The Trump Presidency: A Steady Global Devolution Towards Disorder

by Paul Szydlowski

Three weeks after he was elected, I posted some predictions of where a Trump presidency might lead us. Among the predictions were failure to complete a border wall, soaring federal deficits, potholes in the attempt to replace the Affordable Care Act and steady global devolution towards disorder if the U.S. were to withdraw from global treaties and alliances. I believe it’s time for a review of where things stand. This is in no way an exhaustive list.

Internationally, our withdrawal from multiple international agreements, along with our unilateral discarding of NAFTA has undermined trust among allies and trading partners. Our withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was negotiated to isolate China to our benefit, has opened the door for China to step in and assume a leadership role in setting trade rules among important U.S. trading partners that are detrimental to our long and short term interests.

TPP map
The Trans-Pacific Partnership was designed to reduce the dependence of signatory nations on purchasing imports from China. By walking away from the TPP, Pres. Trump strengthened China’s economic position in the region by making nations under the TPP more reliant on Peking and less on the United States for trade.

America No Longer Leads

Likewise, our withdrawal from the Paris climate accord is another move that has eliminated us from leadership and an active voice on a global issue with implications for health, foreign relations and economic growth. The world no longer looks to us for leadership on a topic upon which the rest of the world continues to move forward.

Most troubling is our unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, with nothing but sanctions and military threats to replace it. We now find ourselves on the outside looking in, threatening military action and moving military assets into position to stop Iran from resuming nuclear development programs – programs that we had the ability to monitor under the program we withdrew from. In other words, we are now considering military action to get what we had in the first place. As our experience with Iraq and Afghanistan has shown, we make no friends when we send in the military. This is especially troublesome regarding Iran because their citizenry is quite likely the most pro-western society outside of Israel in the Middle East. Their government is a problem, but their people are not. Military action will almost certainly change that relationship permanently for the worse.

Meanwhile, the tariffs the president has imposed have set a precedent that trade barriers are OK. They are not. It was US leadership in the wake of WWII on free trade that has given the world its most peaceful 70 year era in human history. As Nike founder Phil Knight observed in his autobiography, when goods don’t cross borders, armies do. Besides being a tax on American consumers, the tariffs we’ve placed on China, Canada and others is a game of chicken that can easily run out of control. It happened in the 1930s when we were the dominant global economic force. They are an even greater threat today when we no longer have the power to dictate markets or market terms.

Phil Knight
Nike founder and chairman, Phil Knight, once said, “When goods don’t cross borders, armies do.”¬† The influence of global trade gave the world 70 years of peace, following World War Two, thanks to American leadership.¬† That leadership is now gone, thanks to Mr. Trump’s policies and withdrawal from major international trade deals.

The tariffs point to a bigger shortcoming regarding the presidents supposedly vaunted negotiating skills. In moving the US Israel embassy to Jerusalem, he gave up a negotiating tool that we had been holding in order to reward Israel for concessions towards the Palestinians. We gave it away for nothing. Likewise, we refused to give Kim Jong Un the credibility that came with a face-to-face meeting with the US president without significant concessions in return. But this president met not once, but twice, with nothing but empty promises in return. Both the Palestinians and North Koreans launched rockets in recent weeks which pointed out the emptiness of what we gained, and should be seen as spitting in our president’s face, if not in the face of all Americans. We’ve made our concessions and have little but bluster now to return in response. That is all due to the president’s poor and thoughtless negotiating tactics.

While all this is taking place, he is giving aid and comfort to dictators across the globe, from Vladimir Putin to Turkey’s Erdogan to the Philippines’ Duterte, and more, every time the president calls out Fake News, especially when in the presence of said autocrats, he gives tacit approval to their own heavy-handed shutdown of dissent. Couple that with his looking the other way regarding the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and he has been the most dictator-friendly US president in memory.

Deficit Spending, Lax Oversight and Healthcare

Domestically, the recent tax cuts have added unnecessary fuel to an economy that was already hitting on all cylinders. Our deficits are up 38% over last year, despite a record economy. These are deficits that would normally be seen during a recession, when tax revenues drop and stimulatory spending rises. That we see deficits matching or exceeding what we saw at the bottom of the Great Recession of 2008-2009 should worry all of us since it means we have virtually nowhere to turn if and when the economy goes south, as it always does. Our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will all pay for our extra quarter percent of GDP growth today.

