Trump Turns One
A year into Donald Trump's presidency, how are things going?
The 45th president does not tend to elicit measured evaluations. Since even before his formal entry into national politics in 2015, Trump has acted as a powerful magnet on the body politic—attracting and repelling onlookers with equal force.
A year ago, as we prepared to see a former reality television star sworn into the highest office on Earth, predictions abounded regarding the effects he was about to have on the country and the world. On one side were confident assertions that he would repeal the Affordable Care Act, bring back manufacturing jobs, and end political correctness once and for all. On the other were fears that he was a racist and a dimwit who would certainly abuse the powers of his station and might well start a nuclear war.
On the Trump presidency's first birthday, the reality is less extreme than either set of prognosticators envisioned. The Republican Party under his leadership managed one major legislative accomplishment—tax reform that cut the corporate rate and is projected to add nearly $1.5 trillion to the debt—and failed after months of wrangling to enact an Obamacare replacement. Tensions with foreign governments from Iran to Russia to North Korea continue to simmer. The stock market has followed a dramatic upward trajectory, yet anger continues to grow over perceived wealth and income inequality. With the midterm elections now 10 months away, political polarization seems to hit new highs daily, but in many ways the checks and balances of our federalist system are working to keep even the current unscrupulous White House occupant from actualizing his most ambitious plans.
As the 365-day mark approaches, have we reached a milestone worth celebrating or taken just another step in our national descent to unthinkable places? Reason asked 11 experts to weigh in on Trump's record so far. From positive signs on transportation policy and regulatory rollback to a worrying rise in nationalist sentiments and redoubled efforts to cleanse the United States of undocumented immigrants, the answers were a mixed bag, highlighting just how much uncertainty awaits the country in the year to come.
TAXES AND HEALTH CARE:
Victory, Sort of, Maybe
At the beginning of 2017, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan told GOP lawmakers that the new Congress would repeal Obamacare and pass deficit-neutral tax reform by August. At summer's end, Republicans, despite holding majorities in both chambers, had accomplished neither. But eventually they would accomplish parts of each.
In March, the House was set to hold a vote on legislation that would have repealed much of the Affordable Care Act while setting up a new system of related federal tax credits. Ryan was initially forced to pull the bill from the floor due to lack of support, but after making a series of tweaks intended to provide states with more flexibility, the body passed a health care bill in May.
GOP leaders congratulated themselves for making progress on the issue, but the plaudits were premature. The bill stalled out in the Senate. By September, the Obamacare repeal effort was dead and Republicans had moved on to more comfortable territory: rewriting the tax code.
At the center of the new effort was a significant cut to America's corporate tax rate, which at 35 percent was the highest in the developed world. Donald Trump had campaigned on slashing it to 15 percent. The GOP aimed for 20.
At first, the tax effort went much like the health care effort. There were disagreements between the House, which hoped to partially offset any revenue losses with spending cuts, and the Senate, which gave itself permission to increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion. Republican senators also disagreed among themselves: Jeff Flake (R–Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R–Tenn.) worried about sinking the country further into the red, for instance, while Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) and Mike Lee (R–Utah) wanted a potentially pricey increase in the child tax credit.
Moderates like Sen. Susan Collins (R–Maine) meanwhile reserved judgment for other reasons—such as concern over increasing the number of Americans without insurance.
That was an issue because the tax plan had become a sort of stealth health care bill. Recall that the Supreme Court in 2012 deemed Obamacare's individual mandate constitutionally permissible only if understood as a tax. So the GOP legislation offset some of the loss in revenue from its reduced tax rates by eliminating the mandate. According to the Congressional Budget Office, that repeal would save about $340 billion over a decade—by leaving 13 million fewer people with government-subsidized health coverage.
It came down to a drawn-out late-night vote, but at nearly 2 a.m. on December 2, Senate Republicans gave the plan the go-ahead. Less than three weeks later, the House passed an amended version and President Trump signed it into law.
