Distracted by the toxic fog of lies and threats, one can lose sight of the real, material damage from this administration. At the end of Trump Year Zero, what genuine damage have we suffered and where have our fears outpaced real events?
Here’s a summary of what I see as the worst impacts so far. They are ranked in importance from least to greatest, in terms of the human and economic impact and how difficult those effects will be to remedy.
Ending Police Reforms
Our Attorney General, J. Beauregard Sessions, has decided that White Lives Matter. The Justice Department in September summarily disbanded its police oversight program operating through the COPS initiative. Trying to establish some capable police oversight takes time. Something as simple as providing official documentation of police murders is complex and fraught with resistance. Dismantling this effort sends years of work down the toilet. Another effort can be started in the future, but the early gains will have been lost.
Gutting the State Department
Xenophobes hate diplomats. Diplomats are smart, worldly, and comfortable moving across boundaries of culture and tribe. Stalin often exiled people to the gulags for nothing more than having served his government abroad. McCarthy was convinced that the State Department was brimming with Communists. One of the brainiest jobs in government outside scientific research, diplomats have always been hated by the far right. Republicans have finally wrecked the State Department.
Under the leadership of a Texas oil executive with strong ties to Moscow, this has become one of the worst jobs in government. Almost 60% of our senior Foreign Service leadership have left, taking with them hundreds of years of accumulated knowledge and experience. They aren’t being replaced.
Those Foreign Service Officers who haven’t yet gotten the hint received a not so-subtle nudge from their asshole boss this month. Tillerson is reassigning career diplomats to do FOIA paperwork. This sick move satisfies two key Republican goals, further degrading the State Department while disclosing what they believe are its dark conspiratorial secrets.
This is unfixable. It would take decades of concentrated effort to rebuild quality and competence in an agency as complex as State. We simply aren’t going to have the kind of diplomatic apparatus we once enjoyed. Bye bye.
Declining Attractiveness for Immigrants
The number of applications for H1B visas, the special category for high-tech immigrants, fell last year for the first time since the recession. Fewer foreign students applied to US universities for the first time since 9/11. Travel to the US dropped by a little more than 4% last year.
Just a few weeks into the Trump administration a white terrorist murdered an Indian engineer in Kansas City. Trump’s silence on the murder was heard pretty loudly around the world while Americans failed to notice. When combined with the rest of the administration’s racist agenda, highly valued immigrants are finding better places to go, especially Canada and Australia. There’s been a surge of interest on Indian job sites by US-based workers who want to return home.
If the economy remains strong, it may be possible to reverse this. What’s most worrying is the decline in student applications. That’s a class of people who will be building the next generation of the global economy. If young professionals no longer want to do that here, then we will face painful, long-term problems. We will look back wistfully on an era when we didn’t even have to try to recruit immigrants. Ah, the good old days…
Withdrawal from TPP
A trade agreement, completed late in 2016 after more than a decade of delicate, complex work would have sealed US leadership in the world’s largest emerging market. US priorities around commerce, labor and environmental issues would have been at the center of a new century of Pacific trade.
Now they won’t.
Trump killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The rest of the Pacific Rim countries originally in the deal have completed it without us. Now the Chinese are moving into our void to craft a successor agreement built around their culture, laws and interests. This is not fixable. We held a leadership position based not on our present or future power, but on our past power. We pissed it away by electing a moron. Now it’s gone. Barring a major disruption on the scale of a Chinese Civil War or a regional war, our position of economic leadership in the Pacific is lost. This will have its most painful effects for us in manufacturing, software, and entertainment, but many of the impacts may not even be apparent yet. This may be the dumbest move America has ever made.
A Clumsy Territorial Tax Scheme
Tax policy is complicated. People running our government right now don’t trouble themselves with complications. Our switch to a territorial tax scheme was executed in such a slapdash manner that it enhanced incentives to eliminate American jobs.
Two provisions are likely to have the greatest job-killing impact and they seem to have been crafted almost purposely to cause this outcome. The first, “full and immediate expensing,” removes one of the obstacles to automation. Replacing humans with machines may not be very difficult anymore, but it usually involves significant upfront capital outlays. This provision changes the way those outlays are amortized, basically making it possible to treat them as an expense in year one.
Combine that with one of the most generous territorial tax plans in the world, and there’s little reason to locate any menial jobs in the US. Unlike most territorial plans, our brilliant new system imposes no taxes on new income earned by companies abroad. These two provisions are the hammer and anvil for industries vulnerable to automation and offshoring. And maybe just a bit of karmic justice for the Rust Belt voters who elected these people.
This tax plan commits the US government to borrow $1.5tr and hand that money to our wealthiest citizens and corporations. That’s bad, but it can be reversed by passing a single bill. The impact of the territorial provisions on an already fragile jobs base will probably be terminal.
The End of the Post-War International Order
Our allies in Europe and Asia have learned some hard lessons about our reliability as the world’s leading power. They have begun to craft new arrangements. Trump is merely the last nail in this coffin. Over the past half century, America has produced too few Bush 1’s and Obamas and too many Bush II’s and Trumps. We are an increasingly erratic and dangerous partner, less to be trusted than contained. That is a seismic reordering of international relations, one which won’t be corrected with an election or an impeachment. We will spend the coming era on the defensive, doing what we can to protect our international standing as our credibility erodes. Barring a revolution in the US followed by half a century or so of progressive leadership, this trend isn’t going to be reversed. The era of US leadership over the world’s liberal democracies is finished.
