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Michael Brendan Dougherty: What Trump got right

Wednesday 20 January 2021

The president leaves office with few admirers and facing an impeachment trial. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore his agenda altogether


It’s hard to imagine a president leaving office with fewer distinctions than Donald Trump. He’s the first occupant of his office to be impeached twice by Congress. In these final days, his approval rating has cratered to 34 percent, the lowest ever. And his average rating is the lowest of any recorded president. 

Historians are already lining up to declare him the worst president ever. After his role in inviting and stirring up a rabble that subsequently attacked the Capitol, national security experts are declaring his supporters an ongoing terror threat. Members of Congress are calling for online speech restrictions and federal programs aimed at “deprogramming” Trump supporters. 

And yet, it’s important to remember that for all of Trump’s undoubted failures as president – even as a human being – he got some things right, or at least more right than the nearly unified political class that opposed him.  

MAGA

The very first thing Trump got right was his slogan, “Make America Great Again.” The words on the front of the red baseball caps were immediately greeted with anger and a sense that the phrase was mere effrontery. “America is already great,” former president Barack Obama snapped back at the 2016 Democratic convention. Hillary Clinton adopted the “already great” line over and over again in her presidential campaign.  

But those red hats weren’t just bearing a gimcrack slogan, but a subtle, backhanded acknowledgement of a truth: the American dream has lost credibility. American governance isn’t working for all Americans. For a generation, social mobility has been declining in America, and America’s under-discussed class divisions are hardening into inescapable identities. 

American men have been dropping out of the labor force for decades, lost in their addictions to screens, alcohol, or drugs. When Trump took office nearly 20 per cent of men in their prime working years were on some form of disability or public assistance. Deaths by drug addiction started outpacing traffic fatalities in recent years. The trend was accelerating as Trump’s campaign got off the ground.

The now-famous 2015 paper by Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton showed that non-college-educated white Americans were dying from “deaths of despair” – alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide, all reaching shocking, unprecedented rates, which, in turn, were lowering life-expectancy overall. In the modern world, sudden declines in life expectancy are associated with utterly failing regimes and collapsing social systems, like Russia during shock-therapy era, or during recent periods of misgovernance in Zimbabwe or South Africa. Yet here it was, happening in the United States. 

America has a social crisis, and Donald Trump was the only politician of any stature who seemed to acknowledge it in the words of his campaign, and in the places he campaigned. 

“They’re ripping us off” 

Donald Trump sometimes says things about international trade that make you wonder if he understands the issue at all. Since the 1980s, he has been a critic of America’s trade deals and relationships. He has portrayed them as the work of naive losers in government, and promised to renegotiate them into the “best” deals, ones that would reverse the decline of American manufacturing and eliminate our trade deficits. 

At the end of his administration, Trump’s actions have not lived up to that promise. It’s true that he has opened Europe up to more of America’s lobsters, and secured some promises of soybean purchases from China. The Sino-American dynamic is unchanged. 

But Trump’s rise and success shifted the Washington consensus about China. This development was long overdue: Mitt Romney had promised years earlier to confront China over its currency manipulation and theft of intellectual property. In the absence of any progress, Trump’s attack on the American political class, focusing on its naivety and even corruption, stung in the nostrils because it had the astringent smell of the truth. 

America’s belief that free trade with China would lead to the political liberalisation of China was revealed as a myth. Instead, the relationship was extending the political influence of the Chinese Communist party, which, we have learned, has enough clout to cause basketball fans to be kicked out of preseason NBA games, in US arenas, for wearing pro-Hong Kong t-shirts.

Trump was also fundamentally correct to situate trade within geopolitics. The trade deal that Americans had considered a relatively “free” one with China turned out to be China’s arrangement for practising its own form of predatory mercantilism and industrial policy. China flouts rules about subsidies, and puts its national champion companies in positions to acquire technology from their foreign competitors. Those companies – like Huawei – dutifully spy on behalf of the Chinese Communist party. 

The long term result is Chinese acquisition of strategically important industries, and the acquisition of strategically important skills in its workforce. In 2017 Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, spoke the hard truth when he said that his company no longer saw China as a cheap-labour pool, but instead as a skilled-labour pool. “In the US, you could have a meeting of tooling engineers and I’m not sure we could fill the room,” he told one audience. “In China, you could fill multiple football fields.”

In any kind of conflict, would you want to be the nation that had football fields of Apple’s pixel-pushing “designers,” or the one with football fields of experienced engineers? 

For years, the centre-left and centre-right orthodoxy has been shifting toward the view that the American voter had an intrinsic duty to support free trade because it is theoretically humanitarian, and certainly efficient. 

