Six Months in, Is Trump’s America Living Up to Liberals’ Worst Fears?

We’re an eighth of the way there, living on a prayer. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Like many other progressives, I spent the night of November 8 watching an animated speedometer swing violently from blue to red, paralyzed by the uncanny sense of waking up into a nightmare.

Barack Obama had warned that Donald Trump’s election could signal the end of the “American experiment in self-government.” This magazine had described his campaign as an “extinction-level event.” Mainstream publications had found cause to compare and contrast the mogul’s brand of politics with that of 20th-century fascists, while the progressive press had detailed the more mundane horrors inherent to the only major party in the developed world that refuses to accept the legitimacy of the welfare state — or the existence of climate change — gaining unified control of the American government.

So long as “President Donald Trump” retained the ring of a category error, these horror stories remained just that; but now, the phrase was an inevitable fact. Over the ensuing weeks, blue America’s reporters, pundits, and academics rendered their worst fears in exacting detail. The past year’s dire prophecies evolved into a kind of almanac for democratic decline, replete with lists of warnings signs and worst-case scenarios.

On Thursday, President Trump completed his sixth month in office, which makes this as good a time as any to reflect on how the reality of his presidency has measured up to liberals’ worst fears. Here’s a rundown of progressives’ most ominous, pre-inaugural expectations, and how Trump has managed to disappoint or exceed them:

Would the Trump family turn America into their personal kleptocracy?

The cause for fear: Throughout his career in the private sector, Donald Trump never allowed ethical scruples to limit his opportunities for self-enrichment. In his own words, he was “greedy, greedy, greedy” and “grabbed all the money” he could get. At various points, that money came from the pockets of unpaid contractors, the maxed-out credit cards of the students of Trump University, and the coffers of a charity for children with cancer.

The president of the United States is exempt from federal conflict-of-interests laws. It is not clear whether the commander-in-chief can be indicted for any crime. So, when Trump entered the Oval Office with his globe-spanning portfolio of business interests intact, there was every reason to suspect that he would put personal profit above the public interest.

The reality: From one angle, the president has not only met this expectation during his first six months in office, but exceeded it. Progressives savaged Trump’s initial concession to concerns about conflicts of interest — a pledge to delegate operational control of his businesses to his adult children, who would have no role in his administration. The president dubbed this arrangement a “blind trust,” despite the fact that it left him with a perfect awareness of his existing business interests (many of which are, after all, adorned with his name) and access to information about his prospective ones, any time he sat down to dinner with his family.

But Trump couldn’t abide by the meager constraints that this pledge placed on him. As president-elect, he met with his Indian business partners; allowed his D.C. hotel to court the patronage of foreign diplomats; invited his adult sons (and ostensible managers of his “blind trust”) to policy meetings; and invited his daughter to attend a meeting with the prime minister of Japan while she was closing in on a licensing deal with a company that the Japanese government owns a large stake in. Upon assuming office, he appointed his daughter and son-in-law to top positions in his administration; used his bully pulpit to attack private companies for dropping his daughter’s poorly performing brand; had one of the aforementioned managers of his “blind trust” act as a surrogate for the White House on cable news; and exploited diplomatic meetings to channel public money into his resorts.

What implications Trump’s vigorous commingling of business and politics has had for American policy is difficult to say. But we do know that on April 6, Ivanka Trump’s company won three trademarks from the Chinese government, hours before she dined with the Chinese president at her father’s resort — and days before the president announced that China was not actually a currency manipulator, despite his past claims to the contrary. Further, it has been reported that a Qatari billionaire withdrew a $500 million investment that Jared Kushner’s family desperately needed, months before Kushner urged Trump to break Washington’s long alliance with Doha and support Saudi Arabia’s blockade of Qatar.

Still, in some respects, the president has quite clearly prioritized his conception of the public interest above his brand’s profitability: All things considered, the Trump Organization would almost certainly be better off if Trump’s attempts to discriminate against Muslim immigrants and demonize the undocumented hadn’t rendered his name a synonym for hatefulness.

Would Trump turn Muslims in the United States into second-class citizens and order the mass deportation of America’s undocumented immigrants?

The cause for fear: Trump infamously campaigned on a vow to ban all Muslims from entering the United States and track the ones who are already here in a special database. He also promised to round up and deport millions of undocumented immigrants.

The reality: The past six months suggest that liberals were right if they took such proposals seriously, but mistaken if they took them literally.

