The Trump Administration So Far: Damage Done and Lessons Learned

The midterms are in less than a week and a half, marking the symbolic midpoint of the Trump administration. With such a major milestone coming up, it’s a good time to take a look back at all the major highlights of the Trump administration so far. What has he done, who has been affected and what have we learned.

For nearly two years we’ve been maintaining a comprehensive listing of all the terrible actions undertaken by Trump administration. In this time we’ve also put together regular summary reports more than a few unique analyses overviewing important developments and relevant trends (click here for the full list). Drawing from all this, we can put together an overall narrative of the Trump administration so far.

 

A Brief Overview of the Trump Administration so Far

The Trump administration began with a flurry of activity as Trump released a series of executive orders to begin implementing his policies as quickly as possible. The most notable of these orders initiated the travel ban suspending immigration from several Middle Eastern countries, halted implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and restarted construction of the keystone pipeline. Many of these actions were successfully challenged in the courts, however they were often reworked and reintroduced until they eventually stuck.

Travel Ban

At the same time, the Republican congress and administration officials immediately set to work undoing many policies implemented in the closing days of the Obama administration. To do this they made frequent use of the obscure Congressional Review Act, which enables congress to cancel administration policies within a certain timeframe. Among the most notable policies they repealed were the Stream Protection Rule and the Blacklisting Rule.

The next few months saw some very notable developments, including the appointment of Niel Gorsuch and the decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Accords. There were also a number of significant regulatory changes implemented, including the reversal of several key environmental and labor regulations, a major roll back of financial protections under Dodd-Frank and the repeal of several directives which had been aimed at promoting diversity and gender rights in public facilities. However efforts to advance the administration’s legislative agenda proceeded more slowly, and it was becoming apparent that most of their initiatives were stalling as they started running into numerous complications.

Meanwhile, various scandals started to raise questions about potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian agents to influence the 2016 election. These came to a head in May 2017 with the firing of James Comey. The subsequent outcry forced the administration to appoint special prosecutor Robert Mueller to investigate the issue. Over the next year and a half a there were a number of major developments in the case, with a series of dramatic hearings, indictments and convictions all seeming to bring the investigation closer to implicating the administration but never quite getting to that point. Trump periodically flirted with shutting down the investigation, or at least seriously undermining it in various ways, however so far he has refrained from doing anything too significant.

Over the summer of 2017 the drive to repeal the Affordable Care Act finally picked up steam. However, these efforts just as quickly fell apart when it became apparent that any replacement plan the Republicans could were even less popular with the public. Finally, the failure of the Republican’s own “skinny” healthcare package more or less halted the Republican’s repeal efforts altogether. With no alternative of their own and public opinion rapidly turning against them Republicans decided to cut their losses and drop the issue, at least for the time being. From that point on, the Trump administration’s actions on healthcare have been focused primarily on unraveling the ACA through executive orders and regulatory changes. He has also attempted to sabotage enrollment efforts and pushing health insurance markets into a death spiral. All this has had the effect of reducing enrollment by some 3 million people, degrading the quality of health insurance plans and increasing the cost of healthcare premiums.

After the failure of the Obamacare repeal efforts there was a bit of a lull in the administration’s activities. Legislative successes remained limited; however there were still a number of important developments. In Charlottesville, a violent rally by white supremacists and proto-fascists brought Trump’s impact on the broader political culture into sharp relief. On the other hand, the botched response to Hurricane Maria led to a humanitarian disaster which may have caused the deaths of as many as 4,600 people in Puerto Rico. As all this was going on, the administration continued to implement a wide range of regulatory changes, ending net neutrality among other things.

Charlottesville

Finally at the end of the year the Republican congress managed to pass a series tax cuts lowering the tax rate for wealthy Americans to its lowest level in decades. This predictably blew up the deficit, which in turn is now being used to justify further cuts to social services.

Otherwise the end of Trump’s first year saw the administration falling into dysfunction and hitting new lows in popularity. Fittingly, the first anniversary of Trump’s inauguration saw the government shut down, reopen, then shut down again shortly after until a long term spending bill was passed.

