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Taking Trump-Skepticism Seriously

Irwin M. Stelzer

Leave Trump country, fly about 2,000 miles east to Washington, D.C., and you enter a different world. In Trump country 88 percent of Trump voters approve of the job he is doing as president according to a poll by the Democracy Fund.

For all voters than number is 37 percent.

Trump voters elected him to stick it to the Washington establishment and he is doing just that. They also elected him to warn the North Koreans not to tread on us. And to tell our European allies to honor their promises to fund NATO. And to renegotiate or kill the free trade deals that are costing them their jobs and devastating their communities. And to tell the Iranians that enough is enough, and that more sanctions are on the way. And to repeal and replace Obamacare, which he tried to do but was foiled, at least for now, by a Congress that has an approval rating of 16 percent, proving they were right to elect him to get up the nose of the politicians. Circle complete.

Land in Washington and you find a full-page ad in the Washington Post offering $10 million to anyone who can provide “information leading to the impeachment and removal from office of Donald J. Trump.” Never mind that the offer comes from pornographer Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine. Serious people here in the capital of the free world are meeting to consider whether to rally support for impeachment, or trigger Article 25 of the Constitution. Which, broadly, provides that a majority of the cabinet can remove a president deemed unfit to carry out the duties of his office. Normally sensible friends here in Washington have become hysterics, convinced that unless the president is somehow removed from office, the nation, and perhaps the world, will not survive the next four years.

By-passing the irrationals, I met with several calmer folks to obtain this composite picture of their concerns: First on their list of immediate worries is Trump’s seeming desire for a shoot-out with North Korean president Kim Jung-un. The Establishment view is that Kim is rationally seeking a nuclear weapon to ensure that his regime does not go the way of the nuclear-free regimes of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi (the latter having voluntarily surrendered his nukes). Trump, on the other hand, is irrational, refusing to accept the reality of a nuclearized North Korea, and to negotiate with Kim to contain the threat of nuclear war. One expert sees the chances of such a conflagration at 1-in-10, with millions dead on both sides of the line that divides North from South Korea. Another puts the odds at 1-in-3.

Others in what we might call the foreign policy establishment are concerned about the long-term consequences of the world’s loss of faith in American leadership. They see a Europe destabilized by immigration and the failure of the European Union to reduce the democratic deficit that has produced Brexit and the rise of dangerous right-wing parties in Germany and Eastern Europe. Their view is that America’s influence in Europe under Trump is declining while the influence of Vladimir Putin’s Russia is rising. The nightmare of the foreign policy establishment is a Europe under the influence of the hard-right and Putin, a China dominant in Asia, and an America isolated in a hostile world. Maybe this doesn’t happen immediately, but certainly in the next five-to-ten years.

On to my economist friends: more gloom. There once was a balance in America. Democrats had little regard for the nation’s fiscal condition, at least not since the days of Franklin Roosevelt’s policy of “tax and tax, and spend and spend, and elect and elect.” But the spenders alternated in power with Republicans, a party devoted to fiscal probity and balanced budgets. That is no longer the case.

The Republican party is in the process of passing a tax plan that reduces taxes and increases the national debt—now passing $20 trillion and headed to a level so high in relation to the nation’s GDP that interest on the debt will swallow up funds needed to sustain our military and fund domestic programs.

To this band of concerned observers, the political process is no longer capable of producing either an efficient, fiscally sound tax system, or one that does not exacerbate the mounting income inequality that produced the disgruntled middle class that looks to Trump to hear its voice, ignored by Wall Street-backed Democrats—Hillary Clinton, for example—and Republican free traders who care less about the plight of workers displaced by imports and more about investment bankers who profit from globalization. Passage of the Republican budget is seen by this crowd as another step on the road to fiscal disaster.

Finally, I met with environmentalists. Not of the nasty, off-putting Al Gore variety, who tag anyone who has reservations about what Barack Obama calls the settled science of climate change as “deniers,” but serious students of the relation of carbon emissions to global warming. They didn’t approve of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement, but they understand that it was unenforceable and that even if it had been enforceable, it had a target too modest to have a serious impact on the pace of warming.

But Trump appointees, especially Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency, are another matter. Pruitt and others are dismantling the regulatory framework erected by Obama to contain emissions (especially from coal-fired electric generating stations) and stalling on replacing it with milder measures. Carbon taxes, the solution favored by most economists and many business leaders, are beyond the ability of a dysfunctional political class to implement. Even Republican congressman who would like to act fear to do so, lest Steve Bannon, the populist-nationalist Trump adviser evicted from his White House perch but still fluttering close to the president’s ear, mount a costly primary challenge against them.

Back to Trump country, where a gun club has offered my wife free rental of a machine gun as a gift for her impending birthday. In Washington it would be flowers.

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