The great nineteenth-century man of letters William Dean Howells once made a remark that I have long cherished as a sort of personal motto: “The problem for a critic,” Howells said, “is not making enemies, but keeping them.”
A critic who does not make enemies is unlikely to be doing his job, inasmuch as criticism is the application of discrimination to human activities and such activities, by definition, will fall short of the ideal. A critic who does not make and keep enemies is likely to be a critic who fails to speak the truth.
An honest politician has to have a place in his heart for that enemy-keeping imperative if he is to merit the adjective “honest.” But a politician’s road is harder than a critic’s. A critic must be unwavering in his service to the truth of his own experience. But beyond that he needn’t worry much about making himself likable, only interesting.
An honest politician, worse luck, has to remain broadly true to his promises while also endeavoring to remain popular with voters, the people who put him into office.
Like so many activities in this sublunary world, achieving that it is a balancing act, a tapestry of compromises and negotiations—“deals,” to use a word that Donald Trump has elevated to a conspicuous place in the political lexicon.
Cynics may wonder whether, at the end of the day, there is any real difference between compromise and capitulation, negotiation and selling out to the highest bidder. Realists will know that there is a difference. The modern habit of assuming that a reliable index of someone’s wisdom is the extent of his disillusionment is as superficial as it is philistine. It’s important, in assessing a politician’s success, to keep an eye on his deeds as well as his declarations. But the tendency to cast every political statement in the worst possible light brings us closer not to the truth but merely our own cynicism.
It is with this in mind, I believe, that the oft-quoted idea that Trump’s detractors take him literally, but not seriously, while his defenders take him seriously, not literally must be understood. As we approach Trump’s hundredth day in office—the clock just turned on 91 days as I write this—it is worth stepping back and posing on Trump’s behalf the question Mayor Ed Koch made famous: “How’m I doing?”
Cynics may wonder whether, at the end of the day, there is any real difference between compromise and capitulation, negotiation and selling out to the highest bidder. Realists will know that there is a difference. The modern habit of assuming that a reliable index of someone’s wisdom is the extent of his disillusionment is as superficial as it is philistine.
It would be difficult, I suspect, for readers who get their news primarily from outlets as the New York Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC, or CNN to have any sense of Trump’s stupendous accomplishments these past three months.
For some of us, it can almost go without saying, the fact that Hillary Clinton is not president, that her political career, in fact, is over is by itself an accomplishment of history-making proportions.
“Precautions are always blamed,” Benjamin Jowett once observed, “because when successful they are deemed to have been unnecessary.” Pundits now have the luxury of speculating what a Clinton presidency would have been like. I can tell them. American would have evolved even further toward its status as a one-party state ruled by an elite, progressive oligarchy. The war that Obama inaugurated on religious freedom, on the First and Second Amendments, on enforcing America’s immigration laws, on our energy independence and status as the world’s premier military and economic power—all would have been prosecuted vigorously by a President Clinton. The ideological weaponization of government’s administrative alphabet soup—the IRS, the EPA, the DOJ, etc.—would have continued apace as conservative groups were targeted and discriminated against for the tort of dissenting from the progressive orthodoxy on any contentious issue.
Thus it is that the fact that Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton, is president is already, just by itself, an accomplishment of the first water. And it’s not just a matter of what Hillary Clinton would have done. At issue was also who she was: a Clinton. I leave to one side the breathtaking corruption that she conspired with through her connections with the Clinton Foundation and its various pay-to-play schemes. I leave to one side also her callous and mendacious incompetence in handling the terrorist attacks on our consulate at Benghazi, her scandalous and routine mishandling of classified material and deployment of a home-brew email server. Leave that to one side and think just of the precedent she would have set had she become president: no, I am not talking about her anatomical status as female, but rather her dynastic status as a Clinton. Had she won, the presidency of the United States for the last twenty years would have shuffled between three families. That alone would have set an ominous precedent and upsetting that counts as a large bullet dodged.
