President Trump told many truths, but one also has to act.
Donald Trump’s record as president is ripe for reevaluation even before he has left office. For more than four years progressives have insisted that history will judge Republicans harshly for the Trump era. Yet the Trump administration’s policy record, separated from Trump himself, is hardly a thing to shock historians’ tender sensibilities. Two key domestic achievements were of a bipartisan and even moderately progressive character: the passage of the USMCA trade deal and a distinctly libertarian criminal-justice reform package. President Trump gave the Club for Growth and pro-life social conservatives exactly what they wanted with the 2017 tax bill and the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, two accomplishments for which left-of-center historians may fault him. Yet neither of those moves departed from the GOP agenda that has been in place since the Reagan era. Updates to a continental free-trade agreement, criminal-justice reform, tax cuts, and originalist judges do not add up to a radically right-wing program. By conventional measures, Trump’s domestic record sits neatly beside those of President Reagan and each President Bush.
Even Trump’s tariffs, while different in degree, are not so different in kind from the steel tariffs imposed by George W. Bush or the protections that Reagan afforded the American motorcycle industry—the Gipper was the savior of Harley-Davidson. Nor was the spirit of Trump’s economic nationalism a far cry from the spirit of Reagan’s Plaza Accords. Trump was more ambitious and more haphazard in his industrial strategy, it’s true, and he undertook it amid far more difficult global conditions—China is a more serious rival in every respect than the Japan of the 1980s was, and to rebuild America’s industrial lead after so many years of anti-industrial policy was always going to take more than a single presidential term. Yet policies that shifted industry and trade advantage from China to Vietnam are, in fact, a useful beginning in correcting the mistakes that facilitated the ascent of an economic arch-rival. Trump has changed the policy debate about China, trade, and industry, in both parties, even if his own policies have not been a revolutionary break with the past.
How Trump’s approach to trade and China will be seen by historians of the future will depend on the next few twists in the tale, not just on what happened during Trump’s own time in office. If concern about China becomes a defining feature of American politics, as seems likely, Trump will be remembered as a trailblazer, whether or not his message is thought to have translated into immediate results. His role was to show the way; others must build the road. Beijing’s regime might yet falter, a turn that optimists have been predicting incorrectly since 1989. Maybe tomorrow they will prove right. If not, however, history’s damning verdict is likely to fall not on Trump’s perception of U.S.-China rivalry but on the perceptions and policies of Trump’s loudest critics, the architects of globalization and Beijing’s concomitant empowerment.
Policy paradigms in our country arise and collapse messily, driven not by visionary academics and technocrats but by flexible politicians sensitive to the vox populi and willing to experiment and muddle through; leaders who have a direction in mind—or at least a destination—but nothing like a roadmap. The New Deal was haphazard too, and Reagan had neither the dogmatic consistency nor market fundamentalism of the Zombie Reaganism now worshipped across much of the American right.
The real Reagan offers a useful point of comparison for Trump: Reagan, too, had his critics among the gatekeepers of conservative orthodoxy, who loved the 40th president for his domestic agenda (usually) but found him far too soft on Mikhail Gorbachev and thought he’d been duped by the wily Russian. Contrary to legend, neoconservatives in the Reagan administration’s latter years were distinctly unhappy with the president and hoped for a truly hardline successor. But Reagan’s simple vision was right—he foresaw the peaceful end of the Cold War because he knew the Soviets were collapsing from within—while the neoconservatives, in all their sophistication, were wrong. Likewise, Trump’s grasp of the stakes in the 21st-century economic struggle is simpler, clearer, and more correct than the highly theorized, well-articulated, policy-rich, yet fundamentally wrong view of his critics. Those critics fancy themselves free-marketeers and economic scientists more principled and dispassionate than other mere mortals but, truth be told, they are “true believers” of the same emotional sort who couldn’t accept Reagan’s bold diplomacy with the enemy.
Just as Reagan understood the Soviet Union’s rot, Trump has recognized the post–Cold War era’s political economy is basically gangrenous. The difference is that the Soviet Union only had to be destroyed. Applying ever greater pressure with a combination of firm deterrence, clear moral condemnation, and diplomatic engagement did the trick. The present economic regime has to be replaced–not with democratic socialism or central planning, but with a more nuanced and less oligarchic conception of the relationship between economics, politics, security, and society.
Today’s dogmatic liberalism places the economy apart from and in some way above politics and strategic security. Economics is purportedly scientific and moral, while politics and foreign relations are inherently compromising and reflect darkly on human nature. What’s good for the economy is good for society, namely stock prices and gross domestic product. If GDP is up, but life expectancy is down, that’s still progress. If GDP is up, but more and more of the growth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, it can always be redistributed. The scientific and philosophically righteous must come before the political and the socially pragmatic, or so goes the justification. The reality is much simpler: the highly credentialed elites win, while traditional forms of family and labor lose.
Donald Trump is a millionaire (or billionaire) with a degree from Wharton, not a factory-floor worker with a high-school education. But class politics, thankfully, is not identity politics. Trump, for whatever reasons of his own, is not a “true believer” in the system that has served his class so well. There’s a lot that he likes about it, and he boasts about stock-market records and GDP growth as much as any president. But he dares to speak about the system’s shortcomings, about deindustrialization, about the feeling that he and millions of Americans share—including millions of Americans who didn’t vote for him—that the economic game is rigged with trade, immigration, education, and financial policies that benefit the mandarins and harm ordinary people. This truth, however roughly articulated, is just as important as the truth Trump has told about China. And these two truths are of course intimately related.
Yet telling the truth is not enough: one also has to act. Trump accomplished a great deal in his four years, considerably more than his critics are wont to admit. Most of the work that must go into renewing American life, however, remains to be done—not just by presidents and their staff but by the men and women outside of government who have the talent to put specific ideas on the policy agenda, and who can transform a needed iconoclasm into a well-wrought public argument, a plan of action, and substantive change. The essays in this symposium, evaluating what has succeeded and failed in the last four years and what is to be done next, carry on the work. They show the opportunity that Trump has created, which we now need to seize.