The Trump administration is about to close on its first, tumultuous year in office. As far as legislative accomplishments go, the sole success has been a tax reform bill that a majority of Americans seem to dislike – or distrust – immensely. For the administration’s international approach, the question is whether there actually are strategic ideas and ideals at work besides a slogan or two; or, rather, if it is all just the result of the president’s late-night impulses. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.
As these words are being typed, American President Donald Trump is awaiting the final, jointly agreed upon Senate and House of Representatives version of a vast, sprawling tax measure, so that he can sign into law the first major revision of the American tax code since 1986. US tax law is so complex and so complicated that accountants and tax lawyers can make an excellent living in understanding this snake pit, and in helping others in figuring out the law’s arcane provisions and how best to apply them to individual and family wealth, income and investments. Of course, saving a tonne of money via legal tax avoidance measures should not to be confused with tax evasion, and this measure now offers lots of ways to lessen a rich person’s tax burden.
In almost every election since the start of the personal income tax a century ago (except for a temporary version of that tax during the Civil War), presidential candidates have promised to clean up this mess, to sort out the swamp of special provisions benefiting the rich or well-connected, and promising, too, that by the time candidate X or Y has finished with fixing American tax laws, ordinary people would be able to fill out their tax forms on the back of a postcard and be done with it. And, along the way, all those special provisions that benefit someone else will have been banished forever. But, of course, it never happens that way. And it didn’t this time around, either. Those special provisions have beneficiaries, and beneficiaries have interests, and interests beget lobbyists, who do their work as a proposed law is being written and rewritten.
By the time Congress had effectively finished this newest version of fixing everything, not a single Democrat in either of the two houses of Congress was prepared to vote for the measure, and, in the House of Representatives, 12 Republicans broke ranks to vote no on the bill as well. As a result, in the Senate it passed by just a narrow margin, as all 48 Democrats voted no.
Once it becomes law, this measure will have dramatically lowered the tax liability of millionaires and billionaires. Moreover, it puts in place a massive rise in the bottom limit before any inheritance taxes are due; it drops the tax rates on corporations and offers inducements for companies to repatriate earnings to open new plants (although whether they will do so remains an imponderable); and it expands special tax benefits for family-owned businesses to allow owners to move commercial profits to lower personal income tax levels, among its provisions. Oh, and to get Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski on board with a yes vote, the bill also opens a vast expanse of natural wilderness in her home state to oil and gas exploration and drilling. Significantly, measures in aid of the rich are permanent changes (unless Congress reverses them in the future), while any benefits offered to the middle and working classes are largely designed to go out of existence within a half-decade. That sounds fair, right?
The Republican arguments in favour of this measure have largely been twofold. The first is that this measure is growth-positive in that the rich (and profitable corporations) will now have money to burn, and thereby invest in things that help kick-start economic growth. The second point is that this measure will help pay for itself by generating so much growth (and thus more tax revenue, albeit at lower rates) that it will not generate that threatened huge dollop of yet more national debt. This kind of magical thinking has been a kind of a Holy Grail of Republican tax cut ideology for years.
In response to these arguments, Democrats and a whole stable of economists have argued that this newest version of supply side economics – that is to say, lower taxes generate more revenue from a bigger economic pie that mystically happens – will have just as much success as previous such efforts did, i.e. virtually none. Moreover, the tax reduction benefits are so skewed towards the rich that if working and middle class families see any real benefit, it may well largely go unnoticed by most of them.
On Wednesday morning, as the bill was about to become law, one Republican surrogate was arguing on television that, hey, this is a really good bill – the average middle class family in South Dakota earning $53,000/annum should see a benefit of $900 from it, even if the average millionaire could easily get close to $100,000 worth of a break. The problem, of course, is that South Dakota is one of the smallest states in population in the country.
By contrast, all those people in the big population states on both coasts will have their taxes adversely affected to the extent that the usual tax deduction of (high) state and local income taxes is now capped. Moreover, the measure now also removes the mandate payment required of people who do not obtain insurance under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Accordingly, the government’s own analysts now say some 13-million people will probably lose medical insurance coverage as a result of this provision in the near future.
Most important, and besides all those other impacts, the second line of argument against the measure is that there is the attested-to fact that this measure would add something like an eye-watering $1.5-trillion (yes, that’s trillion) to the national debt within a decade. So sorry about that supply side economics thing and its bountiful tax revenue out of thin air thing. Just Wednesday morning on various television news/talk shows, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, and one of the principal proponents of the bill as well as being a “deficit hawk” of major note, admitted it really was impossible to tell if the new law would actually generate enough growth to offset the cost in foregone tax revenue. Oops.
All of this probably helps contribute to an understanding of why Americans are now rather firmly opposed to the measure. The most recent survey, conducted through the weekend by CNN and SSRS, found that fully 55% of the population opposed the measure, and just 33% supported it – and opposition to the bill had jumped by 10 percentage points since early November. Apparently, the more people came to know about this bill, the less they liked it – something extraordinary for a proposal that promises to lower people’s taxes.
