Though only two weeks old, the Trump presidency has been one crazy ride. For opponents of Trump’s candidacy, the bad news just keeps coming, in the form of problematic cabinet appointees and executive actions, crazy tweets, and disturbing public statements and performances. But at least Trump seems to have brought Americans together in one way: even those who are more sympathetic to Trump seem to have been a bit rattled by all the presidential news of these past two weeks.
Even more unsettling is the sheer pace of the news about the new administration. Making sense of it is like trying to drink from a firehose. Yet make sense of it we must, if only to begin to distinguish what is “normal,” as opposed to what is truly new and different about this president and the changes he intends to implement. What follows are two observations about what Trump has done since taking office. The first is about the nature of his executive actions, and the second is about his administration’s strategy of delivering them so quickly and to such destabilizing effect.
Trump’s Executive Actions
Trump has definitely shaken up everyone’s expectations about how an American president should communicate and what he should say. But in regard to his official actions, it is important to understand what he has done that is outside the norms of conventional governance, and what is not.
Because he is a political novice, there was some speculation before inauguration about Trump’s actual ideological orientation. Would he conform to his party’s platform, or was he perhaps more centrist than his campaign revealed? This question has, I think, been answered. Trump’s executive actions have turned out to adhere closely to his campaign platform. In turn, this platform, and his actions this week, conform in large part to what we might have expected if another conservative Republican candidate had been elected – say, Ted Cruz, or even Jeb Bush.
Like Trump, a President Cruz or even a President Jeb Bush would probably have reinstated the “Mexico City Policy,” which prohibits US funding to any international agency that provides or even mentions abortion. In fact, this policy, which originated under Reagan, was abolished under Bill Clinton, reinstated by George W. Bush, abolished again by Obama and simply reinstated again by this latest conservative president. Like Trump, a President Cruz or Bush would have nominated a conservative Supreme Court Justice like Neil Gorsuch. They also would have expressed opposition to the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits religious groups from endorsing political candidates. Like Trump, A President Cruz or Bush would have probably also have attempted to roll back the banking regulations imposed under Obama after the 2008 financial crisis. Finally, like Trump they would probably have taken steps to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which provides health insurance to millions of Americans, and ordered the construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines, over the massive protests of environmentalist and American Indian rights groups.
As troubling as these actions are, we need to be clear that they are not outside of the current mainstream of American politics-a mainstream that has shifted significantly to the right due to the electoral victories of the increasingly conservative Republican Party. To really understand what is novel about the Trump presidency, we must instead look to where his platform and his actions have departed even from this right-wing orthodoxy.
Trump’s pledge to build a wall on the Mexican border in order to address illegal immigration is one of these issues that I think separates him from the Republican mainstream. Republicans have historically tended to like free trade and even the free flow of workers across borders. Also, the proposed wall represents a potentially huge and expensive project that (barring the unlikely event that Trump gets Mexico to pay for it) violates the conservative dislike of big government expenditures.
But Trump’s biggest departure from Republican norms is in his strange fascination with Vladimir Putin. His recent argument with conservative television personality Bill O’Reilly was especially telling in this respect. O’Reilly called on Trump to distance himself from the Russian leader, whom he called “a killer.” Trump’s reply, ”You think our country’s so innocent?” shocked many, in that it violated one of the most cherished elements of conservative ideology since World War II; namely, the exceptionalist belief that the US is a special kind of moral force for good in world affairs. It will be interesting to see how much mainstream Republicans will be able to forgive Trump for this heretical departure from conservative orthodoxy.
Shock and Awe
Then there is the issue of the sheer speed of Trump’s executive actions. He has already signed eighteen executive orders and presidential memos, which is actually one less than Obama signed at the start of his first term in 2009. But Obama’s executive actions were generally much less controversial. Those few that raised much interest at all were directed at curtailing some of the worst excesses of his predecessor’s “war on terror,” including closing secret detention centers and banning the use of torture. By contrast, Trump’s executive actions hit some of the most controversial topics in American politics across a wide range of domestic and international issues, including rolling back healthcare reform and banking regulations; the international abortion “gag rule”; the Mexico border wall; authorizing the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines; and a massive change to immigration and refugee policies with a temporary ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
The rapid enactment of this broad range of controversial executive actions seems to be deliberate and strategic. On the campaign trail Trump liked to brag that many of these the items on his agenda would be accomplished on “Day One.” But beyond wishing to quickly fulfill his campaign promises, it seems clear that the intention of all these actions, delivered within a mere two weeks, was to overwhelm and intimidate his political opponents into a state of confusion and inaction. The shock that many of us have felt in the past few weeks was, in other words, an entirely intended effect.
But there are signs that this strategy has not worked as well as planned. For example, the administration’s own haste to deliver as many executive actions as possible led to the fiasco of the travel ban. The order, which dramatically changes US policy toward legal travel, immigration, and refugee resettlement, immediately met with challenges in the courts in part because it was evidently very poorly crafted and vetted. Agencies tasked with implementing the ban were not consulted and left floundering over questions of implementation. The ban led to widespread concern about the potential harm it may have done to US anti-terrorism efforts, to say nothing of chaos in the airports, and real human suffering. Apparently, enough of his political opponents were prepared to respond to generate massive protests, a coordinated legal response for those affected by the ban, and legal pushback from the states. At the very least, the obvious failure and unpopularity of the travel ban has also given Trump’s current political allies an easy reason to separate themselves from this already unpopular president.
It is also not clear that making people feel crazy and unstable is a sustainable or desirable political strategy. Rather than frightening his opponents into submission, this barrage of new actions seems to have stiffened their resolve. And regardless of their political ideology, no one likes feeling like their country’s business is in chaos, or that the rule of law is in doubt. Financial markets absolutely hate instability of any kind. This “law and order” president, who promised to quell voters’ fears about immigrants or terrorists or Black Lives Matter protesters had better watch out, or even his erstwhile supporters will start to think that he is the cause of their worries.