On the Horizon…
Killing a Fair Housing Campaign
One of the most promising outcomes of the Obama Administration was barely noticed by the public. A HUD program called “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” was beginning to look like the most important move toward desegregation since the Civil Rights era. It was a simple rule that forced cities to examine the racial impact of housing policy, and it was already showing some hopeful results not only toward desegregation, but also in making housing more affordable. Naturally, Republicans want to shut it down. Trump’s HUD, led by his token black friend Ben Carson, has suspended the rule. Under a white nationalist government, the fate of a promising desegregation scheme seems certain.
Limiting Student Loan Forgiveness
In a few cases, the Trump administration’s idiots overlap with its crooks, like in the leadership of the Education Department. Officials are taking steps to eliminate Obama Era measures that protected students who had been victims of student loan fraud and roll back access to repayment relief. There is no political constituency for these moves. It’s pure corrupt opportunism by officials with financial ties to the industry.
Letting Employers Take Tips
A proposed rule change by the Labor Department would let employers pocket tips. It is unclear whether this is sloppy drafting of an otherwise reasonable effort to improve conditions for “back of the house” employees, or an effort to open a new revenue stream for restauranteurs. Frankly, it looks like an error and might go nowhere.
What isn’t on the list
Immigration enforcement. Look closely at the most wrenching deportation cases and you’ll notice something troubling. With few exceptions, they are merely the continuation of an enforcement process begun under the Obama Administration. Obama was the deportation President. Deportations have actually declined under Trump. ICE has grown incrementally more reckless and abusive, but the material impacts have so far been limited.
Vote suppression. This should have been a big deal. Trump officials poured resources into a concentrated campaign across multiple departments to systematically suppress registration and turnout. They even set up a task force under aspiring young Nazi, Kris Kobach, to coordinate their campaign with state governments. Their failure despite heavy investment and passionate interest demonstrates how lucky we’ve been so far. Everyone in this administration who isn’t an idiot is either a crook or a mole. They are utterly incapable of executing any task requiring the smallest volume of intellect, attention or planning. At their worst, they are vandals.
Environmental protection issues. There remains a lot of potential damage, but not much has happened yet. Leaving the Paris Accord was mostly symbolic. Loosening restrictions on the coal industry may not matter much, since that business continues to die. This is one of those areas where you need more than just incompetent leadership to make an impact.
Net Neutrality. Handing a public asset worth hundreds of billions of dollars to a handful of companies for free is kind of a big deal, but it would also be really easy to take back. The companies know this, so they are slow-playing their hand. Only if the issue is forgotten for a few years will they make a serious move. This is bad, but we have time to fix it.
Health care. This really should have been easy. Just repeal the ACA. Having failed at his dead-simple step, the rest of their efforts have amounted to vandalism and harassment. By stalling, they are slowly eroding low income families’ access to health care for their kids. They are making it incrementally harder to get Medicaid and just generally chipping away at access. But there has been no large scale shift here. And frankly, even under the ACA access to affordable health care in the US was terrible. Little has changed.
Destruction of government ethics oversight. To avoid the formal appointment process, Trump promoted an incompetent lackey as interim head the Office of Government Accountability. That sucks, but it merely makes a weak and ineffective government function more so. Little known fact: our process for ethics enforcement was always a joke. Our government is unusually corrupt by the standards of other major democracies. If anything, this experience may raise public awareness and concern around the issue.
The Wall. Seriously, how hard is it to build a wall? Too hard, as it turns out.
Stacking the Judiciary. Again, this should have been a slam dunk. Think tanks handed the administration lists of people to slot into these jobs. On the surface it looks good, as they submitted a record number of appointees and the courts are the only area where this administration has expended effort on appointments. However, of the 200 or so submitted, about 30 have been appointed. An unprecedented number of low level appointments have resigned or been denied thanks to gross incompetence. Expect the slow pace to grind to a halt as the scandals ripen. There are a little more than 3000 federal judges. If all of his current appointments go through, Trump will have named 6% of them.
Privatizing US military and intelligence operations. First of all, the biggest steps in this direction were taken by President Bush. Trump is just removing the veneer. Second, the darker plans around privatizing covert activity haven’t happened and probably won’t. Again, it’s the kind of program that would require careful, cunning engagement from competent adults. They don’t have any.
Looking closely at some of the most troubling social developments of this year, you discover that many of them have been in motion for quite some time. This administration has been most successful at merely continuing bad ideas placed in motion by previous leaders. Where damage can result merely from inattention or incompetence, the impact of this administration has been staggering. Where damage requires careful attention, cleverness, and planning, they have failed across the board.
As stated earlier, Trump’s election was itself the most damaging development of our time, an event that ended a sort of Golden Age of the 3rd Republic. No matter what this administration does or fails to do, we probably don’t see a stable new order without a radical and probably violent restructuring of our government. We’ve been pretty lucky so far, but a reckoning looms.