The president has hurt many would-be Muslim immigrants. His draconian and incompetently administered travel ban (briefly) sowed chaos in America’s airports and despair in countless families, who suddenly lost the right to be visited by their loved ones. But there has been no blanket ban on Muslim immigration, and the administration has spent much of its tenure trying to convince judges that it would never dream of implementing such a policy.

Nonetheless, the election of an Islamophobic candidate — who praised murdering Muslim prisoners of war with bullets dripped in pig’s blood during the primaries — has been traumatic for many American Muslims and a threat to the personal security of others. Hate crimes against Muslims in the United States rose 91 percent over the first half of the year, compared to the same period in 2016.

The story on immigration enforcement has been similar. There is no mass-deportation force patrolling major American cities or giant concentration camps where hundreds of thousands of the undocumented await their fate, or anything unprecedented in our nation’s history of immigration enforcement.

Instead, we have the early Obama administration’s enforcement policy but with an inhuman face. As of May, arrests of immigrants were up sharply compared to the same time in 2016 and 2015 — but lagged behind the pace of 2013 and 2014.

Yet, Barack Obama never sought to nurture the fear and loathing of vulnerable minority groups for political gain. His rhetoric consistently affirmed a multiethnic conception of American identity. Nonetheless, during his first six years in office, any immigrant who came into contact with the criminal-justice system or immigration agents found themselves at risk of deportation.

In November 2014, things changed. The administration instructed immigration authorities to prioritize violent criminals and national-security threats. Unauthorized immigrants brought to the U.S. as children were given (temporary) reprieve from the threat of deportation, as were the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens — until this policy was blocked by the courts.

The Trump administration has retained deferred action for early childhood arrivals. But it has broadened its priorities for deportation to encompass undocumented immigrants “who have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense” of any kind — including the kinds of petty crimes inherent to surviving as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S., like the use of a fake Social Security card to obtain employment. Further, the administration has ordered enforcement agents to prioritize those who improperly access public benefits, ostensibly including parents who allow their children to access free school lunches.

In policy terms, Trump has broken little new ground. But he has rebranded one of the most draconian enforcement policies in our history in garishly xenophobic packaging. And that demagogic messaging — which includes an entire federal office dedicated to publicizing crimes committed by immigrants — has left many unauthorized immigrants more afraid than they’ve ever been, with some undocumented victims of domestic abuse too frightened to seek the protection of America’s courts.

Would America be governed by rule of Trump, not rule of law?

The cause for fear: Throughout his campaign, Trump displayed the instincts of a would-be authoritarian — encouraging his supporters to perpetrate violence against protesters, demonizing the press, and threatening to jail his chief political rival upon his election. Thus, the supreme fear that his detractors harbored about his presidency — the one that rendered his victory an “extinction-level” threat — was that he would slowly, but surely, pilot America’s ship of State into the fetid waters of authoritarianism.

The reality: Trump’s first six months have done plenty to validate such concerns — and, also, a decent amount to dispel them.

Shortly after his initial travel ban was blocked by the Judicial branch, the president instructed Americans to blame “the court system” the next time a terrorist attack was committed on U.S. soil — framing the independence of our nation’s judiciary as a threat to national security. Months later, after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had also ruled against his travel ban, the president suggested that he was considering “breaking” the court up.

But Donald Trump says a lot of things. And his administration has honored each of the (many) rulings the courts have made against it. The president has demonstrated that he has no comprehension or respect for the institutions of liberal democracy. But he has also demonstrated that he is far too committed to livetweeting Fox & Friends and playing golf to foment a coup.

That said, while Trump has proven unwilling to break laws to advance his policy interests, he’s been perfectly happy to violate norms to protect his own personal, financial, and legal ones — as James Comey is well aware.

The sheer speed — and shamelessness — with which Trump has sought to compromise federal law enforcement may have actually exceeded alarmist liberals’ expectations. The president didn’t just fire the FBI director for investigating ties between the Kremlin and his friends; he all but admitted to this motive, both on national television and in private remarks to Russia’s foreign minister, which the White House subsequently confirmed.

Since Comey’s firing, and the consequent appointment of a special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation, the president has become evermore explicit in his contempt for the rule of law. He has publicly reprimanded Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation, on the grounds that the attorney general should have put loyalty to the president above the ethical standards of the legal profession. He has tried to intimidate Robert Mueller, warning the special counsel not to look at his financial dealings with Russian oligarchs, while leaking word that he may treat Mueller to his signature catchphrase. The president is already, reportedly, mulling the prospect of pardoning himself.