The beginning of Trump’s second year saw a significant shift as the administration refocused onto issues that Trump had campaigned on. First, Trump began implementing tariffs on a large scale, setting off a trade war with China and others. These tariffs have been increased steadily throughout the year to the point that they are currently costing the US economy billions of dollars a month and are destabilizing the global economy.

Second, Trump dramatically ramped up his immigration crackdown. While Trump’s deportation drive had always been a major part of his first year in office, his second year saw a notable escalation with the implementation of zero tolerance border detention and family separation policies. The resulting backlash forced him to reverse course somewhat, however many of these policies and their long term consequences continue to be felt.

During the summer, conservatives managed two coups in the courts. First, anti-union lobbyists were handed a significant win in the case of Janus v. AFSCME which crippled public sector unions. Then they secured the retirement of Justice Robert Kennedy, paving the way for their long sought after conservative Supreme Court majority. Through September and early October of 2018 the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh became a major controversy as accusations of sexual assault and perjury surfaced against him. Undeterred, Republicans in congress pushed ahead with the nomination while Trump hobbled the FBI investigation looking into the various allegations. Kavanaugh was eventually appointed anyways, locking in a conservative majority on the Supreme court for at least a generation and seriously undermining the legitimacy of the court.

Kavano

Through all this, Trump’s foreign policy has been mostly inconsistent. He’s alternately jumped back and forth between antagonizing allies, pandering to enemies, carrying out ill conceived military strikes and threatening to blow up America’s network of diplomatic alliances. At times he’s hinted at a turn towards more traditional Neo-conservatism, appointing Bush era stalwart John Bolton and tearing up the Iran nuclear deal, but for the most part he just doesn’t seem too interested in any particular vision or strategy for US foreign policy beyond asserting American dominance at every opportunity. Compounding this confusion is a general mismanagement of the American diplomatic corps, particularly under the historically inept Rex Tillerson, and poor working relationships with international bodies like the International Criminal Court.

Similarly Trump also has a terrible record with the civil service. His efforts to cut down the federal work force, including implementing a hiring freeze, has left many parts of the government dangerously undermanned at a time when a large part of the workforce is set to retire. Meanwhile, his constant attempts to slash employee benefits and protections, and his frequent crackdowns against leaks, have left the civil service demoralized.

With the midterms approaching, Trump shifted gears to stirring up his base. He ginned up fears by accusing protesters of lawless and attempted to create a red scare through various attacks on socialism. He also accused a migrant caravan from Central America of harboring terrorists and threatened to call out the military on them. This incited numerous instances of right wing violence, with Trump supporting Proud Boys gang beat a man in New York and letter bombs being sent to a number of Democratic politicians and media organizations. Trump responded to these episodes by throwing gasoline on the fire, attacking the media and putting fronting conspiracy theories.

 

Assessing the Damage

While we’ve been tracking the administration’s actions we’ve made an effort to score them by relative impact. This, we hope, allows us to determine where the Trump administration is having is having its biggest effect. We acknowledge that there are a lot of issues with trying to do this, and any score we come up with is bound to be subject. But we’ve tried to keep our system balanced and fair, and while it may not be perfect we still think it provides a pretty good benchmark to start from. A full accounting of our scores can be seen here.

As we figure it, the largest share of Trump’s impact has been felt in terms of straight forward terms of material well-being. Whether these are felt in the short term through cuts to healthcare and social spending or the long term impacts of climate change, economic costs represent about half the administration’s total impact. His impact on civil liberties and human rights has also been profound. We figure it accounts for roughly a quarter of Trump’s total impact, mainly driven by his draconian immigration crackdown. His degradation of government institutions follows closely behind at 22%, thanks mainly to corruption, multiple scandals and general mismanagement. Foreign policy remains an area of relatively low focus, but has some notable developments.

Q7 Table
A full size version of this table may be found here

So let’s try grounding all this in real terms. Obviously, Translating this into an overall tabulation of costs would be impossible, since the consequences felt by a given policy change can be abstract and qualitatively different from one another. But we can look at the cost of individual actions to help put things in perspective.

