White House

Trump’s First Year: The Ominous Signs Ahead

(Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Trump’s administration has been, on balance, successful so far. But many dangers may await in 2018 and beyond.

In Part I of this look back on Donald Trump’s first year as president, I tallied up his top ten positive accomplishments. In Part II, I went over his ten worst lowlights. We can’t know what the future holds, but the bad news so far is a bad sign. It suggests that conservatives and Republicans have only begun to drink from the bitter cup that has been poured for them. So in Part III, let’s consider ten reasons to be worried about the Right’s future as the Trump presidency rolls on.

One: The 2018 Reckoning. The most obvious and direct risk on the horizon for Republicans is the 2018 elections. The signs that this will be a tough environment for Republican candidates are everywhere. In Part II, I discussed the trends in the past year’s various elections across such disparate locales as Virginia, Washington, Alabama, Wisconsin, New York, Georgia, and New Jersey, all of which point toward an energized Democratic voting base, a depressed Republican electorate, and discouraged Republican candidates.

The polling evidence we have, while not yet cast in stone, should raise major alarm bells. Trump has shattered previous records for low approval ratings during a president’s first year in office, and at this writing, he is 16 points underwater (39.9 percent approval, 55.6 percent disapproval) in the RealClearPolitics polling average — itself a five-point improvement from a month ago. Not since last March has his disapproval rating dipped below 50 percent. Historically, as the Obama, Bush, and Clinton years illustrated, there’s a very strong and consistent relationship between the president’s approval rating and his party’s performance in midterm elections. Trump may be a bit unusual in that regard — exit polls showed that he had a 38 percent favorable and 60 percent unfavorable rating among the people who voted on Election Day 2016, yet he won the election anyway, drawing 46 percent of the popular vote. Then again, 55 percent of the same voters disapproved of Hillary Clinton, who won’t be on the ballot this time.

On the generic congressional ballot, typically predictive although historically skewed a bit toward Democrats, the RealClearPolitics average has Republicans at 38.8 percent compared with the Democrats’ 46.7 percent. Republicans face a wave of retirements in the House, some of which are highly likely to result in seats flipping, although as Jim Geraghty notes, many them are also in relatively safe districts that are not likely to change hands.

The Senate should be a huge opportunity for Republicans to gain ground, with Democrats defending 26 seats (ten of those in states Trump won, five of them by double-digit margins) to the Republicans’ eight (only one in a state Trump lost, narrowly, and six in deep-red territory). But the loss of the Alabama Senate election last year means the Democrats just have to win Nevada and Arizona and play to a draw everywhere else to control the Senate. Things could get worse for the GOP if John McCain — currently battling brain cancer — were to die or resign before Election Day, requiring a second Senate race in increasingly competitive Arizona. Arizona was solidly red before Trump arrived on the scene, but Trump fared relatively poorly there, running five points behind McCain and three points behind House Republican candidates. While Martha McSally should be a strong candidate to replace Jeff Flake provided she wins the primary, that won’t be an easy race, and if McCain’s seat were to also open up, it would increase the chances of Republicans’ nominating another Roy Moore-ish candidate like Kelli Ward or Sheriff Joe Arpaio (presently both competing against McSally).

The prognosis is worst of all in the governors’ races, where Republicans are defending 26 governorships compared with ten for the Democrats, with many of the former in deep-blue territory and/or long-held by the party. (Democrats haven’t won the governorship in purple Florida, for example, since Lawton Chiles defeated Jeb Bush in 1994.)

On the whole, November’s elections promise a lot of pain that is likely to find its main cause in the unpopularity of the president.

Not all this bad news is Trump’s fault, of course; the governors’ races were always going to be a challenge and some retirements have been for individual reasons unrelated to the president. If he can can get his approval rating nationally up to 45 percent, the party’s midterm outlook may start to seem much rosier. But on the whole, November’s elections promise a lot of pain that is likely to find its main cause in the unpopularity of the president.

Two: The Russia Probe and Investigation-Induced Paralysis. The second major hazard ahead, which presents different kinds of problems depending on who controls the House and Senate in 2019, is Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Mueller is a responsible Republican with bipartisan credibility, and nothing we have seen so far suggests that he has a basis to bring any significant charges based on the 2016 campaign, or any charges against Trump arising from his conduct in office that would not create a grave constitutional crisis by frontally attacking the president’s power to direct and supervise the enforcement of federal laws.

But that doesn’t mean the investigation is harmless. Mueller could, like Ken Starr, just dump in the laps of Congress a report that one party is convinced is grounds for impeachment and the other is not, creating a political drama that will overshadow everything else in Washington for the next two to three years. He could still be digging into areas of Trump’s finances that have barely registered on the public’s radar so far, and that may yet contain more substantial sources of legal jeopardy.

Or the investigation itself could create new crises. One thing we have learned from this White House: It may be good at playing offense by questioning investigators, but it is terrible at playing defense without shooting itself in the foot. Trump has already fired FBI director Jim Comey and reportedly tried to fire Mueller, only to be talked down by his White House counsel. He or others might get caught lying to investigators or a grand jury (although Trump’s many, many experiences as a witness under oath suggest that he is far more cautious in that setting than he is in public). The potential for the investigations to drag Republicans far from the things they want to be talking about, and the administration far from things it wants to be accomplishing, remains open-ended.

