Republicans' absurd revisionist history of President Trump's first year
Revisionist history projects are usually undertaken once the history in question is at least a few years in the past. But right now, conservatives are busy trying to convince themselves that the Trump presidency is actually working out pretty well.
I don't mean Trump himself, who probably emerges from the bathroom in the morning to proclaim, "That was the greatest toothbrushing in the history of this nation, people are saying no president has ever brushed his teeth so well, it's just incredible, believe me." Nor am I talking about Trump's own aides, who are reaching levels of lickspittlery that if they occurred at a North Korean cabinet meeting would lead Kim Jong Un to say, "Dial it back, guys, you're embarrassing yourself."
No, I'm talking about conservatives who are ordinarily in possession of their faculties, who at the end of Trump's first year in office are taking stock and concluding that things aren't so bad. "On paper, at least," writes Matt Lewis, "he has wildly exceeded my expectations." Sure, he creates needless controversies, and there's that pesky Russia investigation. Yet "[d]espite it all, Trump has racked up a solid record of first-year accomplishments," says Byron York. "As the year ends, President Donald Trump is compiling a solid record of accomplishment," concludes Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, which was harshly critical of Trump in 2016.
Do they have a case to make? Sure. Simply by taking possession of the executive branch, Republicans were able to implement all manner of conservative goals, from cutting back enforcement of environmental laws to easing oversight of Wall Street to appointing conservative judges to the federal bench. Having Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court is always the first item on the list of Trump "accomplishments," though it's not as if it required hard work and skill; Republicans essentially stole the Supreme Court seat, leaving it open for him to fill, which he did with someone recommended to him by conservative legal activists. And Republicans did just cut taxes for the wealthy and corporations, which to the GOP is the single most important purpose of governing.
So if you're a conservative, you can tick off a bunch of actions that you're happy about — not to mention that Trump hasn't actually gotten us into a nuclear war (not yet, anyway). The problem is that the damage he's doing to their party is deep and profound, and could last a long, long time.
Let's start with what's coming in 2018.
There has been a huge increase in enthusiasm among Democrats, with an influx of activists and aspiring candidates in numbers no one has seen before — a trend being driven primarily by women outraged at Trump. To take just one indicator, Emily's List reports that while 1,000 women reached out to the group before the 2016 election asking for help running for office, in the year since the number has exploded to 22,000. And Democrats have done shockingly well in just about every special and off-year election that has taken place this year. Even when they've fallen short of victory, they did significantly better than they had in years past in those districts.
All of which has pretty much every knowledgeable analyst predicting that Democrats are more likely than not to take control of either the House or the Senate — or both — in 2018. Generic ballot tests (which ask whether respondents prefer an unnamed Democrat or Republican for the House) now show Democrats with a lead averaging 13 points. As Nate Cohn of The New York Times noted, "A 13-point edge would be similar to or larger than their advantage in 2006, when Democrats won control of both the House and the Senate."
Democrats might have made some gains with a different Republican president, since the opposition party usually picks up seats in the midterm elections. But those gains will almost certainly be larger because of Trump. And if Democratic voters turn out to register their displeasure with the president while Republican voters are less than excited, it will have effects all the way down the ballot, to state and local races where GOP candidates will suffer.
Then there's the effect the Trump presidency is having on the Republican Party itself. Disapproval of the party approaches 60 percent in polls, a level only seen in the past when they're doing things like shutting down the government (the Democratic Party isn't exactly loved, but it's not nearly as reviled as the GOP). While Trump showed that they could win another election catering to white racial grievance, everyone acknowledges that that appeal becomes harder with each passing year as the country grows more diverse — and Trump has made it all the more difficult for the next Republican candidate to appeal to non-white voters.
Republicans have spent much of this year supporting Trump's agenda while dodging questions about his erratic and juvenile behavior, and they're keenly aware that there's never been a president whose approval ratings were so low while the economy was doing as well as it is. While it's possible that Trump will do something to become more popular, it seems far more likely that he'll make more mistakes, commit more personal outrages, and be kneecapped by the Russia scandal.
That means there's an entire generation of Republicans who are going to be tainted by their support for Trump. They'll have to endure questions about his tweets, and about his lies, and about Russian collusion. If Trump loses a re-election bid and winds up one of the most disgraced presidents in history — one of the more likely conclusions to this whole bizarre episode in American political history — Democrats will never let Republicans forget it. He will have degraded the party, if not permanently, then at least for some time to come. The immediate result could be a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress in 2021, one that will move with extraordinary speed to undo everything Trump did and inaugurate a new age of progressive policymaking.
It's understandable that conservatives would try to find the silver lining in the first year of Trump's presidency, and there are certainly developments they can be pleased with. But in their hearts, I'm guessing they know that over the long term, Trump is dragging them down. And there's almost nothing they can do about it.