Vice President Pence’s obsequiousness at a recent Cabinet meeting — “Thank you for seeing, through the course of this year, an agenda that is truly restoring this country. . .” and on, and on — might be appropriate at a Communist Party Central Committee meeting or at a despot’s birthday party. But it is not the language of any self-respecting republic.
The divestment of self-respect is a qualification for employment in the Trump administration. Praising the Dear Leader in a Pence-like fashion seems to be what the Dear Leader requires — not in the way we might need dessert after dinner, but in the way an addict needs drugs. President Trump divides the world into two categories: flunkies and enemies. Pence is the cringing, fawning high priest of flunkiness. It is hard to know whether to laugh or puke (and difficult to do both at the same time).
It is precisely the claim of miracles by mediocrities that makes it hard for some of us to judge Trump’s first-year record with any objectivity. Compared with his claims of world-historic change, Trump has accomplished little. But how does his record compare with more realistic expectations?
The Republican case for Trump comes down to: the appointment of conservative judges, including Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court; the “defeat” of the Islamic State; and tax and regulatory reform. Whatever your views of the merits of these actions, they are consequential. Add to this the facts that Trump hasn’t blown up the world or suspended the legislature, and Trump is gaining a strange new respect among some conservatives.
There is less here than meets the eye. Trump chose Gorsuch from a Federalist Society list and didn’t fatally undermine Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) careful confirmation effort. The demolition of the Islamic State was largely the continuation and culmination of an Obama-era strategy. And the tax overhaul, with serious virtues such as the cut in corporate rates, also has serious distributional and deficit problems.
This agenda was remarkable only for being so typical. Any Republican president from the 2016 primary field would have appointed conservative judges, continued the offensive against the Islamic State, and cut taxes and regulations. (He or she would also, in all likelihood, have succeeded at an Obamacare replacement.) But this is precisely the point. Trump spent the political capital of his first year — the highest it will ever be — on a few, generic GOP goals. Despite the fulminations of the left, this is not as frightening as some of the alternatives.
It is important to count our blessings, even when they are meager. But for Republicans and conservatives, it is also important to count the costs — the tonnage on the other side of the balance.
The war against terrorism has been rebooted on the basis of anti-Muslim bigotry, which undermines domestic law enforcement and anti-radicalization efforts. Authoritarian regimes around the world — now shielded from human rights criticism — feel more secure. Dissidents and democratic activists feel more lonely and abandoned. Fleeing refugees feel more desperate and friendless. The president is conducting delicate nuclear negotiations with demeaning pet names. Morale at the State Department is in collapse, leading to the hemorrhaging of diplomatic talent and experience. Trump has alienated important allies with demands for protection money. The United States has stepped back from effective economic competition in Asia, leaving China a more dominant regional power. Russia, in all likelihood, has helped elect a favorable U.S. president in the largest intelligence coup of modern history.
Trump has tried to undermine the credibility of important institutions — the courts, the FBI, intelligence agencies, the media — that check his power and expose his duplicity. He has used his office (and Twitter account) to target individual Americans for harm without due process. He attacks the very idea of truth in a daily torrent of despicable lies. The moral authority of the presidency is in tatters. He has made our common life more vulgar and brutal, and complicated the moral education of children. Racists are emboldened and included in the GOP coalition. He has caused a large portion of Republicans to live in an alternate reality of resentment and hatred, which complicates the possibility of governing and is likely to discredit the party among the young, minorities, women and college-educated voters for decades to come.
Trump’s domestic agenda . . . requires another column. But after a year, this much is clear: Almost all of Trump’s accomplishments are the work of traditional Republican policy staffers and congressional leaders. Almost all of Trump’s failures are functions of his character. And that isn’t going to change.