This is easiest in the realm of economic policy where there are no shortage of cost-benefit analyses. For example, ending the Clean Power Plan, which we give an impact score of 120, would have the effect of increasing carbon emissions by around 11 million metric tons by 2025. With one estimate putting the average cost to the global economy of each ton at $417, this would mean the policy would end up costing the global economy something on the order of $4.5 billion. Meanwhile the cost of Trump’s trade war, which we give an impact score of about 2160, is expected to cost the global economy about $430 billion by 2020. The efforts to undermine Obamacare in Trump’s first year, which we gave an impact score of 3071.5, is expected to increase healthcare premiums by 18%, increase federal spending on healthcare by $33 billion, and reduce the number of insured people by 6.5 million by 2019. And then of course there are the thousands of dead and devastated infrastructure that have resulted from Trump’s negligence of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Taken together, these things represent just a fraction of everything Trump has done in the economic sphere. Overall, the total costs of his economic policies could easily range in the trillions of dollars.

The costs to civil liberties and human rights can’t be calculated in monetary terms, but we can see their cost in human terms. We know that hundreds of thousands of refugees from Haiti and Central America are being deported. We know that hundreds of thousands more refugees will never have the opportunity to find refuge in the US. We know that Trump has also made their homelands much worse as he’s cut foreign aid and undermined efforts to promote human rights. We know that thousands of detained immigrants in places like Victoriaville are being packed together in squalid conditions with rampant diseases. We know that thousands of immigrant children were traumatically separated from their families, and many of them are already falling through the cracks and may never be reunited with them. We know that tens of thousands of people in places like Georgia won’t be able to vote due to draconian voter suppression laws Trump’s justice department refuses to combat.

Family seperation

As for institutional effects, the corruption and conflicts of interests that infest the Trump administration have undoubtedly cost billions of taxpayer dollars. It has also seriously undermines the legitimacy of the government knowing that it’s staffed by people who break the law regularly. The mismanagement of the civil service both harms their livelihoods and leads to costly inefficiencies through short staffing, low morale and high turnover. Trump has also legitimized political violence, both by encouraging heavy handed tactics like deploying the military to deal with refugees and by encouraging fascist elements and excusing their bad behavior when they beat people in the street or send bombs to politicians.

And then there’s foreign policy. Trump’s almost unconditional support of Saudi Arabia has enabled a genocidal campaign that has left as many as 13 million people facing starvation. The decision to withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal and arms treaties with Russia leave us facing a new and dangerous arms race. The constant antagonizing of allies and contempt for international institutions is leaving the US isolated and a laughing stock in the international community.

The effects of many of these actions are immediate and acute, like his travel ban. Others will be felt for decades to come, such as his efforts to undermine climate control policy. Many are very public, like his frequent attacks on the media. Some are more subtle, like his repeal of countless obscure consumer protections. Quite a few are ticking time bombs threatening to blow us all to hell, like the roll back of financial safeguards meant to prevent another great recession.

In short, we have all experienced significant consequences from the Trump administration, in a variety of ways. We are going to be living with these consequences for many years to come.

 

Key Patterns and Lessons Learned

Over the last year and a half we’ve analyzed the Trump administration from various different perspectives. We’ve looked at the ways it has tended to implement policies. We’ve tried to assess the extent to which it appears to break from conservative orthodoxy. We’ve tried to determine its ability to act in a focused, strategic manner. And we’ve also looked at how the Trump administration’s actions tend to play with the public. From this, we’ve been able to identify a couple of key patterns and lessons learned.

 

1. Trump Has Primarily Implemented His Policies Through His Executive Powers

As we’ve noted, with the exception of his tax cut, Trump and the Republican congress have mostly not been very successful in passing major legislation. So like many Presidents before him Trump has been forced to rely on his executive powers to enact policy, issuing executive orders and altering regulations. He’s also been successful in packing his ideological allies into the civil service and judiciary.

Why is this important?

