Did your head spin when Utah’s Orrin Hatch, a true conservative and the Senate’s longest-serving Republican, emerged last week as the most eloquent spokesman for transgender rights? Credit the Trump boomerang effect.
Much has been said about White House dysfunction and how little President Trump has accomplished in his first six months. But that’s not the whole story: In Washington and around the world, in some surprising ways, things are happening — but they are precisely the opposite of what Trump wanted and predicted when he was sworn in.
The boomerang struck first in Europe. Following his election last November, and the British vote last June to leave the European Union, anti-immigrant nationalists were poised to sweep to power across the continent. “In the wake of the electoral victories of the Brexit campaign and Donald Trump, right-wing populism in the rich world has appeared unstoppable,” the Economist wrote. Russian President Vladimir Putin would gain allies, the European Union would fracture.
But European voters, sobered by the spectacle on view in Washington, moved the other way. In March, the Netherlands rejected an anti-immigrant party in favor of a mainstream, conservative coalition. In May, French voters spurned the Putin-loving, immigrant-bashing Marine Le Pen in favor of centrist Emmanuel Macron, who went on to win an overwhelming majority in Parliament and began trying to strengthen, not weaken, the E.U.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom Trump belittled for having allowed so many refugees into her country, has grown steadily more popular in advance of a September election.
Trump’s win seemed certain to bring U.S.-Russian ties out of the deep freeze. Again, the opposite has happened. Congress, which can’t agree on anything, came close to unanimity last week in endorsing tough, Trump-proof sanctions against the Putin regime. Russia is expelling diplomats and seizing U.S. diplomatic properties. The new Cold War is colder than ever.
The third sure thing, once Republicans took control, was the quick demise of Obamacare. We saw last week how that turned out. But here’s the boomerang effect: Obamacare is not just hanging on but becoming more popular the more Trump tries to bury it. And if he now tries to mismanage Obamacare to its death, we may boomerang all the way to single-payer health insurance. This year’s debate showed that most Americans now believe everyone should have access to health care. If the private insurance market is made to seem undependable, the fallback won’t be Trumpcare. It will be Medicare for all.
Once you start looking, you find the boomerang at work in many surprising places. Trump’s flirting with a ban on Muslim immigration encouraged federal judges to encroach on executive power over visa policy. Firing FBI Director James B. Comey entrenched the Russia investigation far more deeply. Withdrawing from the Paris climate treaty spurred states from California to Virginia to toughen their policies on global warming. Threatening the research budget may have strengthened the National Institutes of Health’s hand in Washington. And so on.
The boomerang effect is no panacea. Trump can still do grave damage at home and abroad in the next 3½ years. If he undermined Obamacare, millions of people would suffer before we got to single-payer. Nationalist governments ensconced in parts of Eastern Europe could still draw strength from Trump. The absence of U.S. leadership in the world leaves ample ground for others to cause trouble.
But Trump’s policies are turning against him, and not only because his execution has been so ham-handed. The key factor is that so many of his policies run so counter to the grain of cherished values and ideals.
It turns out that Americans really don’t like the idea of poor people not being able to see a doctor. We don’t feel right cozying up to a dictator whose domestic opponents are rubbed out and whose neighboring countries are invaded and occupied.
And even if some Americans don’t know all that much about transgender people, it turns out we are less comfortable treating anyone as a “burden,” as Trump said in his tweet, than in valuing every individual’s service, a spirit that Hatch captured in his straightforward, humane response.
“I don’t think we should be discriminating against anyone,” Hatch said. “Transgender people are people, and deserve the best we can do for them.”
And Americans aren’t unique. Millions of people in Europe and around the world are just as appalled by the scapegoating of minorities and the celebration of police brutality.
That has an effect. Maybe Newton’s third law of motion doesn’t translate perfectly into the political sphere, but a version of it applies: For every malignant or bigoted action, there will be an opposite reaction. And you can never be sure where it will begin.
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