The Other Problem of Grading Trump’s 2017

Yesterday, I addressed some of the problems with some of the analyses grading Pres. Trump’s 2017 as compared to a baseline of conservative expectations.  Today, I want to note that this isn’t the only baseline from which to grade Trump.

After all, Trump is a heterodox figure whose populist and nationalist impulses are often credited as major factors in his upset 2016 victory.  And it is difficult to grade Trump against that sort of baseline, in no small part because of the manner in which Trump campaigned.

It was famously said during the 2016 campaign that the media was (improperly) taking Trump literally whereas his core voters were taking him seriously.  But what did that really mean, other than that some treated Trump the way some Democrats treated Obama in 2007, as a “blank slate” upon which to project their ideal candidate?

Take immigration as an example.  During the campaign, Trump pushed the idea of a border wall to be paid for by Mexico.  Then again, he also floated proposals including everything from a mass deportation effort not seen since the Eisenhower administration to a “touchback amnesty” that would have been the worst of all worlds, disrupting lives and providing a broad amnesty for illegal immigrants.  How does one grade against something that incoherent?

Let’s assume that most of Trump’s base wanted a wall and assumed Mexico would not fund it.  It seems as though this is no longer one of Trump’s top priorities and that the proposals for enhanced border security won’t always take the form of a wall.  He also seems amenable to some sort of amnesty for so-called “Dreamers,” at least if he can get other immigration reforms in return.

Border crossings — which have been decreasing since roughly 2000, with a slight reversal during Pres. Obama’s second term — plunged during the transition period, but have been increasing since midyear.  Immigration enforcement in the interior has increased, though overall deportations are down (in part because of decreases in border crossings, in part because of backlogged immigration courts Trump is just beginning to address).

Will his base accept that record, and should that even factor into grading from a campaign baseline?

Similarly, consider Trump’s foreign policy, which has been praised recently by Commentary’s Noah C. Rothman and National Review’s David French, both conservatives and not particular fans of Trump.  Given their general dispositions, one might think that aspects of Trump’s foreign policy (from his Afghan strategy to formally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel) should be disappointing the less hawkish parts of Trump’s base.  But you don’t hear many complaints, again raising the question of what the fuss was about last year.

To be sure, conservatives and populists alike may credit Trump for having ousted ISIS from Mosul and Tal Afar, even if this is not quite the total victory some have proclaimed.  But the policy at issue was more in continuity with Obama administration strategy than Trump’s campaign rhetoric.  Again, on this subject Trump made neo-Jacksonian threats about “bombing the oil and taking the oil” which no one could have taken literally given that the steps should be reversed at a minimum.  Yet Trump also engaged in a seemingly isolationist critique that’s not being followed in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

This is the difficulty in grading from a baseline of word salad.  But in a basic way, this is the same problem identified yesterday, which is that Trump’s biggest supporters are mostly interested in crediting Trump with victories more than assessing his actions against any particular metrics.

Lastly, the grading attempted yesterday and today revolves around policy.  Undoubtedly, there are Trump fans who give him high marks for the culture war stuff, for attacking the NFL and the media.

I understand that reaction.  I have written about the totalitarian politicization of everything, including sports media.  And I’ve written plenty of media criticism over the past dozen years or so.  So I would understand Trump fans giving him high marks for this unique conception of the job of head of state (even if the media was already widely distrusted as an institution).

I will note, however, that these supposed victories are even more temporary than some of the regulatory rollback for which Trump is taking credit.  As I’ve noted previously, the right (or anti-left) seems destined to find out the hard way that legislating structural reform is far more long-lasting than most of what either Trump or the GOP Congress have managed to accomplish in 2017.

And with that, barring sudden inspiration I think I’ll return after the New Year.  Celebrate well, but safely.

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