There is a prevailing notion that Donald Trump’s presidency has thus far been something of a failure. His major legislative initiatives have stalled, he hasn’t built his wall, he has become embroiled in embarrassing public spats over neo-Nazism and the NFL, and the culture of his White House is characterized by leaks and infighting. In assessing Trump’s job performance last month, the New York Times concluded that his time in office has been a “rolling disaster.” The Chicago Tribune called Trump a “profoundly incompetent president” while Ryan Cooper of The Week labeled this “the most clueless, incompetent, and self-defeating administration in American history.”
It’s understandable that Trump’s critics would reach this conclusion. Nobody who witnessed the Scaramucci episode could possibly think Trump is a capable and rational administrator. In fact, nobody who has witnessed more than ten seconds of Trump’s public career could possibly think him capable and rational. The latest congressional ObamaCare repeal debacle seems to further confirm what was obvious from the first moments of Trump’s presidential campaign: he can make a lot of noise about the things he is going to do, but he is ultimately a vain and stupid con man who is incapable of the close attention and strategic thinking that would actually allow him to do those things. For those of us horrified by the Trump agenda, that’s something of a relief, because an inept Trump is far better than a capable Trump.
But one of the most important, and most quickly forgotten, lessons of the 2016 election cycle is that people who hate Trump and people who love Trump live in completely different worlds. I don’t mean that the former live in snobby coastal enclaves and the latter live in hardscrabble Rust Belt Real America. I mean that the same action by Trump will strike liberals as a “failure” and Trump supporters as a success. Over and over during the campaign, Trump would commit outrageous violations of the protocols of political decorum, which people would label catastrophic gaffes that were going to doom his candidacy. That is not, however, what happened. Liberals declared that Trump was failing, that his childish debate performances had ruined him. (As The Onion put it: “‘This Will Be The End Of Trump’s Campaign,’ Says Increasingly Nervous Man For Seventh Time This Year.”) Then he became president, and it became obvious something was wrong with the analysis.
Given what happened in 2016, then, one should be very careful about concluding that Trump is failing and a catastrophe. First, we know that Donald Trump has a tendency to look as if he is failing by conventional standards while actually succeeding according to other standards. Second, there is a natural inclination toward wishful thinking among those of us who despise Trump: because we think he is stupid and want him to fail, we will seize upon those things that make him appear a stupid failure, and may subconsciously ignore those things that contradict this assessment.
It’s definitely true that Trump’s presidency has been something of a mess. But in taking satisfaction in watching attempts to repeal ObamaCare implode (and they are satisfying), it is important not to overlook the things that Trump has gotten done. For, just as in the campaign, even as the administration is laughable and buffoonish in public, it is quietly taking actions that cause significant harm to human lives. And in certain areas, such as the repealing of environmental regulations, it is not only “not failing,” but is “succeeding” wildly, with the Trump policy agenda barreling forward at full speed.
Many Trump supporters, certainly, aren’t too disappointed in the president. A Reddit user, exasperated at being told by liberals that the president had gotten nothing done, compiled an extraordinary and troubling list of Trump’s “accomplishments.” The administration’s achievements include: confirming hard-right justice Neil Gorsuch, approving the Keystone pipeline, lifting a ban on military gear for local police, canceling hundreds of Obama regulations, introducing a policy to remove federal grants from sanctuary cities, rolling back limits on drone strikes, privatizing national park services, increasing the use of local sheriffs for immigration enforcement, hastening oil and gas pipeline permits, increasing subsidies for coal mining on federal lands, privatizing VA medical services, selling off the U.S.’s strategic oil reserve at low prices, and cutting federal funding from Planned Parenthood. Trump also just instituted a new travel ban that may be difficult to challenge legally. VICE’s list of the laws and executive orders signed by Trump is dizzyingly long, and while many are either symbolic or minor, there’s enough in the bundle to undermine any suggestion that Trump “isn’t getting anything done.”
This becomes even more obvious when one looks at the activities of federal agencies. New York magazine reporter Alec MacGillis wondered why “the story of the Trump administration has been dominated by the Russia investigations, the Obamacare-repeal morass, and cataclysmic internecine warfare,” with nobody looking at what the government itself is actually doing. MacGillis investigated how operations were proceeding at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under Ben Carson. His findings were troubling. The agency had been pulling initiatives to help homeless LGBT people find housing, and the administration appeared committed to gutting HUD’s operations:
The final proposal crafted by Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney called for cutting closer to $7 billion, 15 percent of [HUD’s] total budget. Participants in the Section 8 voucher program would need to pay at least 17 percent more of their income toward rent… Capital funding for public housing would be slashed by a whopping 68 percent — this, after years of cuts that, in New York alone, had left public-housing projects with rampant mold, broken elevators, and faulty boilers.’ “By the time I left, almost 90 percent of our budget was to help people stay in their homes,” [former Obama HUD secretary] Shaun Donovan told me. “So when you have a 15 percent cut to that budget, by definition you’re going to be throwing people out of their homes. You’re literally taking vouchers away from families, you’re literally shutting down public housing, because it can’t be maintained anymore.” The Trump cuts would mean that several programs would be eliminated entirely, including the HOME program, which offers seed money for affordable-housing initiatives, and the $3 billion Community Development Block Grant program… In New York, CDBG helped pay for, among many things, housing-code enforcement, the 311 system, and homeless shelters for veterans. But the grants were also relied on in struggling small towns, where they paid for sidewalks, sewer upgrades, and community centers.
