The topic often comes up in political discussions about whether one is an optimist or a pessimist. One’s answer is usually a function of their personality. Some see the glass half full; others, the glass half empty.
I see the water in the glass being slowly evaporated. The choice is regularly given whether one prefers the water to be evaporated by the hot sun in the desert or by a heat lamp indoors. When they hear me articulate my dissatisfaction with both choices, some of my friends argue vehemently that the water in the glass will be evaporated slower under the sun. I mean, obviously that’s the case, they say. And they have lots of reasons for thinking that way. Meanwhile, others argue with equal vehemence that the water will evaporate slower indoors under the heat lamp. Again, obviously. These folks have plenty of reasons for thinking the way they do.
But the water will slowly evaporate either way.
In other words, I am a pessimist.
That is, I am pessimistic about the United States as a political and economic organism. The winner of the presidential election of 2020 wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
In the wake of this highly contentious election, it would be useful to issue an early autopsy on the Trump presidency — not so much about why he didn’t win (assuming he didn’t win; the votes are still “being counted”), but rather the good or bad of his policies and actions as president. Through such a post-mortem, I think it will become clear why pessimism about America is well-founded for libertarians and classical liberals today.
“Don’t Listen To What He Says, Look At What He Does”
Whenever I air any critique of Trump to my conservative friends, the reply I get is almost automatic: “Oh, don’t listen to what he says or tweets, just look at what he does. He has governed well.”
There are two problems with this defense of Trump: (1) character does matter, and (2) Trump has not governed well.
On the first point, I think Pastor John Piper explained it much better than I can in this post on Desiring God. In it, he argues that “it is a drastic mistake to think that the deadly influences of a leader come only through his policy and not also through his person.” In Piper’s view, the “flagrant boastfulness, vulgarity, immorality, and factiousness” displayed by Trump are not just private issues but are also “nation-corrupting.” It’s worth quoting Piper at length here:
There is a character connection between rulers and subjects. When the Bible describes a king by saying, “He sinned and made Israel to sin” (1 Kings 14:16), it does not mean he twisted their arm. It means his influence shaped the people. That’s the calling of a leader. Take the lead in giving shape to the character of your people. So it happens. For good or for ill.
… Therefore, Christians communicate a falsehood to unbelievers (who are also baffled!) when we act as if policies and laws that protect life and freedom are more precious than being a certain kind of person. The church is paying dearly, and will continue to pay, for our communicating this falsehood year after year.
The justifications for ranking the destructive effects of persons below the destructive effects of policies ring hollow.
I find it bewildering that Christians can be so sure that greater damage will be done by bad judges, bad laws, and bad policies than is being done by the culture-infecting spread of the gangrene of sinful self-exaltation, and boasting, and strife-stirring (eristikos).
How do they know this? Seriously! Where do they get the sure knowledge that judges, laws, and policies are less destructive than boastful factiousness in high places?
… Is it not baffling, then, that so many Christians seem to be sure that they are saving human lives and freedoms by treating as minimal the destructive effects of the spreading gangrene of high-profile, high-handed, culture-shaping sin?
The conservative/classical liberal commentator, David French, gave a poignant reminder of the starkly different attitude American Christians had about the sins of political leaders in a recent article for The Dispatch. In response to Bill Clinton’s adulterous affair as well as his subsequent lies about it, Christians widely called for his impeachment. The Southern Baptist Convention issued a statement on June 1st, 1998 that read:
Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.
The disparity between (often white) American Christians’ view of the value of moral character in political leaders then versus now is striking. According to PRRI polling, in 2011, only 30% of white evangelicals said that a politician could govern well even if they behaved unethically in their personal life. But in 2016, just before the presidential election, 72% of white evangelicals thought a political leader could govern well even if they were personally unethical. If that isn’t politically motivated thinking, I don’t know what is.
Commenting on this newfound tolerance among American evangelicals for morally flawed political leaders, French writes:
Interestingly, I’ve never really seen this principle applied outside of politics—and I never heard it strongly argued before the age of Trump. In the world of business, for example, we see even CEOs or managers who run profitable enterprises fired and even disgraced for personal scandals that are completely unrelated, say, to their plans for a new product line.
Moreover, outside of politics, we don’t even think twice about these character tests. Why? Because their necessity is self-evident. In a company, in a church, in a military unit—everywhere, really—leaders are culture-makers. They’re culture-shapers. And they have an immense impact on the institutions they lead, the people they lead, and the communities they influence.
