DONALD Trump is on the back foot now, scrambling as his presidency hits the 100-day mark to build some record of fulfilling campaign pledges in the wake of repeated setbacks and failures.
His numerous efforts to erect barriers to immigration, from bans on certain Muslim countries to completion of a wall costing billions of dollars along the US-Mexican border, have largely foundered so far.
His attempts to roll back his predecessor’s efforts to safeguard the environment against overzealous business development have succeeded only sporadically. Trump’s much-ballyhooed assault on Obama’s Affordable Care Act suffered an initial, spectacular collapse, ironically undone by resistance from within his own Republican party. Now, critics charge that a renewed attempt may leave even more Americans without health coverage.
The list goes on, assiduously chronicled by a New York and Washington establishment press corps increasingly eager to oppose and perhaps topple a president who has declared war on much of the media.
Meanwhile, there have been a few successes, though even these must be modified in the light of longer-term effects that cannot presently be foreseen. The Senate’s confirmation of conservative justice Neil Gorsuch to the US Supreme Court obliged Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to change the chamber’s filibuster rules to permit simple majority confirmation votes on Supreme Court justices. Things will look different in the future when Democrats control the White House and Senate.
The surprise attack on a Syrian air base from which the despicable Syrian regime launched a poison gas attack on its own people prompted a chest-thumping moment of American pride, but no one is arguing that it has changed much in the dreadful, fatal civil war now tearing apart that Middle East nation.
Evidence mounts that neither Trump nor his campaign team actually expected to win last November’s election. They were obviously unprepared for victory. And having won, they continued to underperform their new responsibilities. Carelessly appointing a collection of rich men (and a few women) to significant federal jobs without properly vetting them might be expected to produce precisely the scandals and embarrassments from which many Americans now recoil on a daily basis.
Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn may still go to trial for corruption and other misdeeds. A suspicion is growing that some of Trump’s fortune, and that of his son-in-law, may be built on the once-secret contributions and gifts of foreign interests seeking influence in the US. Trump’s stubborn refusal to release his tax returns fuels this suspicion.
None of these setbacks is necessarily permanent, and it seems likely that Trump will manage some accomplishments of significance. But his record and his approval ratings are nonetheless dismal.
Which brings us to Trump’s tax plan concept. In proposing to significantly reduce corporate and personal income tax rates, primarily to the advantage of the already wealthy, the president is resurrecting Republican dogma of over 30 years ago. Economist Arthur Laffer had, as long ago as 1974, helped to popularise the notion that a capitalist free-market economy largely unfettered by government regulation, business would prosper and invest and expand. All would benefit. So-called “trickle down economics” became the mantra of the apologists for greed. During and after the Reagan presidency, Republicans embraced this theory enthusiastically.
House Speaker Paul Ryan is one of the leading current advocates, clearly hoping for the revival of a doctrine which relies for its positive promise on responsible, civic-minded corporate management and behaviour - not on the naked avarice, illegality and irresponsibility of American corporate titans and their minions who led the US into the savings and loan scandal of the late 1980s and the housing collapse of 2008-9, from which large swaths of mostly rural America have yet to recover.
Nineteenth century philosophers such as John Stuart Mill argued that a coherent society requires a balance between the collective good and individual liberties. Excesses in greed by a few thus lead to exercise of central governmental power to rein in such selfish, destructive behaviour.
Barack Obama’s administration was clearly committed to the exercise of such governmental power to redress imbalances in the American economy. Now Trump signals his intention to introduce stunning new economic imbalances. Mill’s balance will be established again, but perhaps not soon.