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In January I wrote a piece wherein I praised President Trump’s first year in office as an “Annus Mirabilis.” In it, I attempted to forthrightly assess his actions as President and the results we had seen. I said that:
[A]ssessing the rest of the year’s policy outcomes, the President has either exceeded or met only his most avid supporters’ wildest dreams,
To the extent that our worst fears weren’t realized, this is an incredibly welcome relief and cause for rejoicing at having been wrong.
My sense of relief was not wrong, but it was, unfortunately, short-lived. The President’s second year in office has been characterized by a variety of unforced errors, which only serve to amplify the typical entropy which creeps into Presidential administrations. Whereas competent managers and normal people attempt to repair and maintain the frontiers of their Administration’s flagging political capital, the normal churn evident in the Trump Administration seems more like an existential threat, driven as it is to ever higher levels by the Executive himself.
The troubles began relatively soon after I wrote my initial praise of the Trump Administration’s first-year accomplishments. The relationship between Trump and his then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was always rocky but finally went critical in March, with the President basically firing Tillerson via his favorite communication medium, Twitter:
Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2018
Tillerson was replaced, but not without considerable difficulty by Mike Pompeo, who in turn gave way to Gina Haspel at CIA via (yet another) bruising confirmation fight. Other signs of instability, such as the long-simmering investigations into the bizarre and autocratic behavior of Scott Pruitt (EPA) resulted in his resignation in June and Trump’s lingering feud with Attorney General Sessions continued to simmer throughout the year. That is, until his long-expected firing on the day after the catastrophic midterm election, without an apparent successor.
As if the staffing issues weren’t enough, Trump’s much-touted “Red Wave” turned out to be a 40-seat Democratic pickup in the House, while a very favorable Senate map for Republicans netted a mere two-seat pickup.
Other troubles, such as the departure of Nikki Haley as UN Ambassador and the apparent ouster of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (and the attendant difficulty in finding a willing successor) give the general public the uncomfortable sensation of personnel fleeing a stricken vessel. Indeed, what credible person would want to go to work for an administration where the boss will bawl you out before the assembled millions on Twitter and your post-administration prospects will forever be judged by his followers in the light of how POTUS publicly tossed you out of the presidential airlock?
Other spots which have been rubbed raw during this year include the activation of one of President Trump’s favorite issues: Tariffs. Unlike his first year, the President made good on his promises by using his powers to place levies on certain imported goods such as steel… which sparked the predictable retaliatory tariffs from our erstwhile trade partners. The price of certain export commodities (such as soybeans) suffered accordingly, as their markets simply ceased to exist, necessitating bailouts of affected farmers. An example of the damage wrought by this policy can be found in a story in the Baton Rouge Advocate, dated December 3:
As a result of the tariff on soybeans, grain elevators had a harder time finding buyers for the crop, and the grain stacked up in storage facilities. Farmers in turn couldn’t find grain elevators willing to buy their crop, especially because it was more damaged by rain than a normal year.
The problems have snowballed into a disaster for many Louisiana soybean farmers, especially in the southwest part of the state. Many had to leave their soybeans in the field, and more and more rain caused the crop to rot to the point where it was unusable. The beans that were usable sold for less money, as waning overseas demand drove down prices.
Emphasis mine. I can confirm that this is not “fake news”; I regularly travel from Baton Rouge across Louisiana in the process of discharging my job and I can report that I have witnessed firsthand the innumerable acres of Soybeans rotting in the field between Red Stick and Shreveport along LA-1, among many other un-harvested crops … largely due to lack of a market. One can only imagine with horror the quantity of crops thus affected, having traveled the vast, agricultural plains between Wisconsin and here many times.
Trade wars it seems are easy to start yet impossible to win, as their first casualties are always your own people.
Moving along to other frontiers, the stock market, which was once sailing high and had been daily setting all-time records throughout 2018 has been locked in a consistent funk in the 4th quarter – which is strangely coincident with when the President’s tariffs began to bite. As of this writing, the Dow had a day in which it shed over 400 points (again) to close below 23,000 for the first time this year. It is totally arguable that the market is simply responding to the impending political reality of partial government takeover by Democrats, so it seems foolish to blame the President for this outcome, and I don’t.
However, if it’s true that the sentiment of the market is forward-looking, one can only assume that many investors see choppy economic waters ahead, and the President’s actions have done nothing to reassure them that the Administration is their friend. This is especially true when the President goes around threatening CEOs of corporations like GM for engaging in otherwise sensible business practices:
Very disappointed with General Motors and their CEO, Mary Barra, for closing plants in Ohio, Michigan and Maryland. Nothing being closed in Mexico & China. The U.S. saved General Motors, and this is the THANKS we get! We are now looking at cutting all @GM subsidies, including….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2018
The President can be a fantastic ally or your worst enemy and he switches his position on what you are with the slimmest of motivations. To quote myself from earlier this year again:
The President remains precisely what we skeptics said about him. He is petty, narcissistic, and a moral cipher. He is the sort of man who carried on trysts with porn stars to low-level applause while his recently pregnant wife remained at home with their infant child.
Nothing that has happened in this past year has changed my opinion of Donald Trump the Man; in fact, it has only served to confirm my darkest worries about him.
Left relatively unremarked upon here is the plodding nature of the Robert Mueller investigation. That train wreck has collared a couple of flunkies for Tax Crimes unrelated to the underlying investigation, and what amount to some process crimes such as lying to the FBI. While it’s true that these things look bad, they don’t cut any ice in terms of threatening the President in relation to the accusation of “Russian Collusion.” No, instead they do threaten his Administration with an unending stream of low-level Congressional investigations which will tie down and wound an already hampered Presidency like so many Lilliputians on Gulliver. The Democrats would be wise (politically) to leave a grievously wounded Trump to fend for himself in the 2020 election, but probably few will be able to resist their worst instincts and they will seek to impeach him out of revenge for their 2016 humiliation. The President benefits typically from his enemies.
What about the good? There is some amount of positive which comes out of this otherwise disastrous and cursed year. The President did stand behind Brett Kavanaugh for long enough to push him through the Democrats’ star chamber of fake accusations (even though Kavanaugh got me abducted by aliens.)
Sadly, the balance of the events which transpired this year point to it being little short of a catastrophe. The President’s supposedly legendary bargaining prowess managed only to accomplish alienating his Congressional allies while chumming the waters for Democrats as he talked smack about defeated members of his own party. Now, the President is laying the groundwork for surrender on what was supposed to be his signature issue: the Wall.
As an immigration restrictionist who yields to no one in that regard, my one true hope for this Presidency was that through a combination of guts and lack of knowledge about what seemed “politically possible,” the President would be able through force of will to coerce his own party and some number of Democrats into meaningful immigration reform and border security. The reality is that Trump has little taste for doing the hard work of convincing people of the rightness of his positions — which seems to stem from the fact that he doesn’t have any tie to those issues beyond the superficial or transactional level. The rare instances where the President has any genuine attachment to principle seem to cut in a direction which actively harms him and the nation, as in the case of Tariffs.
In 2016 I was actively opposed to Donald Trump as the Republican Nominee. I did not vote for him in the Election, choosing instead to vote third party in a state which went for the President by double digits. His very surprising victory heartened me — at least in the sense that we got to feast upon the delicious schadenfreude of our political opponents and their comical self-immolation for the better part of a year. But the sell-by date on schadenfreude passed long ago, and even though 2017 was a year of triumph, the President has precious little time remaining to demonstrate that he is more than just a “bullspitter who got lucky.”