I can personally attest to the way in which character matters in politics, just as it does everywhere else. I’ve witnessed many of my friends and family become much more angry, mean-spirited, conspiratorial, self-assured, and just plain polarized about politics since Trump was elected. The country was splitting apart before Trump, but Trump accelerated it dramatically. He has been a culture-shaper, and his influence has been overwhelmingly negative.
Okay, but what about the second point? Some conservatives, like Ben Shapiro, would concede that character matters (although Shapiro thinks that all the damage Trump’s poor character could do has already been done), but they would argue that Trump has governed well enough to overlook his moral failings.
Thomas Sowell, a thinker I mostly respect and admire, repeats this same line of reasoning in a video interview on why he voted for Trump. “I look at the consequences,” he says, citing black and Hispanic unemployment. It was the lowest it’s ever been under Trump! Isn’t that worthy of praise?
Surely, the historically low pre-pandemic black and Hispanic unemployment rates were worthy of celebration, but not necessarily of praising the man who happened to occupy the White House at the time. Just look at a chart of the black unemployment rate over the last ten years (before the pandemic hit), of which Obama was president for seven. If the years were removed from the chart, would you be able to pinpoint when Trump came into the White House and supposedly made employment for black Americans dramatically better?
The answer, obviously, is no. Due to the underlying economic recovery following the Great Recession, the black unemployment rate followed the same trajectory lower after Trump was elected as it did before Trump was elected. (If the above chart is too blurry to read, see a clearer chart here.) The same thing could be said of the Hispanic/Latino unemployment rate. Its trajectory of trending lower over time as the economy improved did not noticeably alter under Trump. The same thing could also be said of the US unemployment rate more broadly — no discernible difference made in the trajectory by Trump.
Sowell also repeats another misconception: that the economy was “booming” under Trump, and that this “booming” economy was somehow the result of Trump.
This “booming” economy apparently required a rising rate of federal government deficit spending every year of Trump’s presidency. This was not just increased military spending. Every category of federal spending rose under Trump, including funding for Planned Parenthood. These rising fiscal deficits were due in no small part to Trump’s tax cuts, which did not pay for themselves. (Lower tax rates, all else being equal, are better for the economy than higher tax rates. But it is not true that tax cuts pay for themselves any more than that government spending increases pay for themselves through increased economic activity.)
The expanding national debt load is not an insignificant issue, despite how Republicans selectively ignore it when it suits them. But, to be clear, the debt itself is not the fundamental issue but rather the result of the fundamental issue. I explained in an article titled “The Real Problem Behind The $26.8 Trillion National Debt” (now $27.3 trillion) that government spending is the fundamental issue, because Americans always have to pay for it one way or another (taxes, future taxes, or inflation). As Milton Friedman once advised, “Keep your eye on government spending, because that is the true tax.”
What’s more, any increased economic activity that was generated by the tax cuts was mostly (if not entirely) offset by the import tax (i.e. tariff) increases due to Trump’s trade wars. In fact, as I’ve written about elsewhere, contrary to the stated intention of the policies, Trump’s trade wars actually diminished both manufacturing output and manufacturing employment. They harmed many industries that use imported raw materials and intermediate products, and they caused more manufacturing layoffs and fewer job creations than would have otherwise occurred.
Lastly, Trump made a concerted effort from day one to reduce the rate of immigration — all immigration, legal and illegal — into the country. And by all accounts, he did accomplish that goal, despite not finishing his wall along the border with Mexico. In 2019, the Brookings Institution documented that the net increase of immigrants had slowed to a trickle. The problem is that there is ample evidence to show that immigration boosts American economic growth and innovation.
The reality is that presidents have less to do with current economic performance than political partisans would like to think. Sometimes presidents with pro-growth policies inherit a bad economy that is in the trough of the cycle. Sometimes presidents with growth-retarding policies inherit a good economy that continues to perform well in spite of the president’s actions. Trump inherited a good economy that was seven years into a recovery and being fueled by historically low interest rates (thanks to the Federal Reserve).
It is a severe overstatement to assert either that the economy was “booming” under Trump or that such a boom was due to Trump’s presence in office.
Trump And The Culture War
Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro are two popular YouTube personalities on the Right that did not vote for Trump in 2016 but made clear that they did vote for him in 2020. They cite many of the same ill-conceived points made by Sowell — that Trump is to thank for the booming economy, low unemployment, and rising wages for lower-income folks. All of these were the result of the timing of Trump’s entry into the White House during the economic cycle. He inherited the late stage of the cycle, in which everything looks really good.