The final bill permanently dropped the corporate tax rate to 21 percent. It also expanded the child tax credit, cut individual tax rates across all seven brackets, and doubled the standard deduction, meaning fewer people will file itemized returns. The individual cuts will expire within a decade, but for now they reduce taxes for every income group.
Although Republicans claimed the bill would pay for itself by spurring economic growth, no independent economic analysis agreed. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget found that it could raise the deficit by $2.2 trillion over a decade.
Obamacare's individual mandate was repealed, though its spending on subsidies and major regulations remained. By year's end, Trump's party could claim partial victory—imperfect as it might be—on both taxes and health care.
So Far, So Good
Robert Poole Jr.
In its first year, the Donald Trump administration has appointed good people and enunciated market-oriented principles on transportation policy. But the acid test will come when we see how much congressional support can be won for the president's forthcoming infrastructure plan.
Since "people are policy," transportation-related appointments count as a positive. Elaine Chao as Department of Transportation (DOT) head and D.J. Gribbin as White House infrastructure sherpa are highly qualified choices with sound policy ideas. Other senior appointees also look good.
Early on, the White House endorsed an effort to "corporatize" the poorly run Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic control system, which raised that reform's priority with House GOP leadership. But this further politicized the issue for Democrats in Congress, and if the lower chamber passes the bill, there is still no Senate counterpart.
In January, the administration is expected to release a 75-page infrastructure proposal. It is likely to build on a six-page fact sheet released in May—a document that made the radical suggestion that the federal government's current role is far out of proportion to the fact that most public-serving infrastructure is owned and operated by state and local governments and doesn't touch on national interests.
Four key principles were propounded in that sheet: The administration will make only targeted federal investments into transportation projects; it will encourage self-help by state and local governments; it will align infrastructure investments with the entities that can best operate and maintain those facilities; and it will leverage the private sector.
It seems clear that $200 billion (over 10 years) is now the plan's ceiling on federal transportation infrastructure spending. For the most part, that amount will be reallocated from existing federal programs. The rest of the $1 trillion in related expenditures will have to come from state, local, and private investment—which is, of course, as it should be.
While there will be bipartisan resistance in Congress to much of Trump's transportation agenda, this is the first time any administration has undertaken a serious rethinking of the role of the federal government in infrastructure projects. The move is sorely needed.
From the beginning of his political career, Donald Trump has articulated a view of immigrants that could lead only in one direction: toward policies to rid the country of them.
The president started 2017 by ordering a "travel ban" that barred nationals of six majority-Muslim countries. By November, he had substantially reduced the number of people allowed in from all Muslim-majority countries and cut Muslim refugee admissions by 94 percent. (Christian refugees have not benefited either—he slashed their admissions by two-thirds.)
Trump's promises of a "merit-based" system haven't spared skilled immigrants. Administration officials are harassing employers of H-1B workers, redefining which occupations qualify as "skilled," and challenging an unprecedented number of applications. They also rescinded a rule that authorized 100,000 spouses of H-1B holders to find jobs in the country.
Unsurprisingly, the government issued fewer visas overall this year than last. Those trying to come legally faced an onslaught of new regulations that have doubled or tripled the length of required forms, forcing many to hire attorneys to help them answer opaque "extreme vetting" questions.
In January 2017, Trump stated his intention to deport "probably 2 million, could be even 3 million" immigrants. But his executive order went even further, declaring open season on virtually all unauthorized immigrants, a population of over 11 million. Though he hasn't broken records yet, arrests jumped on his watch. In September, he ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gave work authorizations to people who were illegally brought here as children.
The year laid the foundation for the president's long-term agenda. Facing legal challenges to his travel ban, he asserted the power to prohibit any group of immigrants for any reason at all. The Supreme Court apparently agrees: In December, it allowed the ban to take effect while the justices consider a final ruling. This power could prove useful if lawmakers fail to pass a Trump-endorsed bill to cut legal immigration in half.
