Despite its legislative setbacks of the past year, the presidency of Donald Trump has been stunningly effective in its core mission, the dismantling of modern American government as it has evolved since the Progressive Era of the early 20th Century. And even though a civil war looms inside the Republican Party, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan and even frequent presidential critics like Sen. Bob Corker have firmly supported most of Trump’s program. This should surprise no one: In many respects, the administration’s agenda jibes with the main lines of Republican conservatism as laid down by Ronald Reagan more than 30 years ago, pressing massive tax reductions for the wealthy along with deregulation of finance and business. Trump’s adherence to Reagan’s dictum that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” is what permits McConnell and the others to behold him as a flawed but useful vehicle for their own politics. Yet in irreducible ways, the anti-government Trump is in fact the anti-Reagan. As Trump consolidates his unmovable popularity among the Republican rank and file, it’s become undeniable that his dark political vision has supplanted smiley-face Reagan-style conservatism as the supreme guiding force inside the GOP.
President Reagan believed deeply that the United States had a mystical, even providential mission to stand before the world as a beacon of democracy and opportunity. He spoke often of America as the “shining city upon a hill,” its eminence enlarged by the generations of immigrants who had arrived in the wake of the Pilgrims. Reagan upheld traditional virtues of discipline, restraint, hard work and gracious self-effacement as essential to the nation’s spiritual foundations. Although he repeatedly asserted that America’s best days lay ahead of it, he never doubted America’s greatness in the present as well as the past.
Trump, by contrast, sees no American mission in the world, only a brutal contest for domination in which the United States must be the winner through him alone. He describes America not as a shining city but as a carnage-filled jungle, beset by crime and drugs and overwhelmed by vicious illegal immigrants. Although Reagan couldn’t recall that he skirted the Constitution and violated it in the Iran-Contra affair, he never showed open, truculent disdain for the rule of law as Trump has done with his pardoning of the racist Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted of criminal contempt for failing to obey the law. Trump denounces Washington as a thoroughly corrupted swamp, even as he cashes in by turning the White House into a money funnel for his far-flung business operations in violation of the Constitution’s foreign-emoluments clause. He has set himself up as the commander of a great movement “the likes of which the world has never seen before,” then incited that movement to trash proud Reagan conservatives like Sen. John McCain and effectively endorse the likes of Roy Moore, twice ousted from the Alabama court on which he sat for refusing to abide by the law, to say nothing of the sexual-assault allegations against him. Trump has no use for self-effacement, let alone graciousness or restraint, and instead conducts official business, including international diplomacy, with impulsive, unfiltered outbursts of insults. He has introduced to the presidency something once described by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan as “defining deviancy down.”
At the core of Reagan’s politics was his stern anti-communism, which centered on the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union. It was Reagan’s disenchantment with what he saw as liberal appeasement of communists, at home and abroad (as well as high income taxes), that first led him to cut his old New Deal ties. Drifting to the right, as a spokesman for the anti-union General Electric, Reagan came to regard the welfare state as a stalking horse for Soviet-style domination. He hailed slashing taxes and reducing regulations as assertions of individual freedom against statist tyranny but also as springboards for a booming economy that could sustain an indomitable military and subdue the Soviets.
Trump has certainly picked up and supercharged the Reaganite anti-government agenda but with no discernible ideology, only a compulsion to demolish established policies and programs, above all, anything associated with Barack Obama. Trump’s political success, meanwhile, owes at least something to the supportive machinations of a former KGB colonel, Vladimir Putin, whose authoritarian regime has wreaked political havoc across the entire Western alliance. Putin is the one major world leader above all whom Trump has most conspicuously defended and singled out for praise, describing Putin during the 2016 campaign as a strong leader, “far more than our president.” The xenophobic nationalism with which Trump stirs his political base – less an ideology than a ganglia of resentments – closely resembles the insular appeals of other Russia-friendly right-wing extremists, including Britain’s Nigel Farage and France’s Marine Le Pen. (Farage has been a particularly keen supporter of Trump’s and, with his ties to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, is reportedly a “person of interest” in the FBI’s investigation of connections between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence.) Under Trump, post-Reagan conservatism has come to this: assailing the federal government not in order to check Russian tyranny but, grotesquely, to mimic it.