Yes, Trump cut taxes (*ahem* while also raising taxes in the form of tariffs and pushing for more spending) and cut regulations (*ahem* while also increasing regulations pertaining to international trade via the USMCA). But these points are just the preamble, the throwaway lines. The real reason why Shapiro and Rubin and many others came back into the tribal Republican fold for Trump — the thing that really gets them fired up — is the culture war.
They hate cultural Leftism and all the inanities that it spawns. They can’t stand the critical race theory and intersectionality (what Rubin calls “the oppression Olympics”) that pervades academia and the liberal media. They loathe the coastal elitism exemplified by Hollywood (which loathes them right back). And they think that cultural liberals have just gone crazy, facilitating or participating in nutty displays of fantastical thinking like the CHAZ takeover of downtown Seattle, the Drag Queen Story Hour at a public library, or the labeling of a burning city as a “peaceful protest.”
The most important point why Shapiro voted for Trump in 2020, he says, is that “the Democrats have lost their f***ing minds.” So much so, in his opinion, that these people “must not be allowed the mechanisms of power.” In his view and in the view of so many conservatives who absorb conservative media day after day after day, virtually all Democrats are really far-Left socialists like Bernie Sanders and AOC masquerading behind the moderate mask of Biden.
Of course, liberals think almost the exact same thing about Republicans — that virtually all of them are just as culturally conservative and racially insensitive (or outright racist) as Trump, either overtly or secretly. In reality, most conservatives don’t know very many liberals, so it’s easy to caricature them all as socialists and cultural Marxists. Likewise, most liberals don’t know very many conservatives, and thus it’s easy for them to paint conservatives with a broad brush as being uniformly Trumpy. The human brain is wired to inherently trust one’s own tribe, the people with whom one culturally identifies, and to distrust those outside the tribe.
I’ve written previously (see here) on how both cultural conservatives and cultural liberals frequently err in their thinking due to their preconceived biases. But here’s the deal: both sides are often right in their criticisms of each other.
Conservatives are right about the quasi-religiosity with which liberals view mask-wearing in the time of a spreading virus, but liberals are right about the irresponsibility and anti-intellectualism displayed by conservatives who adamantly refuse to wear masks (largely due to Trump’s influence). Conservatives are right that liberals often refuse to condemn Antifa and violent riots. Liberals are right that conservatives often refuse to condemn white supremacists and police that have overstepped their bounds. Conservatives are right to freak out about 8-year old transgender kids who have obviously been brainwashed by their parents. Liberals are right to think that Trump’s acerbic rhetoric causes real-world behavior like the right-wing militia’s attempt to kidnap the governor of Michigan. Conservatives are right to push back against federal (taxpayer) funding of abortion. Liberals are right to bristle at Trump’s words and actions against Mexican and Muslim immigrants.
The examples of more or less accurate, if exaggerated, criticisms of the other side go on and on.
What is supremely lacking on both sides is any propensity whatsoever for self-criticism. Both sides are so brimming with self-righteousness and intra-tribal approbation that it’s impossible for them to see their own flaws. And none of their leaders ever point them out or admit them. You’ll never hear an elected Republican or a Fox News commentator talk about the standards to which conservatives ought to hold each other (except Ben Sasse on a leaked private phone call). You’ll never hear them say that Trump crossed the line, despite how many times he obviously has. And you’ll never hear an elected Democrat or CNN/MSNBC commentator say that some in their midst have veered into the Left’s own version of radicalism and authoritarianism.
Instead, what you see from both sides over and over again is a total focus on the flaws of the other side. The criticism of political adversaries is so constant, so self-assured, and so hyperbolic that any intramural critique is immediately stifled and deemed petty.
How could one be so caught up in the slight shortcomings of one’s own tribe, if they even exist, when the sins of the other side are so massive? Conservatives say: “Biden isn’t just a standard liberal, he’s a socialist (or else a puppet of socialists), so why are you wasting your time on these petty issues with Trump?” Liberals say: “Trump isn’t just an alt-right nationalist, he’s a fascist — basically Hitler in 1936 — so you must vote him out no matter who his opponent is.” There is some kernel of truth in each side’s criticism of the other, but that truth is muddled by the highly exaggerated and caricatured versions each side has of the other.
