For all his hyperventilating bluster, in most ways that matter Donald Trump is no different than most Republican elected officials. He isn’t particularly interested in doing anything that would help the American people. Nor, despite giving them lip service occasionally, does he care in the least for the real-world interests of his base supporters.
The fact that Trump obviously allows himself to be blithely led around by the nose by the likes of people as morally repugnant as Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller shows him to be someone for whom no moral purpose exists, someone wholly preoccupied with himself and himself alone. None of his actions to date evidence the slightest desire to make Americans’ lives any better than they were before he was elected. Even his calculated and much-hyped gestures to please his core supporters—supporters who are truly “base” in every sense of the word—aren’t designed to do anything positive for their lives. They are designed to assuage their impulse to hate and blame others for their own problems, to be sure. But that doesn’t mean Trump is going to make their existence any better. He won’t even try to.
There is one area where Trump is succeeding wildly, however, without even trying. He is solidifying the legacy of Barack Obama.
From the moment he took office, Trump began taking credit for the fairly stellar economy President Obama left for most Americans, including low unemployment and a burgeoning stock market. As the New York Times observes:
But as Sean Spicer, then his press secretary, said when the jobs numbers measuring the first full month of Mr. Trump’s tenure came out: “They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.”
But unlike Trump, President Barack Obama’s policies were the product of his desire to actually do something good for the American public. For this reason, out of something that can only be described as spite, Trump has blatantly sought to reverse his predecessor’s achievements in every way possible. The pathology of this behavior could fill volumes of psychological journals. But for the American people, the good news is that Trump is failing, will continue to fail, and in this failure he has unwittingly revealed just how strong President Obama’s achievements were.
As Jonathan Chait, writing for The Atlantic, observes:
[D]uring the eight years Barack Obama occupied the White House, his administration looked and felt to most of his supporters like a bitter slog of gridlock punctuated by half-measures. And it looked to his enemies like a period of untrammeled radicalism that would soon be reversed. Six months later, his record appears very different, viewed from both the left and the right…[.]
Trump, quite by mistake, is revealing the true scale of his predecessor’s achievements.
Chait points out that the true scale of not only President Obama’s achievements, but the tenacity, solidity and resilience of his character is being revealed by the clueless bumbling of the office’s current Occupant. The clearest example of this was the Herculean effort Obama made to pass the Affordable Care Act, navigating a minefield of special interests and parochial legislators that had flummoxed all prior Presidents who made the attempt. It takes an extraordinary degree of character to do this— and Obama’s uncanny success throws Trump’s miserable failure to repeal the same exact law into sharp relief.
The legislative process is inherently, famously, ugly, but we have a way of forgetting that fact when it happens. The bipartisan disgust at the ungainly policy-making under Obama — when a small, ultimately revoked break for Nebraska hospitals became a national scandal — looks quaint now that we have seen true ugliness. Needless to say, a bill-signing after an extended debate and negotiation is a more positive outcome than the total legislative collapse Trump has overseen.
The process by which the Republicans attempted to Repeal the Health Care act also gives the lie to those who complained that Obama ignored Republicans when he originally sought to pass it. The same Republican Party that lived to do the bidding of the so-called “Tea Party” is now one whose every actions are done out of fear of angering Trump’s “base.” And the same lockstep obstinacy followed by McConnell, crafting bills in secret and revealing them only as a fait accompli, without permitting debate or any input whatsoever from Democrats, was identical to the opposition Obama faced down in 2009:
The Republican base’s adoration of Trump, which differs only incrementally from its previous adoration of Sarah Palin, reveals just how naïve it was to expect Obama to persuade the opposing party to cooperate. No compromise, no set of facts, could have placated a right-wing base in the grips of atavistic cultural fear and walled off from legitimate news sources.
Trump has also induced a change in attitude among Democrats regarding President Obama’s policies. The consensus among many Democrats during Obama’s early tenure was that the Affordable Care Act was a paltry, substandard half-measure, geared mostly to please the health care industry. People with no memorable record of legislative achievements themselves were often the loudest critics:
…[T]he left shrugged at the passage of some of the most sweeping domestic reforms in decades. Obamacare? “A very small number of people are going to get any insurance at all, until 2014, if the bill works,” sniffed Howard Dean. “This is essentially the collapse of health care reform in the United States Senate.” The Paris climate accord? Meh, said Bernie Sanders: “We need bold action in the very near future and this does not provide that.”
As Chait wryly points out, both Dean and Sanders are singing a far different tune today.
“Loss aversion” refers to the phenomenon where people value something less when they have it, but far more if they lose it. Chait explains that this more than anything explains why Obama’s achievements were undervalued, by the American public, even by members of his own Party. The solid, steadfast and united Democratic opposition to Trump’s attempts to repeal the ACA contrasted remarkably with the tepid level of support it received to achieve its narrow passage in the first place. Chait observes that it is really the threat posed by Trump that allowed progressives to realistically assess the scope of Obama’s accomplishments.
The failure of a party with governing majorities in the Congress and control of the White House to pass a single piece of legislation also reveals the depth of Obama’s effectiveness. While the clueless attempt to repeal the ACA was the most glaring example, Chait reminds us that many of Obama’s accomplishments, most notably the ones that staved off a second Great Depression, are not even reversible in theory. Although Trump’s Republican enablers say they want to repeal Dodd- Frank, for example, they simply don’t have the votes.
On climate change — and somewhat relatedly, on foreign policy–the rest of the world is now seeing Trump as an unfortunate aberration, a grievous mistake, certainly, by the greatest country in the world, but one that can be ignored or worked around. While Trump’s anti-science cadre of advisors may stymie this country’s pursuit of renewable energy, other nations are swiftly moving to take the lead, benefiting their own economies and populations at the same time. Again, Obama’s leadership in these areas set the stage for the rest of the world to advance. That is a legacy that cannot be erased, whether or not Trump abandons the Paris Climate accords and succeeds in his efforts to turn us into a pariah nation. The fact is there are no new coal plants being built in this country, and there won’t be.
Meanwhile Trump, for all his efforts to undo Obama’s legacy, sits atop the most dismal approval ratings since Nixon’s during the Watergate era. And while he continues to issue juvenile threats from his Twitter account at every turn, the reality is that Trump cannot dismantle Obama’s accomplishments. People have a way of appreciating when someone actually has their back, as opposed to someone whose only interest is in stabbing it.