David R. Henderson  

Henderson on Trump

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Richard Reinsch, the editor of our sister Liberty Fund blog, "Law and Liberty," asked me to write a response essay to this essay on Donald Trump by Greg Weiner. When I accepted, I didn't know Professor Weiner's views well and I assumed that because Law and Liberty tends to be conservative, his essay would be mainly positive towards Donald Trump.

I was wrong. Greg actually was quite critical of Donald Trump and it was mainly on Burkean conservative grounds.

So what I wrote was a balanced assessment of Trump in which I tried to put some of the conservative objections to Donald Trump's style in perspective. The title of my piece, which was changed at the last minute to more accurately reflect the content, is "He's Good and Bad on Foreign Affairs, Good and Bad on the Economy."

Here are some excerpts.

My overall evaluation:

The good is on Trump's economic and foreign policy; so is the bad. The bad is also on Trump's style--the endless tweeting, for example--but so is the good. I say upfront that my evaluation of both Professor Weiner's Liberty Forum essay and of President Trump is that of a libertarian who is more pro-immigration (legal and illegal) and more non-interventionist on foreign policy than most libertarians.

On the tax cut:

Will the tax cut increase the deficit? Unfortunately yes. But we should put that in perspective. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the projected debt in 2027 without the tax cut would have been 91.2 percent of Gross Domestic Product. With the tax cut, it is projected to be 97.5 percent of GDP, an increase of 6.9 percent. That increase is substantial but not huge. And the 97.5 percent estimate assumes that the tax cut will have no positive impact on economic growth.

On immigration and trade:
That's much of the good news on economic policy. On the other side of the economic ledger are Trump's proposals to restrict legal immigration further and his moves to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. One way the former is already showing up is that people here legally on H1B visas are finding those visas harder to renew. And Trump proposes that their spouses, if they are neither U.S. citizens nor permanent residents, will no longer get permission to have paying jobs in the United States. North America will likely have less free trade in a few years than it has had and the United States will likely have fewer new legal immigrants annually than it has had.

Also, in the current dispute with congressional Democrats over the renewal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), one of Trump's non-negotiable items is the proposed E-Verify. Under that proposal, anyone who wants to get a new job would have to wait on government approval and this approval would require an affirmative government finding that the potential employee is legally eligible for work. Does government ever mistakes? It does. Would those mistakes sometimes cause a completely legal worker not to be able to work? They would. Even more important in the long run, as my Hoover colleague, economist John H. Cochrane, has noted, a government with the power to decide who works and who doesn't would not likely restrain itself in using that power for things other than legal residency.


On defense and foreign policy:
On U.S. foreign and defense policy, there is a widely held view in the foreign affairs establishment that almost anything that happens almost anywhere in the world is so important to the United States that the U.S. government may, by force if necessary, intervene. So, for example, although many Washington wags are shocked that Vladimir Putin may have cared enough about the U.S. election outcome to spend one hundred thousand dollars on Facebook ads, between 1946 and 2000, the U.S. government tried to influence over 80 foreign elections with nary a peep from that establishment. The Bush administration spent $65 million trying to influence the outcome of Ukraine's 2004 election. And of course, both Democratic and Republican administrations have used force to change governments in other countries, notably, in recent years, Iraq and Libya.

Whereas during the campaign, Trump made some non-interventionist noises, as President he has distinctly muted them while continuing the Bush-Obama policy of intervening violently in other countries' affairs. He has maintained President Obama's support for the ruthless Saudi regime's assault on Yemen, for example. This is potentially as bad, in humanitarian terms, as Obama's destabilization of Libya. And whereas Trump used to see the invasions of, and occupations of, Iraq and Afghanistan as a huge loss for America, which they were, he has put more troops in Afghanistan. He is also escalating his threats to North Korea. Although nuclear war with North Korea is still highly unlikely, even raising the probability of such a conflict from, say, one in 100,000 to one in 10,000 is dangerous. With any plausible nuclear war, 100,000 people or even a million, almost all of them innocent, would be killed.


On how much of a threat Trump is to freedom of the press compared to one past president:

But let's grant arguendo that on net, Trump has soiled the presidency. Even here there is an upside. Trump does not do nuance. When he is upset about what someone says about him, he tweets his anger and publicly threatens lawsuits and censorship. The lawsuits have gone nowhere. And if Trump really wanted to follow through on his threatened censorship of television networks, he chose the wrong chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Ajit Pai is one of the most deregulatory officials in the Trump administration.