Because it means that even if the Democrats retake congress that will still not be enough to stop Trump’s agenda. To be sure, the fact that Trump and the Republicans have been unable to pass major legislation is a blessing. But it also means that even if the Democrats win congress Trump will still be able to enact his policies almost as effectively as he already is. Moreover if they don’t win the Senate they won’t be able to stop most of his appointments.

This means that undoing the damage of the Trump administration is going to take a lot more than just winning back congress in 2018. Moreover, removing Trump is only a first step in this as well. Republicans need to be kept out of power long enough to ensure that the ideologues they’ve packed into the government can be cycled out. In the mean time, more direct means need to be taken to resist Trump’s actions. We may even need to consider more fundamental changes to a system that’s being rigged against us, like packing the courts (it wouldn’t be the first time).

 

2. Trump Has Frequently Broken With Republican Orthodoxy, And Republicans Have Largely Gone Along With It

Trump has done many things that can be seen as breaking the Republican party on trade, foreign policy and a number of other issues. He’s also pressed an exceptionally hard line on immigration, which is popular among the Tea Party elements of the party but is at odds with the Republican establishment.

Moreover, he’s done plenty of things that should be considered repellent to anyone. He’s helped normalize alt right fascism, has tacitly endorsed political violence and runs roughshod over political institutions on a regular basis. Moreover, his administration is exceptionally corrupt and has done many things that some would consider treasonous.

But through all of this Republicans have yet to seriously break with Trump on any major issue. They’ve also consistently blocked any effort to hold Trump accountable for his actions. Nor has the Republican base been alienated in any significant way. Their approval of Trump tends to run very high. In fact, it seems like the Republicans are slowly turning towards Trump, with more and more Republicans adopting Trumpist rhetoric in their campaigns.

Why is this important

Becuse it suggests that any hopes of Republican resistance to Trump are probably empty. Jeff Flake may hem and haw from time to time, and many Republicans may treat Trump with overt contempt, but at the end of the day they pretty much always end up siding with him.

Flakey

Partly this is a matter of partisan allegiances. Even if they don’t like Trump they don’t want to be seen as disloyal. Partly it’s a strategic calculation. They know dividing Republicans into warring factions would only benefit Democrats. Mostly though, it’s because despite their differences Trump is basically giving them what they want.

Moreover, Trump may reflect the Republican base better than the Republican establishment does. The Republicans have been favorable to globalization and guest visas on the basis of free markets, but their base was always hostile to international organizations and immigration. If Republican voters were asked to choose between a moderate and Trump, they’d almost certainly pick Trump.

All this is to say that any strategy based on Republicans defecting against Trump are probably dead in the water.

 

3. The Trump Administration Has Implemented Policies in a Very Broad, Unfocused Way

Throughout Trump’s presidency, we’ve noted a general lack of focus in the way his administration operates. In part, this is due to Trump’s own political style. While Trumpism has many defining features, ethno-nationalism and cultural reaction chief among them, it isn’t a particularly well defined world view with any specific end goal in mind. And to put it blunty Trump doesn’t seem to have the mental discipline to stick to a consistent long term strategy, and his tendency to play musical chairs with his advisers largely prevents them from attempting one either.

We can also add to that that the lack of success in the legislature puts a damper on the administration’s ability to mount any comprehensive effort. Policy making largely falls to department heads who carry out their rulemaking and deregulatory campaigns in isolation from one another.

And to top this off, the Trump administration is always in a cycle of reacting and being reacted to. Trump throws himself into any emerging issue of the day, which engenders controversy in the press and resistance from the left. Meanwhile, any one of the many scandals unfolding at any given time could always drop a bombshell.

Why is this important?

Namely, it makes it difficult to mount a focused resistance.

To be sure, the fact that the Trump administration is unfocused means it’s also ineffective. Moreover, the fact that Trump has hit on pretty much any issue that people on the left care about means that he’s provided a catalyst for resistance from every segments of the Democratic coalition.

