Despite missteps, Donald Trump is notching victories for conservative Republicans, Zelizer writes
The President is dismantling regulations and discrediting much of the government, he writes
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and New America fellow, is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Even with the strong jobs report and booming stock market, it is easy to look at President Trump and see total chaos.
Many days Americans wake up to learn about another bizarre tweet. They read about bitter internal dissension taking place in the White House and the endless tumult that characterizes the Oval Office. At times, it is unclear who is even running the show.
The Russia scandal has consumed much of the first half of his First Hundred Days – with the scandal potentially about to get bigger – while tea party Republicans are in an uproar about what they see as the “Obamacare Lite” that he is supporting as a replacement for the Affordable Care Act following its repeal.
The backlash against the health care proposal would seem to be the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot for conservatives to be frustrated about as they watch this presidency unfold. Yet looked at from a different perspective, President Trump is actually achieving many of their broader goals. Though sometimes hidden from view, the President has been taking a series of actions that will do great damage to the long-term goals of the Democratic Party.
If one accepts that Democrats are ultimately more committed to and dependent on a strong federal government, while Republicans would rather let free markets do much more of the work, then conservatives have a lot to celebrate.
The most dramatic set of advances has come with economic and financial deregulation. With all the attention centered around banning refugees and attacking the media, the administration has been issuing executive orders that weaken measures that have been central to regulating the economy in recent decades.
He has ordered federal agencies to revise the Clean Water Rule which has been central to strengthening federal protections of water. He issued an executive order on February 24 that establishes Regulatory Reform Officers within each federal agency whose responsibility is to make recommendations about which regulations should be eliminated.
Another executive order established “Core Principles” of financial regulation, directing the Treasury Secretary to look into the existing financial regulations to see which should be abolished. For every new regulation proposed by the executive branch, another order said, two had to be repealed. In his effort to “deconstruct the administrative state,” as White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon called it, Trump has been moving forward at a swift pace while most attention has been focused elsewhere.
President Trump has also done a great deal to continue delegitimizing the institutions of government. In the same way that Franklin Roosevelt showed Americans why the government could be a positive force for good and Ronald Reagan made a case for markets over government, Trump is making a case that government can no longer be functional at all. His is the ultimate product of the era of Watergate. His ongoing attacks on the judiciary and the federal bureaucracy have fueled among his supporters skepticism and distrust that the government, and even the democracy, can ever work well.
He continually raises questions about whether public officials, such as judges, ever do their job. The intelligence community has been a perpetual target of criticism. He has cast doubt on the entire electoral system upon which our democracy depends.
Although he has been somewhat easy on Congress thus far, given that the Republican majority has stood by him, it won’t be long until that is his target. By defying all the conventions of presidential governance and decorum, he is even undermining public faith in the position that he himself holds.
Though we don’t know if this is intentional or unintentional, it will be impossible for many Americans to have the same confidence in the President that they had in the era of Roosevelt or Eisenhower.
Although some Republicans are grumbling about the fact that President Trump has barely made any progress on a legislative agenda and that Washington has basically been tied up in Twitter knots since his inauguration, conservatives can probably also see that if the government is doing nothing, this works in their favor.
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Democrats depend on government, guided by their liberal belief in the role Washington can play. If Washington is dysfunctional, Republicans benefit. This was the premise for tea party Republicans to allow a government shutdown, an effort to prove to Americans that life went on even if nothing was happening in the nation’s capital.
Failing to staff government bureaucracies and refusing to provide them with the resources needed also undercuts their ability to be effective. For a recent Atlantic piece about the State Department, Julie Ioffe spent some time in the State Department observing how demoralized civil servants are because they have nothing to do and because most key posts have not even been filled. Trump is undercutting diplomacy simply by failing to take basic care of the department responsible for this mission. “I used to love my job. Now it feels like coming to the hospital to take care of a terminally ill family member,” one worker said.
Even if things seem to be rough for the Trump administration, and for the Republican Party more broadly, there is a good reason that many conservatives are sitting tight as all of this unfolds. The turmoil and the controversy are not pleasant to watch, and many Republicans are certainly cringing as they learn of the President’s latest actions. But since the moment of the inauguration, the strength and sanctity of the federal government has been taking a big hit with Trump in the White House. And this is much more of a net loss for those on the left than those on the right.