[OP-ED]: Forget the jobs, enjoy the Trump circus
Let’s say you are a Trump voter, the kind we often hear about -- an honest, hardworking American who put up with Donald Trump’s unusual behavior because you wanted a president who would stop playing Washington’s political games, bring a businessman’s obsession with action and results, and focus on the economy. How is that working out for you?
The first few weeks of the Trump administration have been an illustration of the writer Alfred Montapert’s line, “Do not confuse motion with progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress.” We are witnessing a rocking-horse presidency in which everyone is jerking back and forth furiously and yet there is no forward movement.
Since winning the election, Donald Trump has dominated the news nearly every day. He has picked fights with the media, making a series of bizarre, mostly false claims -- about the magnitude of his victory, the size of his inauguration crowd, the weather that day, the numbers of illegally cast ballots, among many others. He has had photo ops with everyone from Kanye West and Jack Ma to Shinzo Abe and Justin Trudeau. Now he is embroiled in a controversy about ties to Russia. But in the midst of it all, what has he actually done? Hardly anything.
On Thursday, Trump said at a news conference, “There has never been a presidency that’s done so much in such a short period of time.” Matthew Yglesias of Vox observes that at this point in his presidency, President Obama had signed into law an almost-trillion-dollar stimulus bill to revive the economy, extended health insurance to 4 million children and made it easier to challenge unfair labor practices. In their respective first 100 days in office, Bill Clinton had passed 24 bills; John Kennedy, 26; Harry Truman, 55; and FDR, 76. (Despite having a Republican House and Senate, Trump does not seem likely to crack 10.) Yglesias notes that the Trump White House has not even begun serious discussions with Congress on major legislation. The Washington Post notes that of 696 key positions that require Senate confirmation, the president has yet to nominate 661 of them.
Trump has issued a series of executive orders with great fanfare (though fewer than Obama at this point). But they are mostly hot air -- lofty proclamations that direct some agency to “review” a law, “report” back to him, “consider” some action or reaffirm some long-standing practice. His one order that did something, the temporary travel ban, was so poorly conceived and phrased that it got stuck in the court system and will have to be redone or abandoned. For a recent piece in Politico Magazine, Zachary Karabell carefully analyzed all the executive orders and presidential proclamations and concluded, “So far, Trump has behaved exactly like he has throughout his previous career: He has generated intense attention and sold himself as a man of action while doing little other than promote an image of himself as someone who gets things done.”
The historian Douglas Brinkley observed that Trump is a creature of reality television, for which the two cardinal rules are: Always keep the camera focused on you, and always stay interesting. The president has certainly fulfilled that mandate. But what about the one he promised his voters? What about the plans to reindustrialize the Midwest, bring back jobs, revive the coal and steel industries? What, for that matter, of his explicit commitments that “on Day One” he would begin “removing criminal illegal immigrants” and would “label China a currency manipulator,” “push for a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress,” and “get rid of gun-free zones in schools, and ... military bases.” All were promised. Almost nothing has been done.
There are two aspects to the Trump presidency. There is the freak show -- the tweets, the wild claims, the fake facts, the fights with anyone who refuses to bow down to him (the media, judges), the ceaseless self-promotion. But then there is Trump the savvy businessman, who named intelligent heavyweights like Gary Cohn, Rex Tillerson and James Mattis to key positions, and who has at times articulated a serious reform agenda. For many people, the bargain of the Trump presidency was that they would put up with the freak show in order to get tax reform, infrastructure projects and deregulation. That may still happen, but for now at least, reality TV is in overdrive and not much is happening in the realm of serious policy.
That voter out in Ohio or Michigan might well wonder how picking fights with the media will bring jobs back to his region or how assaulting the judiciary will help create retraining programs for laid-off workers. But maybe Donald Trump, who freely admits to getting all his information from television, has a television view of the presidency. The point is to be seen to be doing things. The Romans said the way to keep people happy was to give them “bread and circus.” So far all we have gotten is the circus.