the Kurds in Syria. He feels simpatico with the strong-man leadership style of China’s President Xi, and thus refuses to say more than a few milquetoast words in support of Hong Kong’s democracy protesters.
Three years in, Trump increasingly views himself as all-powerful. He has articulated a political doctrine that Article II of the Constitution allows him as president to do “whatever I want,” and he has sent his lawyers to court to argue that he is literally unindictable, that he is definitionally above the law. The Senate will, in its acceptance of Dershowitz’s arguments, give its imprimatur to this. Seeking to leverage their short-term power, McConnell and the rest of his gang will weaken the long-term ability of Congress to function as a co-equal branch of government, thus signing off on Congress’s own demise, in much the same way as Roman senators, in the dying days of the Republic, divided into a series of warring factions and ceded power to strongmen and dictators, thus paving the way for imperial rule.
From here on in, because of McConnell’s Faustian bargain, overseas governments and criminal enterprises will implicitly be given free rein to interfere in U.S. elections as much and as often as the president demands it. They will be vultures pecking at the corpse of U.S. democracy.
Trump is like Charlie Chaplin’s tyrant-character in The Great Dictator, dreamily playing with an inflated world globe. He jokes about ruling for life, but, drunk on his own power, he no longer knows where humor ends and longing begins. His entire presidency is a Rorschach test. And each day he remains in office speaks volumes to the real state of the union — and to where it is heading.