Trump Through a Pinhole
During the recent eclipse, NASA urged us all to protect our eyes by turning our backs on the sun itself, observing the eclipse only through pinhole cameras. A similar technique proves remarkably useful in observing the Trump administration. If you ignore the strangely dazzling figure of the president himself, examining instead the second order effects he’s producing, you’ll find that a certain reassuring clarity emerges. To wit:
Item: Congress may have thwarted the administration’s effort to replace Obamacare, but wherever the administration has been able to take action on its own it has done just that, demonstrating not incompetence but considerable effectiveness.
Consider ISIS. When Trump gave him a free hand in dealing with the terrorist organization, Defense Secretary James Mattis announced that the United States and its allies would no longer permit ISIS to recapture territory after staging merely tactical retreats. Instead we would encircle ISIS forces—and destroy them. Since then, the territory that ISIS controls has fallen by roughly one half. Or look at illegal immigration. After three decades in which administrations of both parties have failed to enforce immigration laws that were already on the books, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has begun to do so. Illegal immigration has dropped by some 70 percent.
The list goes on. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has begun rolling back regulations, notably on clean water, that the EPA had used to usurp the legislative function of Congress. OMB Director Mick Mulvaney has announced that for every new regulation any federal agency promulgates it must eliminate two. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has overturned the sexual harassment rules that the Obama administration had forced on universities. The White House has followed the nomination of Neal Gorsuch to the Supreme Court with the nominations of more than 30 others to the federal bench—and each of those nominees is, like Gorsuch, a
thoroughly vetted originalist.
Still only eight months old, the Trump administration has demonstrated the ability to absorb new information and adjust to circumstances—that is, to learn in real time. It has displayed seriousness. It has gotten things done.
Item: Animal spirits and tax reform.
After eight years in which Washington displayed an attitude toward business that looked a lot like passive aggression—remember the seven years it took the Obama administration to review the Keystone Pipeline before rejecting it?—every American in business knows at some basic level that the Trump administration is on his side. This releases energies in itself. As even Keynes admitted, “Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive…can only be taken as the result of animal spirits.” Capital formation, job creation, growth: We now have an administration that celebrates these things instead of denigrating them—and business is responding. As I write, the Dow Jones index has just set its third record in as many days, continuing the climb that began when President Trump took office.
Throughout the bureaucracy, members of the Trump administration are confronting federal overreach, attempting to reduce the regulatory burden on business. Now the President himself has begun to campaign for tax reform—over the next ten weeks, according to the White House, Trump will crisscross the nation to argue for lower, simpler taxes. Animal spirits and tax reform. Will that lift growth from two percent or lower, the rate we’ve experienced since 2000, back to the historic norm of three percent or more? The markets seem to be betting that it will. I wouldn’t bet against them.
Item: President George W. Bush and the “gang of eight” in the Senate both attempted to achieve comprehensive immigration reform—and both encountered exactly the same insuperable problem: the American people simply would not have it. There is a long story to be told here, but after three decades in which the federal government had failed to enforce the law at our borders, citizens brimmed with distrust. Stop illegal immigration, the people in effect said to Washington—in a word, do your job—and only then might we permit you to enact immigration reform. Winning back the trust of the American people by ending illegal immigration. For at least a decade, that has represented the necessary first step, the sine qua non, of immigration reform.
Now the Trump administration may be achieving it. Illegal immigration, as I noted above, is already down some 70 percent. The administration remains committed to building a wall on the southern border, to establishing e-verify, and to enacting the RAISE Act, which would replace chain immigration with a points-based immigration system like that in Canada. If the administration accomplishes all of that, it may create a political opening of the kind that Bush and the gang of eight could never find. Trump could still mess it up, of course—the DACA controversy that erupted displays his talent for ham-fistedness. Yet if Nixon could go to China, then Trump may be able to give us real reform, substantially ending illegal immigration while devising a legal status from at least some of the undocumented immigrants who are already here.
Yes, I know. Donald Trump is impulsive, vain, profane, shallow, loudmouthed, inconsistent, and overbearing. But when you look at him through a pinhole, so to speak, you can see that in his way he loves the country; that his instincts run to smaller government, lower taxes, and respect for the Constitution; and that he has surrounded himself with many serious and accomplished people. Who knows? A lot of good may yet come of this strange moment.
Peter Robinson is a former Reagan speechwriter and a fellow at the Hoover Institution.