The president also laid some literal foundations for his favorite vanity project: a border wall. But to get far, he'll need money from Congress. As the new year dawns, he's asked for a deal: less legal immigration plus funds for his wall and mass deportation ambitions, in exchange for giving citizenship to DACA recipients. It's a bargain policy makers are unlikely to take. He'll have to find other ways to advance his anti-immigration agenda.
Maximum Panic, Minimum Upheaval
Sometimes the big stories are the ones that don't happen.
Days after his election, Donald Trump went on 60 Minutes and said of the gay marriage legal cases: "They've been settled, and I'm fine with that." I predicted at Overlawyered that of the many reasons to worry about his incoming administration, "so far as I can see, anti-gay policies aren't in the top 25."
How'd that stand up? By and large, the "assault on LGBTQ equality" predicted by the Huffington Post and many others hasn't happened. True, Trump appointees pulled back from several controversial Obama positions. They withdrew an ill-considered plan to impose a nationwide school bathroom code. They refused to back the Democrats' Equality Act, which would nationalize public-accommodations law and minimize exemptions. They dis-endorsed an ambitious theory that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act already bans sexual orientation discrimination in the private workplace, and that courts simply didn't notice that fact until recently.
In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, they weighed in on the Christian baker's side—but not on religious liberty grounds, let alone with any urging of the Court to reconsider the Obergefell decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Instead, they offered careful and narrow First Amendment arguments based on the need to protect against forced expression.
Remember the enormous freakout last spring about a White House executive order that would give religious sentiments precedence over discrimination law? Presidents can't actually do that, but the reality didn't forestall a whole week of anticipatory #LicenseToDiscriminate rending of social justice garments.
When the actual executive order came out in May, it included almost none of the controversial ideas and mostly kicked future decisions down to the agency level. It didn't even roll back anti-discrimination rules for federal contractors.
The exception to all this caution and conciliation was Trump's impatient, imperious decree of a flat ban on military service by transgender people, which is currently stalled in court. Whatever the order's eventual fate, it serves as a reminder that the T track can diverge from the G and L.
Organized gay and anti-gay groups keep their respective bases in a constant state of alarm with crisis talk. But the actual course being steered is centrist.
Still Going Strong Abroad
Before Election Day, I found the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency almost as ridiculous and terrifying as the idea of Charlie Sheen with nukes. Things haven't gone as badly as I feared: Our political system—on the home front, at least—has been surprisingly resistant to one-man rule.
In part, that's because being a successful autocrat requires a modicum of competence and self-restraint, qualities Trump lacks. A competent authoritarian wouldn't dare "so called judge[s]" to overturn his edicts; fantasize on Twitter about silencing critics and prosecuting political foes; or confess to obstruction of justice on national TV, as Trump practically did when he told NBC News that he fired former FBI Director James Comey over "the Russia thing." Imagine Dick Nixon being dumb enough to attach the Enemies List to a press release or deliver the juiciest selections from the Watergate tapes in a series of fireside chats. Imagine anyone else turning 3 percent growth and 4 percent unemployment into a sub-40 approval rating.
And yet abroad, the Imperial Presidency remains as unconstrained and menacing as ever. Who needs "the power to persuade" when a 16-year-old congressional military authorization can be used to wage war at will, almost anywhere in the world? Our "America First" president seems unperturbed by mission creep that's led to boots on the ground in places as far-flung as Tongo Tongo; instead, Trump has deepened entanglements on every battlefield Obama left him, ramping up airstrikes, kill-or-capture missions, and civilian casualties.
Hamstrung at home, the president has every incentive to overcompensate abroad. Washington elites have lauded Trump as "presidential" only twice: in March, when he followed his teleprompter during a congressional address, and in April, when he ordered a drive-by missile attack on Syria. He seems to find issuing orders easier than sticking to a script. Asked "will you attack North Korea?" in September, he responded: "We'll see."
So far, the Trump administration has delivered more farce than tragedy. But our luck can change at any time.