This revived culture war did not start with Trump, but Trump accelerated and exacerbated it. And now the genie is out of the bottle. A Biden presidency (which has been acknowledged by the media but not the Trump administration at the time of this writing) could perhaps slow the progression of the culture war. But the trend won’t stop, because it will continue to be fueled by the ever-widening and self-perpetuating divide in partisan media.
As a wise friend of mine put it recently, “Media has formed us far more than it has informed us.”
Ask a devoted Fox News watcher, and you’ll think one of the biggest tragedies of a Biden win will be that the Democratic leader’s potential corruption pertaining to Hunter Biden will never be investigated. Ask a devoted CNN/MSNBC watcher, and they’ll tell you that one of the biggest travesties of Trump’s presidency is the president’s corruption pertaining to the withholding of congressionally appropriated dollars to Ukraine in order to extort an investigation into Biden (for the same incidence of potential corruption just cited). Who is right? Perhaps both are, in a never-ending circle of corruption.
But to the Republican, the Ukraine investigation is either completely bogus or inconsequential. To the Democrat, the investigation pertaining to Hunter Biden is either completely bogus or inconsequential. It is yet another example of partisan media sources framing stories in a way that confirm their audiences’ preconceived beliefs and biases.
As president, Trump has been an unabashed culture warrior. As General Jim Mattis put it, “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people, doesn’t even pretend to try.” The scars on the country from the culture wars during Trump’s presidency will not soon fade.
Limited Goods and Potentially Unlimited Setbacks
With all the preceding said, it should be acknowledged that some limited good has been achieved by a Trump presidency.
First, largely a result of outsourcing the responsibility for picking judges to the Federalist Society, Trump has installed some very fine judges into federal court seats. These are constitutionalist, originalist judges, and I think they will have a long-lasting, positive impact on American law and jurisprudence.
What we should not do, as I wrote about previously for LCI, is expect them to overturn Roe vs Wade. Judge (now Justice) Amy Coney Barrett herself asserted that if her interpretation of the original meaning of the Constitution dictates one conclusion while the precedent of the Supreme Court dictates another, she would rule according to precedent. Chief Justice John Roberts also recently demonstrated his commitment to court precedent in an abortion-related case, voting down a restriction on abortion despite having himself voted in favor of a similar restriction in a prior case in which he was in the minority.
As an aside, it’s interesting to note that the annual number of abortions steadily declined during the Obama/Biden presidency, despite the Democrats’ rhetorical support for it.
Second, deregulation is by and large a good thing. The cuts to the regulatory code achieved in Trump’s presidency reduced labor hours devoted to and costs associated with regulatory compliance.
Third, Trump has probably moved the country in a more non-interventionist direction. Despite not bringing the troops home from any of the dozens of countries in which they reside in bases across the world, despite bragging about the billions of dollars of weapons and military equipment sold to Saudi Arabia, and despite his persistent alienation of allies in favor of dictators like Putin, Erdogan, and Kim Jong Un, Trump wasn’t as bad on foreign policy as he could have been.
That’s just about where Trump’s limited successes end, though. The setbacks he foisted upon the nation are innumerable and indefinite.
As conservative commentator Peter Wehner detailed in a New York Times piece, Trump has ushered protectionism into the GOP, redistributed money to farmers in order to mitigate the effects of his protectionism, diminished federalism, eviscerated fiscal discipline, expanded deficit spending, exploded the national debt, embraced crony capitalism, popularized conservative identity politics, increased the use of executive orders (bypassing Congress), whipped up fervor for new anti-trust action from the federal government, and normalized the spreading of lies and misinformation from the bully pulpit.
I would add that Trump has pretended to care about promoting Christianity while actually doing significant damage to the faith. He has pushed many people away from the church over disgust of Christian hypocrisy and double-standards. Again, the trend of falling church attendance and self-identification as Christian precedes Trump, but Trump exacerbated it.
Overall, I think (and hope) that someday, the many American Christians who supported Trump — whether they consider themselves conservative, libertarian, or something else — will realize that the relatively little they gained from a Trump presidency was not worth the magnitude of principles they had to sacrifice, behavior they had to defend or downplay, and further division of the country they facilitated through their alliance with this man.
I hope the country can move on and heal. I hope that a ceasefire on the culture war can be declared so that we can go back to debating principles. I hope that the Republican Party rediscovers its classical liberal roots.
But I’m a pessimist.