Trump’s anti-government assaults, on one level, fulfil a dream that the hard right has nurtured for decades. That dream has failed to materialize, in the right-wing view, only because a conspiracy of enemies has thwarted it – the Democrats, of course, but also the media (Trump’s “enemy of the people”) and a traitorous Republican establishment, which the right has labeled “Republicans in Name Only,” or RINOs. Trump is the hero these extremists have longed for to rip apart that other “evil empire” – the modern American regulatory and welfare state – that Reagan and the two Bush presidents left standing. Their motives combine ideology and money, embodied in moguls like Robert and Rebekah Mercer and the Koch brothers, who represent greed and extremist dogma in roughly equal measure. When Trump bellows about deregulation and “draining the swamp,” the GOP donor class takes the hint and cheers him on, no matter his vulgar manners. They cheer all the more for the tax proposal that the president and Congress have pulled together despite the failure of Obamacare repeal – a proposal that surpasses the Reagan and George W. Bush windfalls through mechanisms like the complete abolition of the federal estate tax, which would clear the way for a new American hereditary oligarchy.
So far, so Republican. But Trumpism is not just the usual mendacious special pleading for the super-rich. In fact, Trump cares little about policy or policy ideas or, for that matter, any ideas at all, even bogus or illusory ones. He only cares about self-gratification and self-glorification. His towering ego is his only ideal. But his megalomania is about more than his narcissism – for his fortune and his family riches, and his criteria for powerful leadership, have long-standing links to organised crime.
Donald Trump is a racketeer, loyal neither to principles nor persons – not his business associates, not the men who helped make him and least of all his ex-wives. His long record, as meticulously reconstructed by investigative reporters including David Cay Johnston and the late Wayne Barrett, contains a web of associations with Mob kingpins like Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno and Paul Castellano, and it shows that Trump will stab anyone in the back and cut off anyone who can no longer feed his supremacy or serve his malice. But Trump’s depraved character also has a political model, which is his own version of Putin’s authoritarian regime, what the journalist Masha Gessen has called a mafia state, with entrenched oligarchs entirely beholden to the patriarch and his clan, a syndicate that hobbles all political opposition while it deflects criticism with wild distractions and brazen falsehoods, lying not simply to elude detection or to get its way but, as Gessen remarks, “to assert power over truth itself.”
The far-right-wing ideologues inside Trump’s administration, his wacky wrecking crew, may follow the traditional conservative playbook as they do their best to strip-mine government and enrich special interests from the fossil-fuel industries to Big Pharma. But under Trump, they serve other ends as well. First, they render triumphant Republican GOP barons ever more indebted to Trump, the capo di tutti capi, who will have delivered where normal Republican presidents failed. Second, they satisfy Trump himself, for whom smashing things that others have created (like Obamacare) seems to be a deeply sadistic gratification. Third, they satisfy Putin, whose fondest dream evidently is to confuse and if possible shred America’s political institutions, turning Trump and his gang into his own “useful idiots.” The demolition has not always been obvious, especially to a political press heavily focused on legislative clashes, Twitter agitations and culture-war sideshows. As the Obamacare debacle showed, the president is inept at the Washington art of the deal, which may lull some into regarding him as just a blowhard bully. But inside the executive branch, where Trump is virtually unchecked, the demolition has been severe.
Trump commenced his destruction when he selected a Cabinet. By the time his nominations finally shook out, he had surrounded himself with a group of pliant department heads that were, according to Forbes, “the richest in modern U.S. history,” estimated by the magazine in July as worth, in aggregate, nearly $4.3 billion. They included, not surprisingly, some of Trump’s oldest friends and biggest donors. Their stupendous collective sycophancy – displayed for the world at the embarrassingly choreographed ring-kissing Cabinet meeting in June, resembling nothing so much as Stalin’s flunkies singing his praises – typified Trump’s mafia-state yearnings.