Sliding showing Trump's deficit spending
The projected 4.6% budget deficit will be the largest in American history for a year not following a recession. The red line on the chart shows this trend will only get worse as Mr. Trump’s irresponsible spending grows.

As for deregulation, the purpose regulation plays in the first place (as described by free-market godfather F.A. Hayek) is to capture the full costs of production so that they are paid by the company and its customers, rather than being passed on to workers, neighbors and society as a whole in the form of pollution, dangerous workplaces and harmful products. Yes, business hates regulation – everyone does – but the tension between government and industry is an important one that has saved countless lives and billions, if not trillions of dollars in health problems, injury and depleted resources. Putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, as this president has done with his appointments to the EPA, the Interior Department, the National Weather Service, the Energy Department and more, has set back our protections in way we will pay for years. You or members of your family could quite likely suffer the consequences of those lax standards in the coming years and decades. How much money in your pocket would make that worthwhile?

Regarding healthcare, he now promises a “beautiful” plan after the 2020 election, thus giving the lie to the fact that there is no plan, and there never was a plan, to replace the ACA. All the president and the GOP have been able to do is undermine the individual mandate, which was one of four pillars designed to spread risk and stabilize insurance prices. One of those pillars – the public option – was killed before the act became law. Killing the individual mandate, while maintaining coverage for preexisting conditions removes a second leg, thus making the entire system unstable. As Charles Krauthammer predicted before his death, attempts to kill the ACA would not just fail, but lead eventually to single-payer health care. The widespread calls for Medicare For All suggest Krauthammer was prescient. Meanwhile, this president and the Republicans continue to demonstrate little understanding of health care, and even less concern for those failed by our current system.

Racists and Bigots

And just as he is giving cover and comfort to dictators around the world, so is he providing the same to racists and bigots at home. He may not be a bigot himself, but his words and actions, from his blanket portrayal of Mexican immigrants as drug smugglers and rapists, to defending the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, chanting “Jews will not replace us!” legitimize hatred in ways that should not be expected, let alone accepted from an American president. His policies, meanwhile, reflect that misguided and unfounded fear and hatred. Yes, we have a crisis on the border, but it is not one of drug smugglers, rapists and MS-13 members. Instead, it is one of desperate mothers, fathers and children willing to risk dangerous treks of a thousand miles or more to seek the protection the United States has always offered. Such people should not just be comforted, but should be welcomed – for the greatness of the US rests in no small part of the fortitude, industriousness and gratitude past immigrants who sought to flee such hardships brought to our shores.

At a time when the world needs American leadership more than ever – and the US needs an infusion of energy and determination such as these immigrants could bring – we are turning our backs on not just our past and future, but on our moral center. We will regret it – as will the world. The president’s attempts to instill fear of others, while undermining the separation of powers written into our Constitution by declaring a national emergency inflames both hatred and misunderstanding while undermining the rule of law and the protections from autocratic leadership our founding fathers were so wise to be wary of.

Charlottesville rally
Two years after stating there were “very fine people” on both sides of the Charlottesville rally that included Nazis and white supremacists, Pres. Trump defended his remarks by claiming those on the far right were “emotional” because they were defending “a great general,” Robert E. Lee.

Finally, his undermining of faith in the institutions of democracy threatens our very system of government. Just as banks fail when faith in them falters, just as currencies fail when faith in the currency falters, so do democracies fail when faith in the institutions that make democracies possible falters. These include a free press, faith in fair and open elections, trust in law enforcement and the rule of law, trust in those we disagree with – all of which this president has worked tirelessly to undermine. If you have less faith in any of these institutions today than you did before Donald Trump announced his candidacy, that loss of faith is due not to failures of those institutions, but the presidents’ own efforts to undermine them.

Without faith in the institutions of democracy, there can be no democracy. That, more than anything else is the greatest threat Donald Trump poses to the United States – and we can only pray it is not one historians seek to study the way they study the fall of Rome. If they do, this president will be a central character.

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