Our system’s primary (and, arguably, only) restraint on presidential lawlessness is impeachment. And congressional Republicans have given Trump little reason to doubt their capacity for debasing themselves on his behalf.

Were Trump to fire Mueller and get away with it, there’s no telling how he might exploit his immunity from the rule of law. But the greater concern might be how a more ambitious and competent authoritarian could exploit the precedents that Trump is now setting — and the protections from democratic rebuke that his party is working to implement.

Would Trump consolidate his power through mass voter suppression?

The cause for fear: Trump’s election would have been impossible, were it not for our republic’s myriad checks on popular sovereignty — of which the Electoral College is only the most explicit. The United States has erected barriers to voter participation unparalleled in other Western democracies — felon-disenfranchisement laws that remove 6 million disproportionately nonwhite voters from the electorate; voter-ID laws that make casting a ballot more arduous for the poor; a dearth of polling places in predominately minority communities that force nonwhite voters to wait in lines twice as long as other Americans; and the mere fact that citizens must register before they become eligible to vote. In most developed nations, it is the government’s responsibility to automatically register its citizens to vote. In the U.S., that burden falls on the citizens themselves.

The Republican Party’s dominance of government largely depends on these checks on majority rule. And the GOP knows it. George W. Bush’s Justice Department invested massive resources into finding a rationale for new restrictions on the franchise, pursuing a five-year investigation into voter fraud. This effort failed to produce any evidence “of an organized effort to skew federal elections.” But Republicans continued to push voting restrictions aimed at combating the voter-fraud “epidemic” in states throughout the country, anyway.

So, there was every reason for liberals to fear that Trump and his party would try to consolidate their power through novel forms of voter suppression.

The reality: Trump’s first six months have validated those fears.

It’s possible that the president’s Election Integrity Commission was born more out of narcissistic injury than cold political calculation. Trump’s inability to accept his popular-vote loss led him publicly to delegitimize the election he’d just won, baselessly alleging that 3 to 5 million people had voted illegally. But Trump’s GOP allies were more than happy to use his megalomaniacal delusions as an excuse to block the vote — none more so than Kansas secretary of State Kris Kobach.

In Kansas, Kobach set up the Interstate Crosscheck System, a program that is ostensibly aimed at preventing citizens from casting ballots in multiple states — but is far more effective at revoking the registrations of legitimate voters. Under the system, participating states send their voter files to Kansas, where they are crosschecked against each other. Each state then receives back a list of voters who appear to be registered in more than one state, and thus, are hurting for a purging.

There are two problems with this system. First, there is no evidence that American elections are compromised by mass double-voting. Second, and most critically, Kobach’s program eliminates “200 registrations used to cast legitimate votes for every one registration used to cast a double vote,” according to a statistical analysis of the program from researchers at Stanford, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and Microsoft. This is because the Interstate Crosscheck System matches voters on the basis of first name, last name, and birthdate. In a pool of 139 million voters, you’re bound to have tens of thousands of people who share names and birthdays.

To help more states take advantage of his stellar program, Kobach sent a letter late last month requesting that all 50 of them provide the federal government with a wide array of voter data, including party affiliation, Social Security number, military history, and criminal backgrounds. Happily, 48 states refused to do so.

But Colorado obliged. And there, fear of the Trump administration accessing such personal information reportedly led nearly 4,000 of the swing state’s citizens to voluntarily cancel their voter registrations last month.

Meanwhile, Trump’s Justice Department is signaling that it may try to force states to purge their rolls of ineligible voters through litigation; Republican governors are pressing new voting restrictions in the states; and the very infrastructure of our democracy has come under the threat of an adversarial foreign power that the president’s campaign may have colluded with.

Would Russia exert malign influence over our government?
The cause for fear:

The reality:
It would have been hard for reality to live up to blue America’s worst fears about Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia. The Christopher Steele dossier — and attraction of rendering Trump’s election illegitimate — led many progressives to seek comfort in conspiracy theories.

But while the past six months haven’t validated Louise Mensch’s every paranoid tweet, they have made the idea that the Kremlin enjoys a peculiar sway over our president difficult to dismiss.

First, came the smoke. Michael Flynn’s secret chat about sanctions with the Russian ambassador; Jeff Sessions’s undisclosed meetings with Russian officials; the president’s firing of Comey; Jared Kushner’s attempts to set up a secret channel with the Kremlin, secure from the eavesdroppers in the American security state; and Trump’s bizarre allergy to affirming the existence of Russian interference in the 2016 election and inexplicable eagerness to lift sanctions imposed on Putin’s regime for that (alleged) meddling.