Consider, by contrast, someone who effectively quashed radio criticism of his policies: Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1934, as University of Alabama historian David Beito has noted, President Roosevelt's FCC put radio stations on a short leash by reducing the license-renewal period from three years to six months. He appointed Herbert L. Pettey as head of the commission. Pettey had been FDR's radio adviser during his 1932 presidential campaign. Shortly after this licensing change, NBC announced that it would limit broadcasts "contrary to the policies of the United States government." CBS went further, announcing an end to broadcasts "in any way" critical of "any policy of the Administration." Who was more effective--the unsophisticated Trump threatening in public, or the warm and fuzzy (but ruthless and strategic) operator behind the scenes, Roosevelt? The record speaks for itself.


My comparison of Trump and Ted Kennedy:
Finally, we need to put Trump's personal style in context. One way to do so is to compare him to other politicians who have reached the Oval Office or who have come close. I think of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who nearly won the Democratic nomination in 1980. I don't know what his style in the White House would have been. But here's what I know: he left a woman to suffocate in a car he was driving. His next step was not to get help but to talk to lawyers. And when he made a public statement, he expressed his concern for his family, not hers.

In 1994, I testified before a Senate Committee chaired by Kennedy. I focused on the policy issue at hand, the Clinton administration's plans for U.S. healthcare, about which he and I disagreed. I ignored his personal failings. What mattered was the policy issue. Maybe you could say that I ate the poisoned fruit and am no longer innocent, and that I should have used my six minutes to denounce this immoral man. But whatever I should have done, the point is that Senator Kennedy set such a low bar for personal behavior that President Trump is probably well above it.


Thanks to Richard Reinsch for letting me go 300 or so words above the limit. And thanks to editor Lauren Weiner (no relation to Greg) for her deft edits, for her willingness to change the title after publication to more closely reflect the content, and for a delightful phone conversation in which we compared notes, as fellow editors, on various editing styles.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
James Pass writes:

There's value in reminding people of the faults of political "heroes" like FDR, Ted Kennedy and Obama. If we want to feel a little less bad about Trump, we could just as easily compare him to the faults of various Republican heroes (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush).

But the point is, overall, Trump is singularly unqualified as president. Apparently Trump is pretty good at making business deals. Trump has been involved in business his entire life, so it's neither surprising nor significant that some of his economic ideas benefit corporations. Trump is hit and miss on a number of policies. I don't expect consistency or coherency from this president.

Let me put it another way: The Oxford Dictionary word of the year for 2016 is "post-truth": relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. Trump is the epitome of post-truth.

Mark writes:

James Pass,

I think an important observation is that the overall performance of the Trump administration is largely independent of his qualifications as an individual. Much of that of course depends on those he appoints to do the actual day to day policymaking, and in that respect, for the most part, it's been alright (I prefer Pai and DeVos, for example, to their predecessor under the more formally qualified previous president). And, unqualified though he may be, in the end, his worst actions as president will likely pale in comparison to the worst actions of, say, the (again, much more qualified) FDR administration (e.g., mass destruction of crops in the midst of a depression and concentration camps for American citizens of Japanese ancestory).

And are we really living in a more 'post-truth' era than any other point in history. People romanticize of earlier times. Remember when William Randolph Hearst fabricated news to help the president start a war with Spain? Or the Johnson and Nixon admins on Vietnam? Politicians past weren't so much more honest, but merely less vulnerable to the truth due to the more primitive nature of communication.

perfectlyGoodInk writes:

Weiner's point is basically, "Sure, Gorsuch and deregulation are great, but the cost is not worth it because his bad behavior has set terrible precedents for future presidents."

Henderson's point is basically, "Sure, Trump's behavior is bad, but what about FDR and Ted Kennedy?"

Comparing Trump to a guy for whom a Constitutional Amendment was written in reaction to his abuses, and a guy who probably killed somebody with his car and tried to cover it up. This is a defense of Trump... how?

David R Henderson writes:

@perfectlyGoodInk,
Henderson's point is basically, "Sure, Trump's behavior is bad, but what about FDR and Ted Kennedy?
That certainly doesn’t do justice to what I wrote. I bet you know that, though. If I were to explain why, I would simply repeat much of what I wrote. I won’t do that because you can reread it.
This is a defense of Trump... how?
It’s not a defense of Trump. My piece is an evaluation of Trump. I don’t know if you missed it but I had many criticisms of him. Seems as if you wasted some perfectly good bytes.

James Pass writes:

Mark, you make good points. It's funny because even though I think Trump is singularly unqualified to be president, I tell my liberal friends who say he is the worst president ever that his administration hasn't done anything as bad as the Bush administration.

I've never understood how Ted Kennedy survived the scandal of Chappaquiddick. Nor do I understand Trump's political success.