But trade is a product of power relations. And America’s custodianship of the global commons, through its naval and air power, is what enables so much trade across the world. Trump has said many silly and borderline illiterate things about trade. But what he got right is that it must take into account the national interest, broadly understood, and not just the nostrums of globalisation. 

And this is true not just on trade. 

“They’re not sending their best” 

Trump was a demagogue on immigration, especially in his first campaign for president. He stirred up ethnic tension and hatred, and was taken to be saying that Mexicans themselves were more likely to be rapists and murderers. 

But – hateful rhetoric aside – he was a demagogue with a point. 

Trump’s hard stance on immigration was partly inspired by the provocative right-wing journalist Ann Coulter and her book Adios, America! which documents in often lurid and blood-curdling detail the ways in which our immigration system is broken, and produces outrages. Let me reproduce just one paragraph: 

“A Chinese immigrant in New York, Dong Lu Chen, bludgeoned his wife to death with a claw hammer because she was having an affair. He was unashamed, greeting his teenaged son at the door in bloody clothes, telling the boy he had just killed Mom. Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Edward Pincus let Chen off with probation—for murder—after an anthropologist testified that, in Chinese culture, the shame of a man being cuckolded justified murder. Judge Pincus admitted that if the exact same crime had been committed by an American, ‘the Court would have been constrained to find the defendant guilty of manslaughter in the first degree.’ But in Chen’s case, the murder flowed from ‘traditional Chinese values about adultery and loss of manhood.’ Why do ‘traditional American values’ about not murdering your wife lose out to “traditional Chinese values” about murdering her?”

It’s all true, and it gets worse. The outcome in Chen’s case was applauded by an ethnic, pro-immigration lawyer group. And Coulter points out, “Chen immigrated to America with his entire family when he was fifty years old—fifteen years away from collecting Social Security—to be a dishwasher.”

This one anecdote – one of seemingly thousands – in Coulter’s book neatly illustrates the main problem in America’s immigration system: America’s political class treats immigration as a kind of moral test of existing American citizens, rather than as a policy for their benefit. Given the stagnation of wages among low-skilled workers, and the invention of electric dishwashers, there is simply not a pressing need for immigrants like Dong Lu Chen.

Too often, immigration has been a demographic tool deployed to depress wages. Furthemore, the likes of Chen and his family members, once settled in America, have the option of seeking preferment for their other relatives for immigration, too, no matter their age or skills. 

Trump was simply correct that America needs to consider its own interests in choosing immigrants. It needs to select for skills. It ought to privilege youth, and seek out immigrants with a high likelihood of producing wealth rather than drawing on public resources. The current system doesn’t even allow preferment to be given to those with English proficiency. America needs a merit-based reform of immigration, and enforcement of its own immigration laws and borders.

“You are fake news”

Less important, but no less true, news outlets are failing in their mission as the fourth estate. The Trump years accelerated the transition to fan-service journalism, where CNN and other outlets sought to flatter and titillate rather than inform their audience. Much has been said – often with good reason – about how the right wing media in America misinforms its audience. 

But by 2018, two out of three Democrats told YouGov they believed that Russia tampered with America’s vote-tallies in the 2016 election. Where did they get that impression? From the networks and outlets promising that Robert Mueller had the “walls closing in” on Trump. 

Allegations that hurt Trump were rarely vetted for truth. Buzzfeed published the infamous “dossier” on Trump, while admitting it could not confirm the contents. But anyone could, within minutes, have done a few basic internet searches and noticed that important locations where misdeeds were said to have been done – like a supposed Russian consulate in Miami – were entirely fictional. Ben Smith, the editor who made that decision to publish, now acts as the New York Times’ own universal media ombudsman, outlining the direction and vetting the ethics of the entire industry. 

Trump’s relentless attacks upon the media were almost entirely self-interested, and hypocritical. He wanted better coverage, and he wanted cover for his own lies. But the failures of the media in the Trump era and the stance of liberal newspapers and broadcasters simply make America’s bitter cultural and political divisions harder to navigate, and harder to bridge.

The business logic undergirding the partisan tilts across American media is perfectly understandable. But the result is that Americans lack shared forums, or even a shared set of facts. The partisan divides in America faintly echo the kinds of fractures that still bedevil the former Yugoslavia or Northern Ireland, where different political camps have completely distinct litanies of transgressions, martyrs and heroes, the area of shared discourse and civil exchange is shrunken and the maintenance of order is consequently precarious.

Trump is entering his post-presidency as a scoundrel and a fool. There will be journalists documenting his lies and failures, and they will have material for columns ten times the length of this article. They’ll hurl just judgements on him, and they will also scapegoat him for baleful trends in American life that predate his entry into politics. 

But scoundrels and fools have their uses. They are uniquely free to say truths that others – more sensitive to society’s judgments – cannot say. Trump was just such a scoundrel.