But Carson’s HUD mostly suffers from inaction rather than action, with Carson content to let the agency’s operations stagnate and fall apart, thanks to an ideological commitment to eroding public housing. (Again, what looks like incompetent management to a liberal is actually successful management to a conservative: causing the agency to cease to function is a “failure” of progressivism but accomplishes the right’s goal of undermining the state.) At other agencies, far more proactive steps have been taken. Betsy DeVos received a good deal of press attention for reversing Obama-era policies on campus sexual assault. But that’s far from her only act as Secretary of Education. A prominent DeVos surrogate said that she is “laying the groundwork for federal school choice,” and she has “called for cutting $9 billion from the department in 2018, including $2.3 billion in teacher training grants and $1.2 billion for an after school programs that serves children in some of the nation’s poorest communities, while investing $1.4 billion on new public and private school choice opportunities.” She has revoked regulations designed to help student borrowers defrauded by for-profit schools (making it easier for those schools to swindle vulnerable students out of their money), and has targeted another 150 regulations for review.
Likewise, Steven Mnuchin of the Treasury Department has gotten far too much press over trivial things and not nearly enough over more significant ones. There are plenty of news stories about his disparagement of NFL players, his wife’s hilariously out-of-touch Marie Antoinette-esque Instagram rant, and even Mnuchin’s wearing of transition lenses on a television program. Meanwhile:
The U.S. Treasury Department unveiled a sweeping plan on Monday to upend the country’s financial regulatory framework, which, if successful, would grant many items on Wall Street’s wishlist. The nearly 150-page report suggested more than 100 changes, most of which would be made through regulators rather than Congress, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in an interview. “We were very focused on, what we can do by executive order and through regulators,” he said. “We think about 80% of the substance in the report can be accomplished by regulatory changes, and about 20% by legislation.”… Changes proposed by the Treasury Department include easing up on restrictions big banks now face in their trading operations, lightening the annual stress tests they must undergo, and reducing the powers of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which has been aggressively pursuing bad behavior by financial institutions.
Probably the most frightening Trump Administration “success” has occurred at the EPA, where Secretary Scott Pruitt has been scrapping regulations by the dozen. In an “astounding” burst of activity, Pruitt has “moved to undo, delay or otherwise block more than 30 environmental rules, a regulatory rollback larger in scope than any other over so short a time in the agency’s 47-year history.” Bypassing senior agency officials, and consulting with industry lobbyists instead, Pruitt has been been a highly efficient servant of corporate interests. He has begun to undo the Clean Power Plan, delayed a rule requiring fossil fuel companies to stop methane leaks (the move was temporarily blocked by a federal court), pushed back a requirement designed to prevent chemical spills and explosions, and reversed a ban on a pesticide linked to nerve damage among children. The Trump administration has eliminated the Stream Protection Rule (which prohibits coal companies from “dumping waste in streams“), and CNN recently reported that “within hours of meeting with a mining company CEO, [EPA head Scott Pruitt] directed his staff to withdraw a plan to protect the watershed of Bristol Bay, Alaska, one of the most valuable wild salmon fisheries on Earth.”
There are plenty of other concerning “successes.” A former ICE agent spoken to by the New Yorker said there has been an obvious change in the agency’s culture and that now “The whole idea is targeting kids,” and TIME reports that under Trump, “more undocumented immigrants are being swept up in immigration raids targeting their friends, neighbors and coworkers.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions has effectively ceased the Department of Justice’s efforts to investigate police abuses of power, and has eased restrictions on police seizures of people’s assets. Perhaps most concerning of all, civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria at the hands of America’s military have risen in staggering numbers under Trump, with bombs being dropped at unprecedented rates. As Trump pushes to further increase the military budget and expand on-the-ground operations, this means the violent deaths of hundreds of innocent people.
It’s therefore important to be cautious about concluding Trump’s administration is a “catastrophe.” It certainly is for undocumented people and for civilian populations in Syria. But if there’s one thing we should know by now, it’s that what looks like a catastrophe for Trump’s agenda may not actually be one. It’s important to keep in mind the distinction between the television drama of the Trump presidency and the reality of federal agencies in the Trump executive branch. Regulatory policy does not make it into the press nearly as much, because it’s so much less interesting than Anthony Scaramucci, despite being so much more consequential for people’s lives. One of Donald Trump’s most astonishing and scary accomplishments has been to get everyone to fixate on bullshit, while corporations and the military slowly expand their power over the country. Those who write Trump off as a failure may not appreciate the number of ways in which he has been frighteningly successful.