Election day is less than a week away, and while just about every sign points to Joe Biden taking back the White House for the Democrats, it would be foolish to view that outcome as a certainty. Donald Trump could still pull off a victory, like he did in 2016, even with the political environment being quite a bit different than it was back then.
This biggest difference, of course, is that Trump has been our president for almost four years. In 2016, he was a wildcard candidate whose successes and leadership traits could best be measured by his businesses (what little we knew about them) and his celebrity persona. Four years later, we now have a strong picture of his successes in government, and we shouldn’t pretend that there haven’t been any.
Trump does have a fair number of presidential achievements for which he can make a solid case to voters for why they should entrust him with four more years. He doesn’t always choose to effectively present that case — instead relying heavily on fear, grievance, and bombast to energize (mostly base) voters — but the results are at least there for people to take a look at.
What’s interesting is that when one does take a step back and examine Trump’s political achievements over his first term, a clear theme emerges. And it’s not a theme that bolsters the president’s anti-establishment, populist attributes that have made him — at least in the eyes of his most loyal supporters — uniquely qualified to “drain the swamp” in Washington, and exercise strong judgement to lead us to great things as a nation.
In fact, Trump’s record reveals the opposite. His greatest achievements in office (by far) have come as a direct result of his deference to, and employment of, the very “establishment” that he rose to power railing against.
I’ve made this point before in columns, but it’s worth revisiting now that America is at an electoral crossroads.
Trump’s best re-election selling point has been reminding people of how great the country’s economy was, prior to the pandemic. And it was great, as supported by many economic indicators, including people’s quality of life. I’d even attribute a lot of the strength of our current recovery to it, as Trump has been doing on the campaign trail.
But if we were to give credit where credit is genuinely due, we’d also have to take a look at why the economy, under Trump, was so successful. The biggest component would have to be the GOP tax bill. And Trump’s most significant contribution to that bill was staying completely out of it (including rhetorically) until the very end… when all that was required was his signature. It’s not even apparent that Trump understood (or understands now) what was actually in it.
The bill was largely the work of Paul Ryan, who MAGA World branded (and continues to hold in contempt) as a “RINO,” “traitor,” “swamp dweller,” and “establishment cuck.” As you may recall, Ryan was effectively chased out of the Republican party for his heinous crime of not demonstrating complete and utter servility to the president.
Yet, ironically, Ryan was the architect of Trump’s greatest success.
As National Review’s Kevin Williamson recently pointed out, the legislation in the GOP tax bill actually “ran contrary to the personal preferences and rhetoric of the president, who spent much of the  campaign bellyaching about Wall Street fat cats not paying as much in taxes as he thinks they should.”
Indeed, what Ryan put together were the type of reforms that any traditional “establishment” Republican president would have supported and signed off on. Had the GOP Congress tailored the bill around Trump’s economic instincts, its impact on our economy would have surely created a different result.
Williamson argues that “the Trump administration has succeeded most where Trump has the least to do with it.”
He’s right, and it goes beyond the economy.
Another defining success of the Trump presidency has been conservative judicial nominations and appointments. This includes three Supreme Court justices, which is certainly worthy of celebration by people on the political right. Again, it’s Trump who has taken the victory lap, and that’s all fine and good, but it’s important to recall the series of events that got conservatives to this point.
When one does, a different rocks star emerges — a guy that goes by the name of Mitch McConnell.
It was pretty clear early in the 2016 campaign that Trump was both constitutionally and judicially illiterate. He spoke of his fervent support for “Article 12” of the U.S. Constitution (which doesn’t exist), and floated the idea of seating his liberal sister on the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, McConnell was taking a major political risk in the Senate by holding up consideration of President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination, Merrick Garland, until after the 2016 election. Many saw the strategy as a poor one, being that Trump was close to becoming the GOP’s presumptive nominee, and very few people believed he had any chance of beating Hillary Clinton.
In retrospect, that decision by McConnell (which amounted to the prospect of a court saving conservative nominee) may have been what ultimately generated enough base support from disaffected Republicans to hold their noses and vote for Trump in the general election. Well… that and the fact that someone in Trump’s campaigned wisely convinced Trump to outsource his SCOTUS list to a couple of those “establishment” institutes: the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation.
If left to his own devices, Trump’s affinity for Fox News talent may have well led him to present Judge Jeanine Pirro as a serious pick.
Additionally, since Trump’s swearing in, McConnell has aggressively spearheaded the effort to fill federal court vacancies with conservative judges, surpassing 200 seats back in June.
The Dispatch’s Jonah Goldberg recently wrote a very good piece on McConnell’s indispensability to the Trump presidency. It included a reminders of how, during the first two years of Trump’s tenure, McConnell was targeted as “Public Enemy No. 1” by the Trump right. He was trashed by media-conservatives night after night as a “failure” and “swamp dweller” who needed to step down as Senate Majority Leader. Large portions of the base echoed the sentiment through social media and beyond.
Looking at the rest of Trump’s record, it’s difficult not to conclude that it has been the efforts that he himself has taken lead on (or entrusted in the hands of his anti-establishment, pro-nationalism acolytes) that have resulted in the most failure. This includes the border wall, trade policy, and the COVID-19 health crisis.
Of course, one could very easily argue that Trump hasn’t taken lead on the health crisis, and that’s a big part of the problem. It’s a sensible point, but he’s still the executive in charge, and he hasn’t allowed anyone of consequence and competence to fill the leadership vacuum he has created. Instead, he undermines the experts, tosses out false and confusing information to the public, and encourages (and even facilitates) highly dangerous behavior.
As Goldberg added in his piece, “If Trump had outsourced the pandemic to the experts in his own administration as if it were a medical Federalist Society, he might well be poised for re-election (every governor, Democrat or Republican, and virtually every foreign leader, liberal or conservative, who took the pandemic seriously benefited in the polls).”
In other words, this is another area where the “The Establishment” could have greatly assisted the president (and the American people), but in this instance, he has decided that it’s more beneficial to his brand and ego to play the populist, anti-establishment card (much to the delight of his enthusiastic base). The result has been the intense vilification of people like Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx (to the point of death threats), and other esteemed professionals within the scientific and medical communities.
Tuesday’s results may well seal the administration’s fate, but what’s clear from Trump’s record in politics thus far is that both he and his loyal base owe “The Establishment” not only a debt of gratitude, but also an apology, for making this presidency far more successful than it would have otherwise been.
Will that apology ever come? Not a chance.