But it also makes it difficult to put that resistance into a coherent narrative that resonates with the public at large. In a lot of ways Trump is playing to the weakness of the Democratic coalition, which is organized around particular issues rather than a single ideology. There have been more or less constantly demonstrations against the Trump administration centered around these issues, like the Women’s March, the March for Science, the March for Our Lives, the Families Belong Together March and so on. But for many its hard to say what all this amounts to beyond a reaction to Trump and a grab bag of otherwise unrelated liberal policies.

In practical terms, it also makes organizing difficult, since all the energy and attention that groups can draw on after one controversy may just as quickly shift to something else in a few weeks. This has also prevented the various scandals of the administration from gaining too much traction with the public.

All this is to say that there’s a definite need for movements on the left to develop themselves into something bigger than simply a reaction to Trump.

 

4. Things Like Healthcare Seem To Cause A Broad Public Backlash, More Cultural Issues Usually Don’t, And There’s A Diminishing Return to Scandals

Generally speaking any time Trump and the Republicans seriously tried to act on the issue of healthcare the public reacted very negatively. The period in late 2017 after Trump and Republicans tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act was its lowest point in terms of popularity.

By contrast, while Trump’s immigration crackdown does engender sharp reactions on the left, it doesn’t tend to hurt the administration’s popularity with the public at large, nor has it done much to motivate latino voters. By that same token the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, which was framed largely through the prism of MeToo, didn’t really hurt the administration much either, even with women. In fact, both of those events appear to have solidified Trump’s support among his base.

Meanwhile the various scandals surrounding the Trump administration can seriously undermine its legitimacy, but this impact appears to diminish over time. While the Russian probe has plugged at a pretty rapid clip, public interest appears to have waned. So while Trump’s decision to fire James Comey in early 2017 caused his approval ratings to plummet, the indictment of Paul Manafort merely shifted his net approval by 2-4 points for a few weeks.

Why is this important

This helps keep our strategies in perspective, and allows us to think about how to motivate people more strategically.

It’s not really difficult to understand why healthcare motivates a lot of people. It’s an issue that affects more or less everyone in a very straightforward way. People seem to have caught on to that fact. This is why almost half of spending by Democratic candidates tends to be focused on healthcare, even though it hasn’t really been in the news that much in the last year. It’s also a large part of the reason why Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Socialists have made Medicare for All their marquee issue. It’s not just a goal in and of itself, it’s also a clear winner politically speaking.

medicare_for_all_democrats_0

By contrast issue like immigration, reproductive rights and other social issues tend to have a more targeted appeal. These are things that affect some people very acutely, but usually don’t impact most people. As such very few people prioritize them as issues, often even within the communities they affect the most. Moreover, while the conventional wisdom holds that culture war issues have favored Democrats since about 2010 or so, it’s still worth remembering that they’re still highly contentious issues that can be easily fed into political binaries.

Arguably there’s a similar dynamic with scandals. Some people are very committed to following the day to day development of scandals like the Russian probe, but they are typically in the minority. The broader public does care about these things, but usually only in so far as they expect them to lead to something. The longer scandals go on without a major breakthrough the more people tend to stop paying attention. By that same toke, whether people are inclined to believe a particular accusation usually comes down to their political loyalties.

This has sometimes led to some miscalculations by the anti-Trump resistance. Often times things they assume should lead to universal outrage will only end up being narrowcast to people who already agree with them.

This isn’t a problem unique to the left, of course. Trump himself is essentially the product of 20 years of the right griping to itself about “PC culture” and White Water. And Trump’s appeals to racial resentment do in fact alienate more voters than it attracts. But Trump only needs to play to the 30% of the population that already agrees with him because the system is inherently biased towards them. On the other hand, the Democrats need to mobilize the other 70% to overcome that bias. So it makes sense that Democrats would want to focus on issues where they have a much much better change of making a broad appeal, like healthcare.

This isn’t to say that these social issues or scandal aren’t important, though. On the contrary, the problem is often that Democrats aren’t adequately explaining why such things should be seen as important, or they try to waffle on them in a way that’s confusing. For example, part of the reason why the immigration crackdown hasn’t engendered more backlash from the latino community is due to lousy outreach. Likewise, by preemptively nixing impeachment the Democratic leadership may be signaling to voters that they don’t take the abuses of the Trump administration seriously.