Then the fire: Donald Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort seeking out dirt on Hillary Clinton in a meeting that was pitched to them, in writing, as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Now, the White House has pivoted away from denying the existence of collusion, to affirmatively defending a soft form of it. And every day, it seems a little more plausible that Sarah Huckabee Sanders will eventually stand before the White House press corps and explain that real Americans care about tax reform, not pee tapes.

It’s true that, in many respects, the president has maintained a conventional policy toward Moscow. Sanctions imposed on Russia for its intervention in Ukraine remain in place, as do those enacted in response to its meddling in our politics (although Trump has made some efforts to roll those back). In Syria, Trump’s deference to the wisdom of his generals has led the U.S. to defy Putin’s wishes occasionally. Trump reaffirms America’s commitment to NATO about half the time that such words appear on his teleprompter.

But the president has eagerly advertised his desire to work with Putin to defeat common enemies — and there’s reason to worry that the proper functioning of American democracy may be among those.

In the last two months, we’ve learned that Russian hackers didn’t merely target the emails of candidates and parties, but America’s electoral infrastructure. According to Bloomberg, Russian cyberattacks penetrated election-related systems in 39 states. And national-security officials have warned that they expect such attacks to recur in 2018.

And yet, following Trump’s meeting with Putin at the G20, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that there would be no further repercussions for Russia’s 2016 efforts, as both leaders were “focused on” how “to move forward.” Trump then announced that he and Putin had discussed working together on “an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded.”

It was difficult to make sense of this proposal, unless one assumed that the thing to be “guarded” wasn’t American elections, but Russian hacking.

Would the First Amendment be repealed and replaced?

The cause for fear: By the time Trump won the election, he had already argued that the First Amendment gives journalists “too much protection,” called reporters “scum,” vowed to “open up” libel laws, and encouraged his supporters’ verbal abuse of the campaign press.

There was little doubt that the new president would use his bully pulpit to wage war against the “fake news” media. The fearsome question was whether he would deploy any of the other weapons his office provided.

In late November, Vox’s Matt Yglesias offered one example of how Trump could use his new arsenal to erode freedom of the press in the United States:

But big corporate media does face enough regulatory matters that even a single exemplary case would suffice to induce large-scale self-censorship. AT&T, for example, is currently seeking permission from antitrust authorities to buy Time Warner — permission that Time Warner executives might plausible fear is contingent on Trump believing that CNN has covered him “fairly.”

The reality: Earlier this month, the Trump administration openly tried to stoke that fear: An anonymous White House official told the New York Times that CNN’s adversarial coverage of the president could cost Time Warner its merger.

Which is to say: The administration extorted a news network in the pages of the paper of record.

It seems unlikely that Trump will make good on that threat — this White House’s bark tends to be louder than its bite. But when a president with an ardent, white-nationalist following barks, it’s reasonable to fear that someone else might use their teeth. And Trump’s relentless demonization of the news media — which he has declared the “enemy of the people” — has led some reporters to fear for their personal safety.

In early July, Trump tweeted a GIF that portrayed him battering a wrestling figure with the CNN logo for a head. The creator of that clip turned out to be a neo-Nazi Reddit user who had posted a list of all the Jews that work at CNN. The network’s Andrew Kaczynski tracked down that user and extracted an apology. Kaczynski declined to reveal the figure’s identity, but his article included language suggesting that he retained the right to do so if the shit-poster resumed his “ugly behavior on social media.”

That threat did not sit well with the alt-right, who saw it as an attempt to restrict free speech through intimidation. Thus, some Trumpists decided to express their principled opposition to such intimidation, by threatening to kill Kaczynski and his family.

Nevertheless, when one looks past the open threats to stymie free speech with selective regulatory enforcement, the white nationalists assembling outside the homes of investigative reporters, and the White House’s novel restrictions on media access, the press looks pretty darn free.

The New York Times and Washington Post publish unflattering exposés of the administration on a near-nightly basis — occasionally, stumbling upon malfeasance that eluded the gaze of entire intelligence agencies. We’re living in the golden age of sardonic cable-news chyrons. The state of the liberal blogosphere is strong.

At present, the greatest threat to the functioning of the Fourth Estate looks more like media consolidation than the Trump administration. Although, the two are quite dangerous in tandem. 

Was he going to get us all killed?

The cause for fear: A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons. Or so Hillary Clinton reasoned. Forty-six percent of the electorate disagreed, and, for six months now, an emotionally volatile reality star has had the power to end the world.