Three: The Sexual Harassment Time Bomb. The Russia investigation and potential probes into Trump’s finances are not the only sources of potentially draining and embarrassing investigations that could get a lot uglier if Democrats win back one or both chambers of Congress. For a variety of reasons, public attention has drifted away from the numerous women who have accused Trump of various types of sexual harassment. Though you’d think some of them would be household names by now, even Trump’s media antagonists have spent little time digging into their stories, and hardened #Resistance types simply treat the braggadocio of his Access Hollywood tape as a blanket confession rather than an invitation to look deeper at the facts.

But sooner or later, especially if Democrats win the House and can hold hearings designed to embarrass Trump, his accusers will resurface, and in a political environment that is much less forgiving of sexual misconduct than it was in October 2016. The credibility of each accuser is best assessed on the basis of the actual facts, and no one knows how such assessments will shake out. But Republicans who think this issue won’t resurface in 2020 or sooner are fooling themselves. 

Four: The Reverse Midas Touch. The short- and long-term costs of Trump in the White House for conservative ideas and policies, as well as for the Republican party, remain hard to estimate while we’re in the middle of it. But one of the recurring patterns of Trump’s campaign and presidency has been that just about any time he takes up a policy position, it becomes less popular with the public. Writ large, there are serious reasons to fear that the identification of Trump with conservative arguments and positions is poisoning the well with a whole generation of younger voters who associate the Right with all of Trump’s character flaws.

If that trend continues, we could see a significant shift to the left over the coming decades, with disastrous consequences for the American project.

Five: Trump Envy. One of the corrosive wages of Trump that liberal commentators typically overlook is how Trump Envy is gradually driving the Democratic party ever farther in the direction of demagogy, vulgarity, disregard for truth, open appeals to racial politics, and celebrity obsession. In a dynamic I first noted during the 2016 campaign, “Trump Envy” has Democratic partisans increasingly talking themselves into the idea that whatever Trump gets away with — or is viewed as getting away with — they are entitled to get away with, too. This is in many ways a mirror image of how many Republicans rationalized Trump by looking at the indefensible things Obama and the Clintons did with impunity, rather than looking at those misdeeds and wanting someone who was above them. This is a deeply unhealthy dynamic, and while we can’t predict everywhere it will lead, it seems likely to only get worse.

Six: The Swamp Could Win. As I noted in Part II, one of the alarming features of the Trump presidency so far has been the campaign of massive resistance waged by some members of the executive branch and the judiciary against allowing Trump to exercise the same presidential powers that prior presidents have wielded. While it’s encouraging that Trump has voluntarily ceded some lawmaking powers claimed by Obama that were not Obama’s to claim, we should still worry that his tenure will end with a presidency weakened in its control over executive functions, following a struggle to keep those powers from being seized by unaccountable, undemocratic parts of the government (similar to how presidential budgetary powers were permanently weakened after Watergate). For all the hysteria about Trump as a dictator, the real threat to our system is not that he will be too strong a president, but too weak. If “the swamp” wins its battle to take some of Trump’s power, it will never give it back.

Seven: Triangulation. Democrats had two possible paths to take with Trump: They could try to seduce him to cut deals with them across the aisle, or they could lash out in blind, nihilistic fury. Thus far they have, as I predicted in the summer of 2016, followed the latter course — explained in part by the rage of their voter base, in part by the surprise nature of Trump’s election victory, and in part by the fact that they lack a sufficient beachhead in Congress to control the domestic agenda the way they did with Nixon and George H. W. Bush and the way Republicans did with Bill Clinton after 1994. But if they win back the House in 2019, it remains possible that they will find Trump willing to cut deals that leave congressional conservatives out in the cold — if they can let go of their rage, that is.

Eight: The Death of Civics. More broadly, in the swing from Obama to Trump, we’ve seen the continuing erosion on both sides of the aisle of any sense of the independent value of the American system of government’s federalism and checks and balances. Without those small-r republican values, our system will inevitably become hopelessly corrupted. But Trump keeps encouraging the worst instincts of the Right, while Trump Envy eggs on the Left to plot revenge; the progressive Internet is already awash in schemes to abolish the Senate and the Electoral College, overhaul how the House is elected, eliminate the filibuster, and pack the courts at the next available opportunity (if Trump gets to replace another of the five non-conservative Supreme Court justices, expect Democrats to revive FDR’s plan to expand the size of the Court).

Nine: The Nuclear Threat. The United States will always face a non-zero threat of nuclear war or other foreign-policy disaster from unstable adversaries such as North Korea, and that threat remains microscopic under Trump. Trump’s sober-minded foreign-policy team may restrain his worst impulses, and for now, it seems that fear of the unpredictability of what he might do has, if anything, had a moderating effect on some hostile powers. But it’s hard to discount entirely the possibility that Trump’s personality will eventually create an avoidable foreign-policy crisis. This is low on the list because it is speculative, but it remains a potential problem.

Ten: Bad Character Will Out. Finally, we come to the catch-all threat: Trump, even when he is doing a good job as president, remains a man of proven poor character in a multitude of observable ways. It’s not impossible for a man of bad character to be a good president, but it is certainly a lot harder. There is simply no way to predict all the situations that could arise over the next three years that will call for leadership and judgment that Trump is poorly equipped to provide.

The Trump years may yet be good ones for Republicans and conservatives; stranger things have happened. The ledger for his first year in office remains positive, if you count only the costs already incurred. But there are plenty of good reasons to worry that it will be mostly downhill from here.


Trump’s First Year: First, the Good News

Then, The Bad News

Give Trump Credit Where It’s Due


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