Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Plum Line | Opinion

Why does Trump keep making promises he can't keep? The secret lies in his past.

By Paul Waldman

March 21, 2017 at 1:38 PM

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At a rally in Louisville, March 20, President Trump pledged to deliver on his campaign promises but didn’t address comments by FBI Director James B. Comey that “no information” supports Trump’s claim that former president Barack Obama ordered a wiretap on him in 2016. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

On Monday, while he was suffering an unusually bad news day in Washington, President Trump went to Kentucky to hold a rally with his loyal supporters. As he always does, he spent some time regaling the crowd with how fantastic his election victory was, making one wonder at what point he'll stop talking about that.

But the location provided a vivid case study in the dangers Trump will face as time goes on. This early in his presidency, he can still talk about the glittering future he'll deliver. But at some point, he'll have to reckon with what his policies have actually done and failed to do.

Trump is applying to governing the same theory that worked quite well for him in his business career. But the rules have already changed for him.

Naturally, Trump promised that the Republican health-care bill will save Americans from the catastrophe of the Affordable Care Act. But it's an odd thing to say in Kentucky, which may have fared better than any other state under the ACA. The state accepted the law's expansion of Medicaid and saw an additional 443,000 of its citizens — a full 10 percent of the state's population — get health coverage at no cost. The state also launched its own ACA exchange, Kynect, which was one of the most successful in the country. According to Gallup, the uninsured rate fell from 20.4 percent in 2013 before the law took effect down to 7.8 percent in 2016, a dramatic drop of more than 12 percentage points.

Which means that if the Republicans succeed in repealing the ACA, no state will suffer more than Kentucky. But hey, who needs Medicaid or subsidized health coverage if you've got a great job mining coal, where salaries are high and benefits are comprehensive? Trump repeated that promise, too — that once we get rid of some environmental regulations, all those coal jobs will come back:

"We are going to put our coal miners back to work. They have not been treated well, but they're going to be treated well now. Clean coal, right? Clean coal. I have already eliminated a devastating anti-coal regulation. And that is just the beginning. You saw that, got a lot thank yous from a lot of great people that work very hard and want to keep working. Lot of people are going to be put back to work, lot of coal miners are going back to work. As we speak, we are preparing new executive actions to save our coal industry and to save our wonderful coal miners from continuing to be put out of work. The miners are coming back."

I can't say how many people in Kentucky actually believe that, but no one who knows anything about the coal industry does. The fact is that coal jobs have been declining for decades, and while environmental regulations have some effect, the two big drivers of the reduction in mining jobs are automation (which means fewer miners are needed to produce the same amount of coal) and competition from other forms of energy. Coal is being steadily replaced by renewables such as solar and wind, but more immediately by natural gas, which because of the fracking boom has become plentiful and cheap. Trump has also vowed to promote fracking, though he hasn't explained how that jibes with his pledge to bring back all the coal jobs. There are now only about 50,000 coal-mining jobs left in the country, and no serious person thinks that number is going to go anywhere but down, no matter what policy changes come out of Washington.

The administration hasn't yet said what executive orders Trump is going to sign, but unless he plans to ban fracking, chances are they'll have something to do with relaxing environmental regulations, and will do little if anything to restore any coal jobs. So why is it that Trump feels comfortable repeatedly making this promise that no serious person, Republican or Democrat, thinks he'll be able to keep?

I'd argue that the answer lies in Trump's unique experience as a businessman. In his particular corner of the business world, you really can create wealth just by managing public perception — or at least he could. This was the theory of his entire career, that by fashioning a public persona that was as much of a caricature of wealth and success as Scrooge McDuck, he could turn himself into the picture he was painting. The more people saw Donald Trump as the embodiment of wealth, the more they would want to invest in his projects and buy his products, which would in turn make him wealthier. Making ridiculous promises and outright lying were all part of creating the image; one of my favorite examples is how Trump Tower is 58 stories high, but he numbered the floors up to 68 so that everyone would think it was taller than it is.

And it worked, even if not to quite the extent he claims. Over time, the Trump Organization became less about actual real estate development and more about brand licensing, where he would give someone rights to use the Trump name and its association with garish conspicuous consumption, take little or no risk and just collect the fees. It's a good business, but it's not the same as politics. Brand management is certainly important to political success, but if you're the president, you have to deliver for people, and deliver on things such as health care, which are complex and require difficult trade-offs.

There's another key difference between Trump's business experience and politics. When he conned someone, like the attendees of Trump University, no matter how unhappy they were he could move on to other marks (even if he might have to pay his victims off if the courts caught up with him). It was a big world, and there were always other people who might be taken in by the next scam. But in politics, you have to go back to the people you made promises to the first time around, and ask them to put their faith in you again.

For now, it's obvious that Trump looks at his first legislative priority much like one of his buildings: What matters is that people think it's the tallest one around, even if it isn't. He doesn't seem to know or care much about what's in the GOP's bill to repeal the ACA or what the effects would be. It's just about getting a win one way or the other. Today he met with congressional Republicans not to discuss the content of the bill, but to cajole and threaten them into voting for it. He told Mark Meadows, head of the far-right Freedom Caucus, to stand up while he told him, "I'm gonna come after you, but I know I won't have to, because I know you'll vote 'yes.' " (Meadows says he's still voting no.)

And, in a telling moment, Trump referred to his audience Monday night in Kentucky, and said, "We won't have these crowds if we don't get this done."

So what happens when Trump goes back to Kentucky in three years, and he has taken away voters' health coverage but didn't manage to bring back the coal jobs of yesteryear? We've seen so many profiles of loyal Trump supporters that it's easy to believe that everyone who voted for him in 2016 will do so again no matter what he does or fails to do. But that's not true.

There were a lot of people who voted for Trump even though they knew he was a blowhard and utterly lacking in anything resembling common human decency, but were dissatisfied enough with their personal situation and the state of their communities that they said, "What the hell, let's give him a shot." Their support is not guaranteed. Trump will have to win it all over again if they're going to vote for him in 2020, or vote to keep his party in control in Congress. And if he can't come through for them in real ways, they won't come through for him at the ballot box.


Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Plum Line blog, and a senior writer at The American Prospect.

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