So far, Donald Trump has been fortunate. Not every politician in his position has a base of supporters who will settle for as little as his so often do.
The president spent the weekend and early hours on Monday setting new fires and tending to those that were fading. When Trump was not needling Republican senators (an act that yielded a rare and overwhelming volley of return fire), he was taking credit for dispatching his vice president to Indiana to engage in a theatrical display of indignation over the ongoing protests of NFL players. GOP voters who cast their ballots for intramural antagonism and sprawling, unwinnable culture wars couldn’t have asked for more.
Trump supporters are quick to assert that this is an unfair assessment of this administration’s tangible victories. They’ll contend, correctly, that the president’s Cabinet appointees (those who still occupy their posts) have achieved conservative victories by rolling back Barack Obama’s oppressive regulatory environment. They’ll add that Trump has issued a set of executive orders that enact conservative priorities, with more on the way. Finally, of course, there’s Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. Everything else is the Congressional GOP’s fault. This narrative sets the bar for Trump’s success risibly low. Further, it underestimates how ephemeral so many of the Trump administration’s achievements are.
Case in point has to be the Trump administration’s “immigration wish list,” which dropped late Sunday night and purports to advance many of the stalled immigration-enforcement proposals on which the president campaigned. In exchange for a deal to enshrine Barack Obama’s executive order deferring deportation for illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children (DACA) into law, Trump has demanded more immigration officers, new asylum guidelines, and, naturally, funding for The Wall.
If the president is lucky, his pro-wall constituents will greet this warmly and overlook the fact that he abandoned his promise to pursue a border barrier in his first year in office. In April, Trump applauded as the GOP passed an omnibus spending bill that did not include funding for the new $22-$40 billion infrastructure project. Trump was offered an opportunity to fund his wall, even to be able to credibly say the funds for it came from Mexico when the congressional GOP leadership backed a border adjustment tax. The president rejected the proposal. When Trump supporters began to notice these construction delays, Trump declared his intention to shut down the government over the wall. A few days later, the president sheepishly backed down from his own self-set red lines.
Trump benefits from the fact that his supporters are aware of his blusterous threats, but they might miss the ensuing correction or the walk back. For example, Trump supporters surely heard Trump’s pledge to repeal DACA, and maybe they even heard about the president’s efforts to coordinate on the issue with Democratic congressional leadership, but they probably missed the president’s equivocations. If Congress fails to pass what he and his attorney general called Obama’s unconstitutional executive order into law, Trump pledged that he would “revisit the issue” of DACA’s forthcoming sunset. Why would Republicans take a hard vote that will irritate their constituents just to please Trump if he plans on saving them the trouble? Why would Democrats compromise if they think Trump will simply cave?
Trump fans celebrated when the president declared his intention to abandon the useless Paris climate accords, but they might have missed it when the Trump White House lost its nerve. “As the President has made abundantly clear,” White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters said, “the United States is withdrawing unless we can re-enter on terms that are more favorable to our country.” No, that’s not what he said. He said, “We’re getting out.” Any reengagement on climate issues would be predicated on abandoning Paris. The end.
Trump supporters are now eager to hear how this administration will follow through on a campaign promise to nix the Iran nuclear accords as though we haven’t seen this movie before. Maybe Trump will reluctantly defy his advisors and abrogate the deal, or punt the issue to Congress. If past is prologue and Trump does decide to decertify the accord, he’ll find a way to quietly mute its impact down the road.
The president’s fans are quick to note that Trump’s subordinates are doing conservative things, like rolling back the regulatory environment that stifled economic activity, curtailing executive overreach, and restoring the rule of law on college campuses. That’s all true, and worthy of praise, but none of it is permanent. Trump is undoing Barack Obama’s government by pen and phone, and Trump’s successor can just as easily reverse this administration’s accomplishments. As for Justice Gorsuch, Trump deserves credit for accepting a recommendation, but the credit for his ascension to the bench belongs to Mitch McConnell. For almost a year, the Senate majority leader weathered withering, bipartisan criticism over his decision not to confirm Merrick Garland. As a reward for his foresight, McConnell is slighted by the president’s fans as weak and incompetent.
The GOP-led Congress has, in many ways, failed to meet the measure of its mandate. It failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but the president didn’t help. When he wasn’t attacking early iterations of a replacement as “mean” because they didn’t spend enough taxpayer dollars on… something, he was outsourcing the role of drumming up support for the bill to the congressmen and women busy crafting it. Now, Republicans are pivoting to tax-code reform, even as Trump antagonizes GOP budget committee members and establishes pretexts to blame this presidency’s lack of productivity on congressional rules. In the interim, Trump occupies himself by litigating offenses to his pride committed by anyone who has not adored him sufficiently.
Trump is clearly a talented politician; he’s managed to convince his supporters that these efforts to soothe his wounded ego are a new species of triumph. This or the other blow is being struck against the prevailing cultural elites, or so the rationalization goes. That’s a deflection and a shallow one. It demands of its targets the suspension of disbelief. Fortunately for Trump, he has an eager and willing audience.