Rough Times for the GOP
In 2015–16, Donald Trump proved he understands that politics is about tribal allegiance. By seizing control of one of the two main parties, you can rise to power. In 2017, Trump smashed the remnants of Republican opposition and cemented his role as the tribal warlord chieftain of a MAGA-ified GOP. By this standard, he's had a successful year.
Trump's weakness in elite circles has bred a narrative that the Republican Party is coming apart. But 90 percent of Republicans voted for him in 2016, and if anything, the GOP is becoming more united—not around shared philosophical beliefs, but around Trump.
Unfortunately for Republicans, he has accomplished this in part by making the party smaller. In Gallup's daily tracking surveys, the share who self-identify with the GOP has fallen from 42 percent immediately after Election Day to 37 percent today.
The decline in Republican identification post-Trump is part of a sorting phenomenon that helped Republicans during the presidential contest but is hurting them now. According to an analysis of Voter Study Group data, Republicans in 2016 benefited from party switches from older voters and non-college-educated whites—the same groups that surged to Trump. At the same time, large numbers of nonwhites and millennials switched away, a trend we've seen accelerate since he took office. Those much-scrutinized Obama-Trump and Romney-Clinton voters were not just defying their party this one time. Many were in the process of changing their partisan allegiance to match their view of the GOP nominee.
The math here is not good for Republicans. In the 2017 Virginia governor's race, 97 percent of the results at the precinct level could be explained by the results of the 2016 election. The same places that had voted for Trump, in other words, went GOP again—yet the Republican lost by 9 points, because turnout surged so much in Democratic strongholds. While congressional Republicans outperformed Trump in 2016, many would be lucky to match his numbers today. The Alabama Senate race shows what can happen when a candidate stokes cultural divides even further: Roy Moore fell an astounding 50 points short of Trump's margins in highly educated GOP precincts.
For a year filled with record low poll numbers for a president in his first year, Trump has managed to solve one pesky problem: Those Republicans most resistant to his control of the party are largely headed for the exits.
THE REGULATORY STATE:
A Pleasant Surprise
On December 14, the president held a little ceremony in the White House Roosevelt Room to highlight his administration's efforts in slowing the growth of the regulatory state. This being Trump, he illustrated the point by cutting a red ribbon with a pair of giant golden scissors and making the absurdly undeliverable promise that "when we're finished, which won't be in too long a period of time, we will be less [regulatory] than where we were in 1960." The media being the media, most coverage focused on the crude props and inflated claims.
But somewhere between the bluster and the skepticism lies a humdinger of a story: Trump's first nine months in office, the Competitive Enterprise Institute concluded in October, qualified him as "the least regulatory president," with significant enacted regulations—those costing affected industries a combined $100 million or more—down 58 percent compared to the first nine months of 2016, and significant proposed rules down 77 percent.
The president picked free marketeers to head the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Education, the Federal Communications Commission, and many other agencies. He then appointed Neomi Rao—founder of the Center for the Study of the Administrative State at George Mason University's Antonin Scalia Law School—as head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the top slot in the regulation bureaucracy.
Two early executive orders that were initially greeted with some eye-rolling—insisting that two old regulations be killed for every new one created, and demanding that his administration's net new regulatory costs be zero—have also turned out to have teeth.
These personnel decisions and regulatory constraints are beginning to pay off. Some 15 Obama regulations were repealed via the Congressional Review Act, or 14 more than in the previous two decades. The FCC rolled back ill-considered net neutrality rules, while the Education Department rescinded bad guidance to colleges on adjudicating sexual assault disputes. If and when the federal government's process for approving drugs is improved, the impact on human lives will be measurable.
But there is only so much the administrative state can do to deconstruct itself. Real deregulation—as opposed to mere regulatory slowdown—requires Congress to change existing law, which it has historically been loath to do. Meanwhile, Trump's promises and at least some of his actions on trade, immigration, and crime are threatening to tarnish his otherwise laudable record with massive federal intrusions on individual liberty.