But most telling of all were the new secretaries’ credentials, or lack thereof. For secretary of education, Trump chose a billionaire champion of privatised education who had called public schools a “dead end.” His secretary of state would be an Exxon Mobil CEO whose chief qualifications were being awarded an “Order of Friendship” medal by Putin and negotiating an oil-drilling deal reportedly worth hundreds of billions of dollars in the Russian Arctic that had been frozen by U.S. sanctions. To run the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump selected a climate-change denier. On it went: An ex-governor of Texas who campaigned to abolish the Department of Energy was chosen to head it; a neurosurgeon who considered poverty “a state of mind” took charge at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
At the most obvious level, Trump’s Cabinet choices advance the right-wing Republican agenda on taxes, health care, the environment, school choice, civil rights and more, some of which Trump had supported during the campaign. But at another level, his administration expresses an unprecedented contempt for the American government itself, placing the direction of large and powerful federal agencies, essential to the general welfare, in the hands of people who are fiercely opposed to the mission of the agencies they would direct. Trump’s appointments are not a simple matter of drastically changing course; they signal a belief that the very purposes of the institutions that formulate national policy – institutions built up over generations – are rotten. From the start, Trump has been out to delegitimise large parts of the government he has been elected to run.
The administration’s preliminary budget, released in May, took a more straightforward wrecking-ball approach. While the Defense Department, along with the departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs, registered budget increases as expected, proposed outlays for the rest of the executive-branch agencies were slashed, with what looked like a vengeance. Some of the deepest cuts would, if approved, sharply curtail the departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Labor, and Housing and Urban Development. The proposed cut for the EPA, a staggering 31.4 percent, augurs that agency’s outright elimination. Trump’s America First isolationism, meanwhile, would eviscerate much of the State Department, its proposed budget reduction (29.1 percent) nearly as deep as the one for the EPA. Who needs diplomacy with Trump the tweeter in charge?
The administration further undermined its own departments by ignoring and alienating career staff and failing to fill crucial positions. Indeed, five months into Trump’s presidency, the Senate – the Republican-controlled Senate – had approved only 33 of Trump’s 96 nominees for top-tier positions, the slowest pace on record. But that still left roughly 1,000 important jobs to which nobody had been nominated, an alarming number of vacancies. Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, gently described it as a “failure to understand the operating needs of the government.”
Above and beyond incompetence, though, there was the president’s autocratic arrogance and disregard for professional expertise. When pressed by Fox News about his failure to staff key positions, Trump replied, “I’m the only one that matters.” Stier allowed that some of the 4,000 politically appointed federal jobs are superfluous, but he charged that Trump is disregarding many critical positions, “including,” he said, “those that directly affect our national and economic security, public health, food safety and immigration enforcement.”
The situation has been especially dire at the beleaguered State Department. Soon after Trump was sworn in, as Julia Ioffe reported in The Atlantic, the department faced a management crisis, as numerous top officials either resigned or were fired. Job morale plum-meted as decision-making seemed to shift abruptly to the chaotic and bungling West Wing. (“They really want to blow this place up,” one department officer said. “I don’t think this administration thinks the State Department needs to exist. They think Jared [Kushner] can do everything.”)
The day after Trump’s election, according to Vanity Fair‘s Michael Lewis, the career staff at the Department of Energy awaited the expected arrival of emissaries from the president-elect, to begin the transition process, but nobody showed up. Finally, Thomas Pyle, president of the Koch brothers-funded front group American Energy Alliance, stepped in, but he was soon replaced by a retinue of young right-wing ideologues who had dubbed themselves “the beachhead team.” It quickly became apparent that the newcomers knew little and couldn’t care less about the DOE’s work in a variety of difficult and essential areas, from upgrading the nation’s electric grid to handling nuclear waste. “They mainly ran around the building insulting people,” a former Obama official told Lewis of the beachhead team, and exuded, another remarked, “a mentality that everything that government does is stupid and bad, and the people are stupid and bad.”