But what else has Trump wrought in his 91 days as president? To listen to the legacy media, the answer is: not much. Many near-top-tier jobs have gone unfilled. The much ballyhooed repeal of Obamacare failed on its first go around. Tax cuts haven’t happened. The progressive Jared Kushner-Ivanka wing of Trump’s advisors seems to have gained ascendancy (at least according to the Sanhedrin of the MSM) over the Steve-Bannon populist wing. In short, it’s a shambles all around.
That, anyway, is the gospel according to the progressive megaphones.
The message is far different on the ground. Quite apart from the permanent rustication of Hillary Clinton, Trump has moved with blinding speed to start fulfilling many of his major campaign promises.
- Immigration. Illegal border crossings are down by more than 90 percent. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is once again enforcing the nation’s immigration laws. Deportations are down because there are fewer illegal penetrations of US borders. In other words, Trump’s policy is shaping up to be a major success.
- Sanctuary cities, i.e., cities where federal immigration laws are essentially suspended. Trump promised to end them. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is working overtime to make that happen. Earlier today, he wrote at least eight jurisdictions warning them that they may be failing to comply with immigration laws and that they were therefore in jeopardy of losing federal grants. Some cities, notably in California and New York, have blustered that they will continue to resist abiding by the law, but I predict they will change their tune once the spigot of federal funds is turned off.
- Energy. The Keystone and Dakota access pipelines. Need I say more? Yes? How about “coal”: that should settle the question.
- Foreign affairs. Under Obama, you had the unenforced red lines of a pink politician. Under Trump, you have 59 Tomahawk missiles directed at a Syrian air force base that carried out a Sarin gas attack, followed a few days later by the destruction of an ISIS tunnel complex in Afghanistan with one 21,000-pound super bomb. You also have successful face-to-face diplomatic meetings with President Xi Jinping of China, Prime Minister Theresa May, and even Chancellor Angela Merkel. Earlier today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel publicly told Secretary of Defense James Mattis that he welcomes the “strategic change of American leadership and American policy.” The Russians are stamping their feet but Trump continues his course. Meanwhile, the Chinese seem to have been enlisted to help with the problem of the Kim Jong-Un, the cartoon-like dictator of North Korea. In Seoul a couple of days ago, Vice President Pence echoed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s warning that America’s “strategic patience” with North Korea’s minatory antics was at an end. Trump underscored that partly by parading a lot of military hardware in and around the Korean peninsula, partly by tweeting that “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them!”
- The Supreme Court. Neil Gorsuch. Also, Neil Gorsuch. And may I add, Neil Gorsuch? Thanks to the Federalist Society for preparing that list of twenty-odd names from which Trump plucked his first Supreme Court nominee. Trump will likely have to avail himself of at least two more justices and who knows how many federal judges “very much in the mold of Justice Scalia.”
- Regulation. First there’s the two for one rule: want a new regulation? Get rid of two others first. And then there is the spate of executive orders aimed and reducing onerous and inefficient regulation. It’s early days yet, but so far it seems to be working.
Two big question marks hover over the issues of health care and tax cuts. Despite the many confident prognostications from the punditocracy, I think it is impossible to say when or what is going to happen on either issue. We’re ninety days into a new administration now. Come back at day 360.
There is also the large issue of economic growth. The stock market, which is up about 2,500 points since Donald Trump was elected, clearly is bullish on his policies. Will that enthusiasm be translated into 3 percent or better growth? If so, the pathetic pink-hatted females can jump up and down all they like, the Black Lives Matter protesters can continue their policy of violent racial redress, disappointed commentators, who had pinned their hopes for advancement on a Clinton presidency, can continue to sulk and reassure one another that Donald Trump is “not their president.” It won’t matter. If Donald Trump reaches and sustains that magic number of 3 percent growth for the major part of his first term, he can count upon a second term as well. I fully expect him to maintain plenty of enemies, just as William Dean Howells advised, but they’ll be off caterwauling in the wilderness, as irrelevant to the process then as they were to the election last fall.