THE POLITICAL CULTURE:
Nationalist Paranoia Rising
Donald Trump's very first campaign speech fanned fears of foreign subversion: Mexico, he suggested, was deliberately dumping its criminals on our side of the border. A year after he became president, many Democrats have found it convenient to challenge him by…fanning fears of foreign subversion. It's a sign of the Trumpian times that so much of the "resistance" can't resist the rise of paranoid nationalism.
The problem here isn't that Democrats are investigating Trump and his cronies' possible conflicts of interest in the former Soviet Union. It's always good to keep an eye on any signs of public corruption, and the president's circle has certainly done business with more than its share of sleazy operators, from Russia to Turkey to New Jersey.
What's ugly is the narrative that's grown up around the investigation, one where Vladimir Putin is an omnipotent puppetmaster, where attempts to reduce tensions with the Kremlin are innately suspicious, where Moscow's low-budget propaganda ploys are not just one more set of signals in the cacophony of American politics but an alien force ripping the U.S. apart. It's one thing to look for ways officials may have broken the law; it's quite another to encourage a new cold war or to call for controls on online speech.
The right frets over its own gallery of demonic foreign forces, from MS-13 to the Islamic Brotherhood. But at the moment, it is arguably more focused on a domestic enemy. Antifa—a loose, decentralized, and not particularly large movement—has grown in the Fox News imagination into a boogeyman of spectacular proportions, with virtually every violent protest (and not a few nonviolent ones) folded into the alleged menace.
As liberals largely react by arguing that the real domestic threat is the far right, the weak-kneed centrist position appears to be anxiety about protests in general: Many city leaders and college administrators now see any event where left and right might clash as a threat to public order. Don't be surprised if enterprising officials craft policies designed to subdue the whole spectrum, shutting down crowds of peaceful demonstrators along with anyone with violence on his mind.
It was not unreasonable to hope that President Donald Trump might improve on the foreign policy performance of his predecessors. Sure, the hopeful were grading on a curve that included George W. Bush and Barack Obama. But what gave a sliver of hope to those who yearned for greater realism and restraint were candidate Trump's counter-establishment pronouncements about the "big, fat mistake" of Iraq and the problems posed by our wealthy, free-riding allies.
Unfortunately, Trump's first year has been full of missed opportunities and worrying signs that this presidency won't provide the change required to make American foreign policy great again. A huge whiff came on Afghanistan, where Trump had the chance to draw down U.S. commitments or even end the longest war in American history. Against his better instincts, the president sided with the generals who wanted more troops—but who don't appear to have a strategy to significantly change the outcome. He also could have appointed more realists to the administration to balance status quo voices in the White House and throughout the bureaucracy
Trump's approach to North Korea has been dangerously confrontational. Rather than stressing deterrence and diplomacy, his rhetoric has exacerbated tensions. Meanwhile, hawks in the administration insist on unrealistic denuclearization, thereby cranking up the likelihood of unnecessary war.
Middle East policy has been similarly troubling, with Trump de-certifying the Iran nuclear deal (but wisely not killing it). Rather than aim for a more balanced approach in the region, the president has favored Saudi Arabia, including offering support for its atrocious actions in Yemen. This war has resulted in excessive civilian casualties and contributed to outbreaks of famine and cholera. And a recently released national security strategy offers too much of the same old primacist thinking that relies on active, military-heavy deep engagement abroad and extensive foreign commitments.
There were some positive signs. Trump avoided a large footprint in Iraq and Syria. He hasn't yet delivered a debacle like Bush's Iraq or Obama's Libya. He also continued to call on the U.S.'s wealthy allies to meet their spending commitments. In a rebuke to foreign policy idealists, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasized American national security interests and cautioned against policies based on the promotion of values. Until recently, Trump did not seem eager to tangle with Putin. But unfortunately, those in the administration who would like to see a more confrontational approach to Russia won permission for a $41.5 million arms deal with Ukraine.