Digging further into the survey, more people think they will be worse off once the measure becomes law than before – and that a majority of people think those planned tax cuts favour the rich rather than the middle class. (These people have obviously been students of history generally, and of the Republican Party’s traditions of helping-the-rich tax policy in particular.) As an aside, it is fascinating to note that this measure being offered by Republicans as the one thing they have actually succeeded in doing in Donald Trump’s first year of his term carries even less support among the population than does the president himself. And his support is dangerously low for a first term, first year president.
Republicans now will have to run on this flawed, problematic legislative record as the foundation for their campaign in the 2018 mid-term election that will include the whole of the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate. Effectively, they have no other legislative accomplishments, save for the confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice. They can breathe a sigh of relief, however, that they no longer have to embrace Roy Moore, the accused paedophile who was defeated by Democratic candidate Doug Jones in the recent special election for the Senate seat from Alabama. In Alabama, nogal.
Despite the slender reed of legislative accomplishment, yes, the Trump administration has continued to carry out a variety of administrative actions to roll back executive orders by the previous president, especially in environmental and consumer regulatory affairs. His efforts to strictly rein in entry to the US continue to meet opposition across the country and in a variety of court challenges. And, of course, the Trump campaign continues to come under an increasingly harsh spotlight for the possibility that it acted in tandem – consciously or accidentally – with Russian efforts to undermine the election via cyber attacks, hackings of opposition servers, and/or the wide dissemination of false news via whole villages of Macedonian teenagers generating a flood of fake news and getting the results into the wider news stream to discredit the opposition.
But most people outside the US, aside from being fixated by the self-destructive impulses of the Trump administration generally, are most directly concerned with the Trump administration’s foreign policy adventures, positions and postures. Accordingly, people follow Donald Trump’s misadventures when he retweets bizarre British right-wing agitprop nonsense; when he has telephonic snit fights with the Australian prime minister; when he shoves the president of Montenegro out of the way for a group picture at one of those European leaders summits; and when he suddenly decides to embrace Chinese President Xi or, even more fervently, Russian President Putin, and to proclaim they can do business.
As a result, people increasingly desperate to find a coherent thread to the Trump foreign policy idea thought they could latch onto the newest National Security Strategy (NSS) document, released earlier this week. These statements of national intent began back in the administration of Ronald Reagan and have become a routine presidential document in the US. The idea, of course, is to set out an architecture of national interests and the means by which they will be achieved or promoted, and then to link this discussion to the more fundamental ideals and values derived from American history, the economy, political heritage, and society.
This year, the Trump administration generated a 70-page document and then the president delivered a speech that was presumably designed to set out the high points of that published strategy. As it says, right up in the front, this strategy speaks to: “An America that is safe, prosperous, and free at home is an America with the strength, confidence, and will to lead abroad. It is an America that can preserve peace, uphold liberty, and create enduring advantages for the American people. Putting America first is the duty of our government and the foundation for U.S. leadership in the world.
“A strong America is in the vital interests of not only the American people, but also those around the world who want to partner with the United States in pursuit of shared interests, values, and aspirations. This National Security Strategy puts America first.
“An America First National Security Strategy is based on American principles, a clear-eyed assessment of U.S. interests, and a determination to tackle the challenges that we face. It is a strategy of principled realism that is guided by outcomes [italics added], not ideology. It is based upon the view that peace, security, and prosperity depend on strong, sovereign nations that respect their citizens at home and co-operate to advance peace abroad. And it is grounded in the realisation that American principles are a lasting force for good in the world.”
While it is pretty tough-minded throughout, much of it is not discernibly 180-degrees different from so many previous versions. Crucially, however, concerns over climate change and related environmental and ecological issues have been cast out of this year’s vision.
But then, when Donald Trump delivered his speech on the document, he managed to kick away the core concept of his own report. Instead of addressing a “principled realism” as the core of American foreign policy, he spoke of his “core principle: realism”, instead. Oops. Not quite what the message was supposed to be.
In trying to fathom the core principles uppermost in Trump’s mind (as many began to wonder if he had actually read the document), many critics were scathing in their initial assessments of Trump’s approach. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, for example, wrote,
“The Trump Administration has put out its new national security strategy. This is a farce. On any one issue, President Trump and his team have several contradictory positions. That’s what happens when your priority as president is to use foreign policy to throw red meat to your base while other cabinet members are scrambling to stop Armageddon. ‘It’s impossible to know what the United States position is on any number of subjects,’ a European ambassador told me last week. ‘We could go sleepwalking into a war.’ ”
North Korea and the on again/off again idea of negotiations (and their possible objectives) is one obvious example, what with different administration voices such as the competing ones from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley (let alone the president, himself) now apparently at loggerheads over what’s next, who to work with, or where to achieve this.