And again, Trump’s appeals to bigotry and his corrosive influence on institutions aren’t really a net positive for him. Those things probably cost him more votes than they gained him in 2016. Moreover, attempts to emulate Trump in state and local elections have usually backfired pretty spectacularly. That is to say these issues can be political winners if they’re played right.

 

5. So Far, The Administration Has Not Self Destructed

Throughout Trump’s first year, there was a very strong expectation that his administration was bound to implode one way or another. Maybe the Russian probe would bring him down. Maybe he’d do something so outrageous that he’d turn more or less the entire country, including most Republicans, against him. Maybe he’d wreck the economy. Maybe he’d be revealed to be mentally incompetent and Article 25 could be invoked to remove him. Or maybe he’d just get sick of being President and leave.

Many of these things were clearly unlikely, but it wasn’t unreasonable to expect one of them to pan out. And if betting markets were any indication, at points people were putting the odds of him finishing his term at less than 50/50 through most of 2017.

But as of yet the Trump administration hasn’t blown itself to hell, and it’s looking increasingly unlikely that it ever will. Republican support for Trump has been rock solid, as we’ve already discussed. Moreover, it looks like Trump will retain just enough plausible deniability to avoid getting indicted for anything, and he will likely stay just on the right side of the law in terms of tampering with investigations.

Why does this matter?

Because it means we’re not just going to win by default and things probably aren’t going to come as easy as they should.

To be clear, while the Trump administration hasn’t completely imploded, it has been a disaster for all involved. He’s historically unpopular with everyone outside the Republican base, and he is suffering consequences from all these scandals and missteps. In all likelihood, things probably will get significantly worse for him when the economy tanks, which is almost certain to happen. And of course, the Russian probe could still blow wide open.

This is to say that while Trump has been surprisingly resilient he’s not some unstoppable juggernaut or Teflon man that can brush off anything. He’s almost certainly going to lose in the long term, and in the process he is going to take down many many people with him.

But if things keep going as they are it won’t be a rout. And that’s a problem because in order to undo the damage of the Trump administration we need a rout. It’s not enough to just beat back Trump and his allies, we need to run them so far out of power that they’ll never recover.

And again, that means the anti-Trump resistance needs to be more than just a reaction to Trump. “Returning to normal” isn’t enough, because if normal turns out to not be good enough and the only alternative is someone like Trump, people will eventually take that chance. We need to have the audacity to face the broad systemic problems that exist in our society and present a bold vision of the world we want to build.

 

Conclusion

Slightly less than half way through its run the Trump administration has already had devastating consequences that we’ll be living with for decades to come. Efforts to resist these actions and curb the worst excesses of the administration have been admirable, but they need to go further. This means voting in the midterms, the general elections, and every local election in-between and after to deny Trump and his allies the opportunity to wrap their octopus tentacles around the levers of power.

More than that, we need to be prepared to combat the deep seeded dysfunctions in our society that produced Trump in the first place. We need to push for more ambitious solutions to our problems and work outside the narrow confines of electoral politics to affect change. This will require a significant, sustained commitment of energy and personal investment from millions of people, but as we’ve seen the stakes are too high not to.

2 thoughts on “The Trump Administration So Far: Damage Done and Lessons Learned

  1. Reading this doesn’t sound encouraging. We were making GOOD progress with consumer protection regulations, environmental protection regulations, and now Trump’s hatred of Obama has gone to DOING AWAY With most of these. How can a person be so hateful as to do these things which are so damaging to the nation and peoples well-being and health? An ethical congress would have put a stop to all this a long time ago, but the congress we have is ONLY ABOUT THEIR SELF-INTERESTS our nation BE DAMNED. WE need to make some basic changes in our federal government that would permit getting rid of such bad actors. The federal government we currently have will end up destroying our country and we WILL BECOME a country of RICH RULERS AND SERFS.

    Like

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