A year ago, many conservatives and some libertarians held their noses and voted for Donald Trump on the theory that even if they didn't like the man himself, he'd likely make good appointments—or at least better appointments than his rival.
For some, Trump's early Supreme Court pick of Neil Gorsuch vindicated that voting strategy, which was particularly prevalent among constitutional conservatives. So pleased were these supporters with his choice that references to the jurist became a bit of a joke in Washington: "Sure, Trump's tweets are disconcerting. But Gorsuch!"
The president doesn't just appoint Supreme Court justices, however.
Several of Trump's high-level taps, including Betsy DeVos at the Department of Education and Ajit Pai at the Federal Communications Commission, have become liberal bugaboos for their deregulatory impulses. But the appointee with the greatest opportunity to change the direction of U.S. policy in a serious way is Trump's Justice Department selection: Jeff Sessions, a former senator from Alabama who has a long history of favoring prohibition and punishment.
Attorney General Sessions is less a criminal justice reformer than a criminal justice reactionary. During his confirmation hearing, he spoke approvingly of civil asset forfeiture, a practice in which money and other property are taken from people who have not been charged, let alone convicted, of any underlying crime.
A fair-weather federalist, Sessions supports states' rights right up until the moment that states legalize recreational or medicinal marijuana, at which point he thinks Washington should take precedence. He has had a similar response to the rise of sanctuary cities (and states), or jurisdictions that aren't always willing to cooperate with immigration authorities. He also supports strengthening and lengthening sentences for violent and nonviolent offenders alike, and he is skeptical of the idea that increased police oversight is needed.
He has already removed some of the strictures that Barack Obama's administration imposed in response to Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement, rolling back restrictions on combat gear the Department of Defense can offer to local police departments, clarifying that federal officials are welcome to go after cannabis even in states that have legalized it, and loosening up the standards for asset forfeiture.
Where Trump is a reactive pragmatist, Sessions is an authoritarian ideologue. And if he can survive the fast-paced game of musical chairs being played in the White House, he will push immigration, drug, and law enforcement in a more illiberal direction for years to come.
Veronique de Rugy
In the last year, both the stock market and the bitcoin world have been powerhouses. As of press time in January, the S&P 500 had seen a 35 percent increase since election night. Over that same period, the price of a bitcoin went up by more than 1,700 percent, from $721 to $13,310.
Trump has often said the stock market's performance should be viewed as a proxy for his administration's accomplishments. Is there anything to that?
Perhaps. One possibility is that the rally is a sign of a growing economy fueled by the promise of big corporate tax reductions and the regulatory diet Trump has put the federal government on. In addition, entrepreneurs are probably breathing a sigh of relief that the anti-business climate so palpable during the Obama years is over.
Of course, the rally is not unique to the United States, and we could just be riding the coattails of global growth. It's also possible we're in a bubble created by various governments' "easy money" policies of increasing their fiat currency supplies. According to Allen Gillespie, a partner at Fintrust Investment Advisors, "We are in the midst of the greatest asset inflation via quantitative easing" since the one that caused an economic collapse in France in 1720.
But what of bitcoin, the 8-year-old cryptocurrency that is suddenly the talk of the town? A single token that traded for pennies not long ago hit $19,000 in December, a jaw-dropping price spike that has since subsided slightly. And as the blockchain technology develops, new instruments—such as the recent introduction of bitcoin futures trading on the Chicago Board Options Exchange—will allow institutional investors to take a position in the currency. This has in turn driven greater interest from retail investors. And even with the surge, only a tiny fraction of people are currently involved, which means there still could be a lot of room to grow.
Even as bitcoin is providing an alternative to traditional methods of financial speculation, other cryptocurrencies are emerging to give bitcoin a run for its money—and Trump has nothing to do with any of that. In the truly unregulated space that's opened up for techno-utopian experimentation, there's no telling what might come next. But if the history of permissionless innovation is our guide, the process itself will be a source of wealth for us all.