On the night of Aug. 6, President Trump was flying from Cleveland to New Jersey when he suddenly issued executive orders that would ban the social media video app TikTok and WeChat, China’s largest messaging platform, from doing business in the United States.
Corporate executives, lawyers and other officials found themselves scrambling to react to a policy that’s part geopolitical escalation, part abuse of power — and, given the administration’s track record, one that could be revoked at any time.
But the battle over TikTok and WeChat is part of a now-familiar story. The president or his loyalists threaten to upend some policy, institution or norm they know others will fight to defend. Issuing the challenge can be easy: a speech, a leak, a tweet or two, about immigration rules or education regulations or cutting taxes on the rich. In response, Trump’s opponents must invest substantial time, money and effort to resist the proposal — otherwise, Trump wins by default.
Essentially, the administration has weaponized wasting everyone else’s time.
It’s a struggle between firefighters and a spree arsonist. The firefighters must stamp out every blaze, while the arsonist enjoys pouring accelerant, igniting a spark and sauntering off to start anew with kindling elsewhere. And the gradual exhaustion of the firefighters makes it likelier that they will someday fail to contain the flames.
Over the past several years, Trump and his loyalists have frequently managed to weaken and wear out those they see as enemies by proposing moves that cost the administration little. In these cases, the president often wins either by getting the policy he wants or by making his adversaries — among activists, nonprofits, lawyers, legislators, even business executives — spend disproportionately more effort in response. This phenomenon, as much as the administration’s overt malevolence and incompetence, has helped make the Trump era feel like a never-ending cycle. If it seems as if we are fighting the same battles over and over instead of making progress, that’s because in many cases, we are.
Consider the recent fracas over visas for international students. Last month, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that foreigners studying at U.S. colleges and universities would lose their visas if their schools suspended in-person instruction because of the pandemic. ICE’s announcement, just weeks before the coronavirus-accelerated start of the fall semester, upset the plans of hundreds of universities and hundreds of thousands of foreign students.
The response was immediate. Dozens of states and universities filed lawsuits to block the rule. Outraged professors pledged to find ways around it. And then, eight days later, the crisis was over; the administration suddenly said that it was dropping the proposal.
By the usual measures of policy effectiveness — whether any laws passed or regulations changed — nothing happened. Yet the costs of “nothing” were immense. For a single university, analyzing the ICE rule’s effects and determining a response could easily tie up tens of administrators for 10- or 12-hour days. Multiplied by the hundreds of universities affected, it’s reasonable to believe that higher education spent tens or hundreds of thousands of staff hours coping with the rule (while schools were already beset by a public health crisis).
Even that is an underestimate: It doesn’t count work done by others, like the state attorneys general or private lawyers representing universities, who labored to prepare lawsuits that required hundreds of pages of filings. And that’s completely overlooking the emotional harm inflicted on international students facing a choice between infection and deportation. If Trump officials had specifically sought to waste universities’ time, they could not have developed a more cost-effective strategy than dashing off a policy proposal that they later abandoned without a fight.
The administration has produced similar effects elsewhere, including in its immigration policy. Earlier this summer, a Supreme Court ruling preserved the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, despite the administration’s efforts to terminate it.
But the White House has been slow to comply with the court’s judgment, announcing new restrictions on the program and subjecting it to a “comprehensive review.” The groups that won the legal battle now face a choice: take the administration back to court to enforce the law, or give up on protecting DACA beneficiaries.
Once again, the administration has hit upon a low-cost way to make opponents spend time and energy. “If time is a political resource of value,” Syracuse University professor Elizabeth Cohen said, “then anything you can do to force people to spend their time on what you want them to do, not the work they would want to do, is effective.”
The executive orders Trump signed last weekend aimed at mitigating the economic effects of the pandemic are also likely to wind up wasting lots of people’s time. The move upset negotiations at the federal level and piled up work for governors with actual responsibilities at the state level. Even the extension of unemployment benefits, which requires states to provide matching funds, will take months to set up. If, that is, courts or Congress don’t block it first.
Trump’s haphazard policy shifts are so frequent that people often suggest there must be other motivations. Supposedly the administration announces wild new ideas out of nowhere — such as changing federal standards for shower heads, cutting capital gains taxes or staging the president’s GOP convention speech at the Gettysburg battlefield — to distract from scandals or simply to troll its adversaries.
But the real-life effects go much further. The force of the government is often employed to grind away at the president’s opponents and reshape society, even when his proposals end up going nowhere.
And those most affected are often those who are the most vulnerable. Sophisticates dismiss the administration’s strategy of raising issues that can’t go anywhere, like the president’s repeated musings about eliminating birthright citizenship, as scare tactics. But that underrates how frightening it is to be threatened by an immensely powerful government. The administration said in 2017 that it would add a question to the census asking whether a respondent was a citizen, which could lead to an undercount of certain groups by making them afraid to participate, thus skewing congressional apportionment in favor of Republicans. The Supreme Court turned back this effort in June 2019, but not before “civil servants in the census were forced to consider changing a survey instrument they had already spent years planning, reducing resources available for quality assurance and program integrity,” said Philip Rocco, an assistant professor of political science at Marquette University.
Even after his defeat in court, Trump now says he will prevent undocumented immigrants from being counted for congressional apportionment. The new memo means census officials will be forced to waste even more time and effort in planning to implement a policy that will probably be overturned — rather than working to get more responses to the survey.
It’s difficult to quantify these situations, but they seem ubiquitous. “I haven’t looked at a policy area in my research where you have not seen this dynamic,” Rocco says.
Unable to overturn the Affordable Care Act, for instance, the administration has used regulation and administrative slowdowns to weaken the law. So numerous are these attempts that the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities maintains a “Sabotage Watch” blog. Now Trump claims he’ll soon sign an executive order to bar health insurance companies from denying coverage for preexisting conditions — which is already the law under the Affordable Care Act — ensuring that the entire exercise will waste time even if there’s nothing otherwise objectionable in the order.
And the administration has consistently blocked congressional oversight of Cares Act funding for pandemic-related initiatives like the Paycheck Protection Program — forcing lawmakers to spend time establishing their right to investigate such programs rather than, well, investigating them.
All this has led to lawsuits, inquiries and mountains of effort expended to counter Trump’s behavior, with the president and his supporters claiming it’s evidence of “Trump derangement syndrome.” The constant high-stakes fights keep activists, journalists and social media at a boil throughout the cycle of discovering, explaining and processing each new administration initiative. In extreme cases, these cycles can make it seem like a final showdown is at hand.
Yet catharsis never arrives. Some new crisis always comes along to cheat us of even the illusion of finality. Inspector general after inspector general after U.S. attorney is fired, each dismissal somehow displacing the earlier outrages rather than compounding them. Impeachment segues into pandemic. Just cataloguing these battles is exhausting, which may explain why the Trump administration feels uniquely draining.
Of course, sometimes it can be good for a confrontation to end with a whimper, not a bang. No one should complain, for example, that the war scare earlier this year between the United States and Iran, sparked by the U.S. killing of Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, faded without escalating further. But even that apparent nonevent came with a human toll: the deaths of the 176 passengers and crew of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, shot down by Iranian air defenses at the height of the standoff.
If Trump loses in November, one of the hardest things will be figuring out how to calculate the cost — in time, energy and spirit — of all the disasters that never quite came to pass but still wasted our time. Someday, Americans who didn’t live through it all may wonder what the fuss was about. Why were you all so upset about Trump? There were elections, and he lost — it couldn’t have been that bad. And in that happiest world, we will be able to respond only that it took all our strength to make sure nothing big happened.
Nothing, in the end, was the best we could hope for.