Trump Is More Like Recent Presidents Than Anyone Wants To Admit
On trade, foreign policy, and so much more, he's Clinton, Bush, and Obama without the charm and respect. That can be a good thing.
The flipside of Trump Derangement Syndrome, whose strongest form argues that the president is an "extinction-level threat" to democracy itself, is Trump Exceptionalism Syndrome, which holds that Trump is the greatest leader since Winston Churchill, the biblical kings David and Cyrus, or whomever.
Recent events reveal something more mundane: Trump is all too much like the other recent inhabitants of the White House. We are neither living through the End Times nor at the start of New Dawn. Instead of entering some sort of political Singularity, we're still stuck in the Regularity. Trump is not a transformative character. Once we accept that, we can support the good things he does (supporting school choice, cutting corporate tax rates and regulations) while criticizing the bad (waving away due process, throwing in with white supremacists, and deporting immigrants, among other things).
Trump's decisions to levy tariffs on steel and aluminum clearly fall into the bad category. They are idiotic, indefensible, economically counterproductive, and…not so different than similar policies levied by both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Both of those guys pulled similar tricks on steel, after all. Bush did the same on Canadian timber, as Trump also did last year to much less fanfare than the current plan is getting. Hot and bothered that Trump isn't listening to his economic advisors? Back in 2009, Obama waved away concerns that slapping a 35 percent tariff on Chinese tires would hurt U.S. workers. His administration took credit for saving 1,200 domestic jobs, even though later analyses found that the tariffs cost domestic consumers an extra $1.1 billion and actually pink-slipped over 3,000 workers on net.
So when it comes to trade, Trump is doing exactly what recent presidents—conservative and liberal, Republican and Democratic—have done. It's lamentable, but FFS, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is out there saying she's "not afraid of tariffs" and that we need to chuck over free-er trade because it helps the corporations. She's also protecting her brand, so she's refusing to say whether she supports Trump's tariffs, his pullout from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or his renegotiation of NAFTA. But she plainly does, right? She just can't admit it, because it would screw up the narrative to admit that she and Trump—and Bush and Obama—actually share the same views on a bunch of stuff. As a presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ran on explicit promises to protect U.S. industries from "unfair" competition. If you're a free-trade, more-open-borders libertarian like myself, such broad, transpartisan agreement about letting in fewer goods (not to mention people) from abroad is actually a bigger problem and a tougher nut to crack than simply ascribing Trump's random policy choices to insanity, ignorance, and narcissism.
When it comes to foreign policy, Trump isn't staking out bold new pathologies, either. The establishment has been flipping out because Trump agreed to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. There's no question that Kim is a despicable human being, even if various Americans were willing to walk a mile in his shoes when his goons arrested and tortured American college student Otto Warmbier for being a "frat bro." And there's no question that Trump doesn't seem to have any idea of what he's doing. Yet it seems more than a little overwrought to argue, as my friend Eli Lake does at Bloomberg View, that Trump "shouldn't waste his time negotiating with the dictator of North Korea." After all, it didn't work for Madeleine Albright during the last years of the Clinton administration, right? Instead, counsels Lake,
Trump could go back to his instincts from the State of the Union speech this year when he told the story of dissident Ji Seong Ho's heroic escape from Kim's gulags. Trump said Ji's journey to freedom was "a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom." Helping North Koreans achieve this basic human yearning is much harder than meeting with their tyrant. It's also more promising—and less nauseating.
If history is any indication, it's actually not more promising to keep on doing what we've been doing. The United States has held the line against North Korea since the 1950s, and things don't seem to be getting any better. Even so, the fact that Trump is willing to say he will sit down with Kim makes him more like other presidents than different. Bill Clinton didn't hoof it to Pyongyang, but he did send his chief diplomat to negotiate with the regime, and even Lake admits that there is "an argument that says Albright's visit in the end was worth it."
Trump may be acting like Clinton in another related way, too. Former congressman and current MSNBC host Joe Scarborough has said it's "painfully obvious" that Trump is talking up the North Korea sitdown as a way to distract attention away from Stormy Daniels, the porn actress who seems ready to say she slept with Trump while he was married and was paid hush money by his personal lawyer.
"He just makes a decision on tariffs because of Hope Hicks, and he makes a decision on North Korea because of Stormy Daniels," said Scarborough. "People can deny that all they want, but if you're doing that you're in the tank for Donald Trump because it's painfully obvious that that's exactly what's going on."
That's a highly plausible read, especially for those who remember the advice of Politico's Jack Shafer to "stop being Trump's Twitter fool."
That is, we should be hip to the idea that every time Trump does or says something outlandish, he's trying to divert our attention from another problem. Clinton did the same thing, except in more violent form. Back in 1998, Clinton bombed targets in Sudan and Afghanistan on the very day that Monica Lewinsky delivered grand jury testimony about whether the president had lied under oath. Later in the year, he saw fit to bomb Iraq on the day the House of Representatives began voting on articles of impeachment, thereby delaying the proceedings. So even if it's true, as Scarborough claims, that Trump said yes to Kim Jong-un because "he did not want the Washington Post to have the word 'Stormy Daniels' on the front page today," we've been there and done that as a nation.
The point here isn't to "normalize Trump" on trade, foreign policy, or anything else. It's to reduce the rage and fear factors a bit so we can more clearly understand exactly what we're dealing with. Trump isn't President Beastmode; he's simply the current occupant of the White House. Detractors and sycophants would do well to stop ascribing superpowers to a guy whose tenure has been marked by spots of good and lots of bad. Wired co-founder Louis Rossetto, recently told Reason that Trump "diminishes the power of the state in our heads" by being such a volatile mix of jackass, narcissist, and bullshit artist:
Trump is a refreshing reminder that the guy that's in the White House is another human being….The power of the state is way too exalted [and] bringing that power back to human scale is an important part of what needs to be done to correct the insanity that's been going on in the post-war era.
The media, too, have refused to treat Trump with the decorum and politesse they gave Obama, Bush, Clinton. At least in this one sense, Trump is the end of the 20th-century consensus that even your enemies are somehow ennobled in the political realm and entitled to the benefit of the doubt.
When it came to foreign policy, domestic surveillance, governmental overreach, the drug war, deportations, and so much more, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton crossed lines that never should have been crossed. Trump is the shocking apparition that's left when all the ceremonial trappings and respect have been stripped away.
As a country, we should have the guts to admit that and the resolve to be better than our presidents.