The reality: In Trump’s America, there have been a few days when the forecast looked partly sunny with a chance of mushroom clouds. The president’s affinity for making major foreign-policy pronouncements unexpectedly, over Twitter, is uniquely ill-suited to our current standoff with North Korea — in which Kim Jong-un’s regime has an incentive to fire at Seoul at the first indication of an incoming attack.

On the whole though, it seems like America is much more likely to get into a nuclear war due to the malfunctioning of our insanely insecure and obsolete atomic infrastructure than as a result of some Trumpian temper tantrum.
The president has delegated virtually all his responsibilities as commander-in-chief to his generals. This, combined with the administration’s indifference to human rights and campaign to retake Mosul, has yielded a radical increase in the number of civilians murdered by American munitions in the Middle East. But it has also kept U.S. foreign policy within the bounds of its conventions, while preserving the Iran nuclear agreement, and, thus, forestalling another American war in the Middle East.

Trump’s detachment from policy has made it harder to imagine him ordering a nuclear strike. And the fact that his aides are constantly describing the president to reporters as though he were a toddler makes it difficult to believe such an order would actually be honored, if it ever came.

That said, it’s still possible that Trump’s presidency could end up dooming humanity, depending on how durable his attempts to undermine action on climate change, at home and abroad, prove to be.

Would the welfare state be dismantled?

The cause for fear: The United States is the wealthiest nation in human history. It also has one of the least generous safety nets — and highest rates of child poverty — in the developed world.

Paul Ryan believes that these last two facts have nothing to do with each other. The House Speaker insists that the best remedy for poverty is to drastically reduce the amount of food assistance, medical care, public housing, and home-heat aid available to low-income families, while relieving the tax burden borne by billionaires. So long as Barack Obama was in the White House, Ryan was helpless to realize his ambitions for America’s most vulnerable. But in their time in exile, he and his colleagues produced blueprints for the controlled demolition of the welfare state, ones ready and waiting for the next GOP president’s rubber-stamp.

For many liberals, the idiosyncratic dangers of the Trump presidency paled in comparison to the “ordinary” ones of Republican rule. After all, the Ryan agenda’s myriad austerity measures — including the repeal of Obamacare, gutting of Medicaid, “reform” of Medicare, decimation of food stamps — would result in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.

The reality: Donald Trump rejected Ryan’s vision on the campaign trail, vowing to deliver universal health care, while protecting Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. But once in office, Trump immediately outsourced his agenda to Mike Pence and Capitol Hill. And soon, Ryan & Co. settled on a plan to begin the legislative session with a bill gutting the safety net and cutting taxes on the rich, before moving onto legislation focused on gutting the safety net and cutting a lot more taxes on the rich.

As of this writing, that agenda is in mortal danger. While congressional Republicans have successfully taken a sledgehammer to much of Barack Obama’s regulatory legacy, they’ve failed to put a single piece of major legislation on Trump’s desk. The unpopularity of Ryan’s vision, intransigence of the party’s right flank, and utter incompetence of its standard-bearer have all conspired to save Obamacare from its death panel. Now, House Republicans can’t seem to find the votes to pass a budget, let alone tax reform. Lately, when they return to their districts, most hide from their constituents — having grown more afraid of liberal activists than liberal activists are of them.

Would the American people just sit back and watch it all happen?

The cause for fear: One year ago in Philadelphia, Barack Obama told the Democratic National Convention why America would never elect Donald Trump.

“We’re not a fragile people. We’re not a frightful people,” Obama said. “We don’t look to be ruled. Our power comes from those immortal declarations first put to paper right here in Philadelphia all those years ago: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that We the People, can form a more perfect union.”

A few months later, we formed a less perfect one.

Perhaps the most menacing fear prompted by Trump’s election, the one that amplified all the others, was that we were a fragile people; one that might not look to be ruled but who were complacent or cynical or atomized or frightened enough to accept that fate.

The reality: That fear was dispelled the day after Trump took office, when the Women’s March brought more than 400,000 protestors to Washington; and again, a little over a week later, when thousands gathered outside major American airports to offer solidarity to the visitors, immigrants, and refugees whom Trump was trying to ban; and again, when progressives flooded town halls all across the country to raise awareness of the draconian measures in the GOP’s health-care bill; and again, when advocates for the disabled braved assault and arrest so as to force Republican lawmakers to see the people they were working to hurt.

Six months in, this republic’s still ours — and we appear intent on keeping it.

Six Months in, Is Trump Living Up to Liberals’ Worst Fears?