Donald Trump isn’t short of opposition, but much of it has been strikingly ineffective. Not only was impotent criticism a big part of what got him elected, but many of his opponents also appear to be slow learners. That seems likely to bolster Trump’s support and sustain him in office.
The president-elect gives every impression of having already taken charge, a posture that his critics validate by treating every half-baked intervention (1,000 jobs “saved” at Carrier) and meaningless expostulation (flag-burners should have their citizenship revoked) as though it were an actual policy. At the hands of his critics, Trump’s ridiculous running commentary becomes, “Trump is really shaking things up.” In this way, by doing nothing, he’s delivering before he’s even sworn in.
Unfortunately for Democrats, whose job it is to oppose the Republican president-elect, Trump shares their disregard for limited government and market forces. This shuts down the strongest lines of criticism and introduces an awkward mismatch between the intensity of the Democrats’ loathing of Trump and the substance of their complaints. The president-elect puts pressure on a company to change its plan to outsource some jobs.
How are Democrats to despise such a move? Not easy. Their view is that companies are only interested in profits, and profits have nothing to do with the public good; also, every job that isn’t outsourced is a win. So it can hardly be wrong to apply pressure, and Trump has to be denounced in some other way.
The center-left can call him a lawless autocrat high on the power of the office he doesn’t yet have. The left denounces a too-timid critic of rapacious capitalism, settling for small wins of no consequence instead of applying his correct insights at scale.
The old joke about the grumbling diner comes irresistibly to mind: “The food is disgusting — and such small portions.” Trump’s theory of the economy, such as it is, ought to be trashed mainly by Republicans. To remind, it’s their job to make the case for market-guided competition as a driver of U.S. living standards, and to deplore ad hoc presidential interventions unsupported by legislation as a dangerous overreach of executive power. The party was fine with both lines of attack, of course, where President Barack Obama was concerned.
Doubtless impressed by Trump’s mastery of economic policy and the judicious restraint he’s shown up to now, they consider their fears allayed. Expect no effective opposition from that quarter. Which leaves the press — the slowest learners of all.
Recognizing Trump as a new and uniquely objectionable kind of presidential candidate, the guiding lights of the mainstream press let it be known that the usual rules no longer applied. Doing what the press is supposed to do would be to “normalize” a dangerously abnormal politician. What an amazing declaration that was, and what little faith or understanding it showed in the case for standard practice.
The purpose of those rules — about reporting facts as straightforwardly as possible and refraining from campaigning for or against particular politicians when reporting the news — is not to be fair to the candidates, but to serve readers and retain their trust.
In dealing with an abnormal candidate, those rules are more important than before, not less. It becomes more important, in reporting the news, to stick to facts and let readers make up their own minds. By abandoning that standard, the press announced, in effect, that readers could not be trusted to judge for themselves.
After that, how influential did the press expect to be? It ran against Trump in the election and lost. Why should anybody inclined to support the president-elect — roughly half the country, you may recall — pay attention now to a press that has said the usual rules don’t apply?
Again, the more the opposition was cranked up, the less effective it became. As a result, it seems possible that Trump won’t fail because of the dumb things he says or believes, but only when he does some actual damage. He could avoid that by staying mainly in the realm of Twitter politics and never actually doing anything. That might be the country’s best hope.
If he does something, who knows what it might be? Perhaps he’ll start a war — if not a shooting war, then a trade war that tanks the economy and puts a lot of Americans out of work. It’s a shame that he’ll have to bring the ceiling down for the country to declare him a failure.
What he says ought to have been enough. But it’s remarkable how helpful incompetent opponents can be.
Clive Crook is a columnist for Bloomberg View.