I suppose what makes me say Trump is the epitome of post-truth is because of the sheer irrationality of some of his statements. For example, his birther claims about Obama, his claim that Clinton won the popular vote due to massive voter fraud, his claim that Obama bugged Trump Tower, his claim that tax reform will cost him a fortune, his claim that Americans pay more taxes than anywhere in the world, and his continued insistence about the fake news media. I could go on.

James Pass writes:

Mr. Henderson, I think you misunderstood GoodInk. It's clear that GoodInk didn't miss your criticisms of Trump because he paraphrased you with "Sure, Trump's behavior is bad."

I don't think GoodInk was saying you were offering a defense of Trump, per se. I think he was pointing out that you seemed to be defending Trump on the specific parts about the news media and bad behavior.

As I explained to Mark, it could even be said that I seem to be defending Trump when I point out to my liberal friends that he hasn't done anything as bad as Bush. I have zero respect for Trump and yet I can defend him from hyperbolic criticisms.

perfectlyGoodInk writes:

I interpreted Henderson's essay as a defense of Trump because Ted Kennedy was the closing argument. The essay talks of context, but the comparison is not very valid if it was intended as a response to Weiner as Henderson claimed. Weiner's point about Trump's behavior was about the bad precedent it sets.

FDR isn't exactly a comforting counterexample. As I mentioned, everybody agreed he set a terrible precedent to the point that the country passed a Constitutional Amendment to prevent something like his presidency from happening ever again.

Ted Kennedy is actually irrelevant to Weiner's point because he was never president. He finished second in a primary, 51% to 38%, and unless you have an unusually low opinion of Reagan, this was merely a race to see who would have the chance to get slaughtered in a landslide. It's like calling the 1989-1990 Cleveland Browns "almost" Superbowl champions because they lost to the Broncos in the AFC championship before the Broncos got decimated by the Niners.

And Chappaquiddick was a major reason Kennedy lost to Carter. The bad precedent was not that he was "almost" the runner up in a presidential election. It's that he was still a sitting senator. If we were talking about a Roy Moore victory, it would have been a better comparison. Here, there is no reason to bring up Ted Kennedy here except as an attempt at "whataboutism." It is not a defense of Trump's bad behavior. It is pointing out bad behavior on the other side.

perfectlyGoodInk writes:

I interpreted Henderson's essay as a defense of Trump because Ted Kennedy was the closing argument. The essay talks of context, but the comparison is not very valid if it was intended as a response to Weiner as Henderson claimed. Weiner's point about Trump's behavior was about the bad precedent it sets.

FDR isn't exactly a comforting counterexample. As I mentioned, everybody agreed he set a terrible precedent to the point that the country passed a Constitutional Amendment to prevent something like his presidency from happening ever again.

(breaking this into two pieces to avoid tripping the spam filter)

perfectlyGoodInk writes:

Ted Kennedy is actually irrelevant to Weiner's point because he was never president. He finished second in a primary, 51% to 38%, and unless you have an unusually low opinion of Reagan, this was merely a race to see who would have the chance to lose in a landslide. It's like calling the 1989-1990 Cleveland Browns "almost" Superbowl champions because they lost to the Broncos in the AFC championship before the Broncos got routed by the Niners.

And Chappaquiddick was a major reason Kennedy lost to Carter. The bad precedent was not that he was "almost" the runner up in a presidential election. It's that he was still a sitting senator. If we were talking about a Roy Moore victory, it would have been a better comparison. Here, there is no reason to bring up Ted Kennedy here except as an attempt at "whataboutism." It is not a defense of Trump's bad behavior. It is pointing out bad behavior on the other side.

perfectlyGoodInk writes:

Can't seem to get the rest past the filter. I basically point out that Ted Kennedy was never president, so he is irrelevant to Weiner's point about precedent. Maybe the filter doesn't like my football analogy.

David R Henderson writes:

@perfectlyGoodInk,
I interpreted Henderson's essay as a defense of Trump because Ted Kennedy was the closing argument. The essay talks of context, but the comparison is not very valid if it was intended as a response to Weiner as Henderson claimed. Weiner's point about Trump's behavior was about the bad precedent it sets.
There’s not as huge a dividing line as you think between becoming President and coming close to becoming President. My point with Ted Kennedy is that he was thought of widely as a plausible candidate despite his evil action--and after a couple of years, people pretty much quit talking about it--and that it was hard to find something in Trump’s personal behavior that was as bad.
FDR isn't exactly a comforting counterexample. As I mentioned, everybody agreed he set a terrible precedent to the point that the country passed a Constitutional Amendment to prevent something like his presidency from happening ever again.
But notice what he got away with. My point in mentioning FDR was to compare successful attempt at wide censorship by stealth with Trump’s blustery but ineffectual attempt. My point had nothing to do with FDR's 4 terms. Indeed, the actions I referred to happened in his first term.

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