The one area above all others where the administration worked with sureness and efficiency was in securing appointments to the federal judiciary. This, though, required no heavy lifting: Beginning during the Reagan years, conservatives had already built an impressive recruiting, training and vetting network, stretching from the law schools to the right-wing think tanks all the way to the White House, in order to furnish Republican lawmakers with a steady supply of jurists. The goal, as Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese once remarked, was simple: to institutionalise the right-wing attack on the progressive state “so that it cannot be set aside no matter what happens in future presidential elections.”
Nearing the end of Trump’s first year in office, it seemed that naming the ideologically strident Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court might be his only notable success. This, though, was deceiving, as the Republican-controlled Senate also swiftly approved more than a dozen Trump nominees for lifetime appointments to the crucial lower federal courts, with dozens more in the offing.
The quality of some of Trump’s lower-court nominees has disconcerted Republicans standing as far to the right as Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. (One of Trump’s selections has publicly called transgender children part of “Satan’s plan.”) Nevertheless, with 144 vacancies in the federal judiciary still to be filled, Trump could well reduce the judicial check that has thus far thwarted his agenda, from the Muslim ban to methane rules on oil and gas drilling. No matter the outcome of future elections, the damage inflicted by Trump’s subversion will stand for at least a generation.
As Trump’s dismantling of what his former strategist Steve Bannon sneeringly calls “the administrative state” continues apace, his greatest triumph over the past year has actually been political – the transformation of the Republican Party. Trump is a uniquely unpopular and even despised figure at home and abroad. “Make America Great Again” in reality has made America look diminished around the world, including to most of our Western allies; according to a Pew poll of 37 countries from this past June, confidence in the American president and admiration of the United States plummeted from the end of Obama’s administration to the beginning of Trump’s. Among Americans, meanwhile, Trump’s approval rating in the weekly Gallup poll, which has never risen above the mid-40s, sank to 34 percent in August and has only modestly improved since – by far the worst figures on record for any president at this point in his first term.
The story is entirely different, though, among Republicans, whose approval of Trump has been generally registering in the low 80s. But over the same period, Republicans all but repudiated Congress – its approval rating among Republican voters collapsed from 50 percent around the time of the inauguration to a low of 16 percent following the failure to repeal Obamacare. Plainly, rank-and-file Republicans stand by Trump, no matter his disgraces – indeed, because of them – and they chiefly blame the party leadership in Congress (along with the Democrats and the media) for his setbacks. At least in red states, meanwhile, Republicans who dare to break with the president can expect to pay a heavy price: Sens. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker both saw their support among Republicans in their home states crater after they spoke out strongly against the evils of Trump. One of the two living former Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush, has revealed that he voted for Hillary Clinton last year; the other, George W. Bush, delivered a speech disavowing everything that Trump stands for, and the total effect on the Republican base was nil. The title of a recent book on the Bushes may have it exactly right: They are The Last Republicans. Their party, although it carries its old name, has become the party of Trump, which has taken on the attributes of a cult.
Except for Trump, the GOP looked in 2016 as if it might be on the verge of cracking up from the internal tensions born of its decades-long radicalisation. Instead, Trump seized upon those tensions, exacerbated them and captured the hearts of the vast majority of Republicans, screaming a post-Reagan conservatism that is not conservative at all and a right-wing populism serving the interests of racketeerism. Historically, these kinds of party transformations are very difficult to reverse. They would seem all the more difficult now, with a charismatic leader whose every outrage reinforces his appeal. And if Trump succeeds in building his own version of a mafia state, America, once a beacon to all the world, Reagan’s shining city, will more closely resemble Putin’s Moscow.
Main illustration by Victor Juhasz.