Trump’s ‘Failures’

It is popular on the NeverTrump Right and everyone on the Left to claim that President Trump has “failed” as we head into an election year. But his supposed failures are instructive.

Take the wall. True, Trump certainly in the last three years has not come close to building an envisioned initial phase of 1,000 miles or so of border fencing to stop the easiest access to the United States, much less made Mexico pay for it. Yet even his critics concede he relentlessly tried—and are fearful he will soon succeed.

There are some considerations to keep in mind. In some sense, we have had no wall at all, given that previous chain-link and thrown-up steel barriers were hardly impediments, at least in critical free-passage zones. Trump is addressing this. A recent Economist article lamented the fact that Trump is, in fact, slowly building a wall and replacing previous makeshift barriers in a manner that supposedly will have negative results—as defined by proponents of open borders—and “irrevocably change America’s south-western border.”

To move toward what the Economist believes is an existential redefinition of the border, the president has gone to court to fight constant lawsuits, scraped together almost $10 billion from previous allocations, as well as siphoning and redirecting funds from various agencies, shutting down the government from December 22, 2018 through January 25, and prompted a near-crisis with the Mexican government—and yet so far built only 66 miles of replacement walling and about nine miles of new barriers.

Trump’s critics would argue his temperament needlessly caused such gridlock and stasis. His supporters would reply that no other leader would have fought on so many fronts to build a wall on the southern border—a program that is anathema to the entire Left and most of the libertarian Right.

After all that fighting, the money and the momentum are turning in Trump’s favor, as border crossings have dived over the last six months. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection predicts that by the end of 2020 there will be 450 miles of new walling and another 60 miles started. The Left is beginning to worry that its intersectional doctrines cannot address increased job opportunities for entry-level African American workers when deportations of illegal aliens proceed.

Again, the point is that after three years of mockery insisting Trump has not built his wall, he nonetheless has attempted almost every imaginable method to do it. And now the invective over the last few months has begun to alter. If Trump between 2017 and 2019 was mocked as an obsessive Ahab pathetically and in vain chasing his Great White Wall, he now is being redefined as a dangerous xenophobe, whose American version of the Maginot Line may soon become dangerously reified.

The same ambiguity is true of many of Trump’s other “failures.”

The Right Direction on Trade and China

On trade, for much of Trump’s tenure, U.S. trade deficits increased and gyrated, in a pattern not much different from the latter years of the Obama administration. So far, Trump has been widely pilloried as a reckless protectionist, a mercantile Quixote jousting at Chinese windmills, without any idea of sophisticated trade theory and hopeless naïve in his effort to confront the Chinese colossus by 19th-century tariff policies and Napoleonic Continentalism.

But again, recently it appears things may be changing, if only incrementally. The September trade deficit was $52 billion, and in October, $47 billion, the lowest in 17 months. That’s still far too high, but moving in the right direction without prompting the supposedly inevitable recession.

So, the recent reduction cannot all be attributed to recessionary pressures that in the past have ossified trade in general. Rather the trade deficit decline occurs at a time when the United States has maintained historic low unemployment, a record-high stock market, and steady increases in workers’ wages, all during an era of low interest and low inflation.

One can make the argument that trade deficits don’t matter, or that Trump’s “trade war” with China was nihilistic. But one cannot deny that, unlike during the last four administrations, the United States finally has begun questioning all of the conventional-wisdom assumptions of the prior 30-year trade relationship with China—so often characterized by Chinese patent infringement, trademark violations, technology appropriation, dumping, and currency manipulation.

We currently are in the midst of a high-risk, radical recalibration with China, of which trade deficits are central, but not all that is at stake.

The United States is dealing with a number of Chinese-related crises: in Hong Kong, the reeducation-camps, the Orwellian nature of the Chinese government, and the growing imperialism of the Silk Road network abroad. Under Trump, there is at least the chance that China will be forced to curb its predatory trade practices.

In contrast, the prior bipartisan orthodoxy that concessions would win Chinese favor, enrich its population, and soon lead to liberalization of 1.4 billion affluent consumers was unhinged—to the degree it was sincere and not just a hackneyed circumlocution for corporate outsourcing production to China.

What “America First” Looks Like

U.S. energy production continues to rise, given even more federal lands have been opened up to leasing. Frackers and horizontal drillers no longer feel that they are enemies of the people, but are recognized as saviors who provide America with flexibility in foreign policy and inexpensive energy for the middle classes. In 2017, the United States became the largest producer of oil in the world. Gas prices in real dollars remain low.

Abroad, most of the traditional talking points of conservatives have been reified. The U.S. embassy to Israel is now in Jerusalem. The Golan Heights are not going back to the murderous Assad regime. Hundreds of millions of dollars less in U.S. aid not being rerouted through the United Nations to a corrupt Palestinian authority. The Iran nuclear deal is toast. Iran is not growing its tentacles over Syria and Iraq, but is broke and reeling.

The only irony is that those who used to demand such action blast Trump as a failure for actually turning their parlor talk into reality.

Was Reagan a failure in 1983 and early 1984, as he sought to liberate the economy and break inflation—as the economy went into a tailspin? Or was he savior by election time 1984 as the economy was growing over 7 percent per year?

For better or worse, we are now fundamentally recalibrating the United States—not just redressing the prior Obama transformation, but the policies of past Republican administrations as well. And no one quite knows where it will end, given that almost all our experts who swore in January 2017 that the economy would tank were wrong. They were wrong again with their prediction of a late summer 2019 recession. And they may well be wrong again that confronting China would ensure a global trade cataclysm. Never underestimate how greatly the hatred of Donald Trump can warp the mind of a Ph.D.

Fear of  Trump’s Success Underneath It All

So we are watching a great experiment, as all of our past de facto assumptions about regulations, immigration, identity politics, trade, workers’ wages, manufacturing, the Middle East, China, Russia, and overseas interventions are all at once under sometimes chaotic reexamination.

We won’t know to what degree Trump won his battles against a now hard-leftist Democratic Party, the NeverTrump Right, the media, the academic and cultural elite, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and the Washington deep state until he finishes his first term. In 2020 the people will decide whether such risks were worth taking. But the idea that Trump has “failed,” when the economy is booming, the United States is energy independent, the border is becoming a border again, China is on notice that the past 30 years of appeasement are over, the military is far stronger, and U.S. foreign policy is being radically recalibrated is absolutely absurd.

Impeachment was never about Trump’s failures, but about fears of his perceived successes.

The Left, far better than the NeverTrump Right, grasped that Trump is succeeding, and that it has little traction in demanding economic, energy, immigration, trade, and regulatory alternatives. Its lunatic multi-trillion-dollar proposals ensure that it cannot attack Trump on the deficit where he is weakest.

As a result, the Left rightly concluded that its only hope to save the progressive agenda is to destroy Trump before the people can vote on his agenda, which they rightly fear is succeeding.

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004, and is the 2023 Giles O'Malley Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson is also a farmer (growing almonds on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author of the just released New York Times best seller, The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation, published by Basic Books on May 7, 2024, as well as the recent  The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump, and The Dying Citizen.

Photo: (Photo by ALEX EDELMAN / AFP) (Photo by ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

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