There are also all those multiple voices on the Middle East, on Iran’s nuclear deal, on who is in charge of Israel/Palestine peace negotiations (should they ever happen again), and just how deeply the US must be in bed with the Saudis vis-à-vis Yemen. On the Iran nuclear deal, as Cohen continued,
“Tillerson recognises this; he’s urged preservation of the deal. Trump calls it ‘the worst deal I’ve ever seen negotiated’ and, in October, declined to recertify it. This kicked to Congress the issue of whether to reimpose sanctions within 60 days. It did not, and from what I hear the White House did not press for sanctions. (Remember, noise without action is Trump’s only discernible ‘national security strategy’.)
“By mid-January, Trump has to decide whether to sign waivers on Iran sanctions. My guess is he will to avoid blowing up the deal. Meanwhile, the administration is reviewing whether to block Boeing’s agreed $20-billion sale of jetliners to Iran. So what’s the policy here? Show implacable hostility to Iran, possibly short of destroying the deal, barring a mishap.”
And then there was the Nikki Haley show on television from the UN with the illustrative probably-came-from-Iran missile as backdrop.
In The New York Times, specifically in reporting on the speech, Mark Landler and David Sanger noted,
“The disconnect between the president’s speech and the analysis in his administration’s document attests to the broader challenge his national security advisers have faced, as they have struggled to develop an intellectual framework that encompasses Mr Trump’s unpredictable, domestically driven and Twitter-fuelled approach to foreign policy. The same confusion has confronted foreign governments trying to understand Mr Trump’s conflicting signals.
“Mr Trump, for example, spoke of how Russia and China ‘seek to challenge American influence, values and wealth.’ But he made no mention of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, even though the document itself makes fleeting reference to ‘Russia using tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies.’
“Indeed, Mr Trump preferred to focus on a Sunday phone call from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who thanked him for intelligence that the C.I.A. had passed on to Russian authorities, which Mr Trump said foiled a terrorist attack in St Petersburg that could have killed thousands of people….
“The document’s call to push back against China on trade is familiar from the campaign, but its description of the challenge posed by Russia seems at odds with Mr Trump’s own refusal to criticize Mr Putin for his seizure of Crimea, his efforts to destabilize Ukraine and his violations of a key nuclear treaty with the United States.”
This discordant messaging between a routine White House document and presidential remarks might not matter all that much in some ways, but the warring words and ideas point to the larger matter of strategic incoherence within the administration, and the confusion it is giving to allies and antagonists, as well as with the world’s non-governmental and multilateral bodies, advocacy groups and other institutions.
Summing up the chaos, Rebecca Friedman Lissner argued the other day in Foreign Affairs,
“There are many such contradictions. Having criticised American exceptionalism as ‘dangerous,’ does Trump really believe that the United States is a ‘lasting force for good in the world,’ as the NSS states? With his transactional approach to foreign policy, how much space is there for shared ‘values and aspirations’ as a basis for co-operation? And if diplomats are ‘indispensable to identify and implement solutions to conflicts in unstable regions of world,’ why is his administration gutting the State Department?
“More fundamentally, the NSS faces the impossible task of charting a strategic course for an impulsive decision-maker. Most of his significant foreign policy actions to date – withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, rejecting the Paris climate agreement, decertifying the Iran nuclear deal, recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – were not the result of careful geopolitical assessments so much as the fulfilment of campaign commitments. Given a choice, Trump is likely to choose short-term, tactical wins over incremental execution of the long-term priorities articulated in the NSS.”
The Trump administration, then, as it closes out its first year in office (the president is now about to take up his holiday break at his Mar-a-Lago resort), its one big accomplishment has been a problematic tax measure. For the rest, it has been a year of chipping away at the Obama legacy in terms of executive orders and taking credit for the economic recovery that began over a half decade earlier, or the victory against ISIS in Iraq that was largely planned before he became president and substantially carried out by Iraqi and Kurdish troops.
Increasingly, Donald Trump and his struggles with the Russia investigation can remind one of the torments of the legendary Trojan priest, Laocoön, who, together with his sons, was forced to wrestle with giant serpents sent by the gods to torment him. (More on this below the image…)
Photo: Laocoön and his sons, a.k.a. The Laocoön Group. Marble, copy after an Hellenistic original from circa 200 BC. Found in the Baths of Trajan, 1506. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
In Trump’s case, his particular problems are the coils of that Russian intervention in the 2016 election that are affecting so much of what he now says and thinks. And, of course, Laocoön’s fate, as depicted in that miraculous statue, was the stuff of tragedy. DM
Photo: US President Donald J. Trump speaks to the media during a Cabinet meeting at The White House in Washington, DC, USA, 20 December 2017. Photo: EPA-EFE/Chris Kleponis / POOL
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