Donald Trump Agonistes

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When in the course of the 2016 Republican primary debates, Donald Trump was asked his plans for the US nuclear triad, he initially hesitated and looked bewildered, before adding that he would hire the best and the brightest to advise him. It was obvious he hadn’t a clue what the “nuclear triad” was.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) jumped into the breach. He immediately grabbed the spotlight and lectured the real estate developer on the fundamentals of our nuclear deterrent, making Trump look the fool.

It was at that point I decided that electing such an ignorant bozo to the presidency would be disastrous for the country. Did we really want his finger on the “red button,” when he didn’t know how that red button worked?

Notwithstanding, Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for president, and went on to win the general election against Hilary Clinton — probably the worst, most corrupt, power-hungry, arrogant, and self-entitled candidate the Democrats could have chosen — in a surprise, last-minute, upset victory.

Did we really want Trump’s finger on the “red button,” when he didn’t know how that red button worked?

After four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, we see that his shortcomings are both legion and well-documented, while the list of his purported successes is usually exaggerated, either not fully attributable to him or tinged with ideological bias. Yet the following is a list of achievements that can generally be classified as bipartisan (no “build the wall hoopla”), yet due squarely to Mr. Trump. Even so, they must be assessed through a lens of libertarian values.

A president’s primary duty is to the security of the country: the protection of life, liberty, and property, so I’ll begin with:

War:

  1. Defense. Trump created the Space Force, the sixth branch of the armed forces. By this move — although increasing the bureaucracy (not a libertarian value) — he lightened the defense load of the Navy, Army, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard, thereby making the armed forces more efficient and therefore effective — definitely a libertarian value.
  2. Budget. Under the Trump administration, the US defense budget has increased for the fifth consecutive year, exceeding the rate of inflation. Yes, increased government spending and increased government debt — but defense is a proper function of government.
  3. NATO. Trump has questioned the raison d’être of NATO, an organization established over 70 years ago to protect its members from Soviet aggression. Since the Soviet Union fell apart 30 years ago, the alliance is due for a rethink. Under Trump’s prodding, the allies have been stumping up more of their promised contributions by spending $69 billion more on defense — as they had previously agreed — since 2016. In line with Trump’s America First focus, he additionally is encouraging a stronger European self-defense stance — better for both the US and Europe.
  4. Terrorism. In January 2020, Trump ordered the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, its chief global terrorist organization. Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks have decreased considerably, worldwide. Although political assassinations, even in wartime, are frowned upon, Soleimani was a military figure actively attacking United States interests.
  5. ISIS? Right, haven’t heard from them in ages.

Peace:

  1. North Korea. Through personal summitry and diplomacy, tensions between North Korea and the US have declined to a footnote. No more missile warnings in Hawaii. Trump has been criticized for failing to sign a peace treaty with North Korea, befriending the despot Kim Jong Un, and engaging in personal diplomacy. No libertarian would quibble with the process given the results.

But the truly amazing thing about this accomplishment is that it was achieved at no cost — the United States conceded nothing, paid nothing, lifted no sanctions — which, compared to all the carrots previous administrations offered and gave to North Korea but received nothing in return, makes Donald Trump the absolute master of the art of the deal.

  1. Middle East

    I. Trump established a framework for Taliban-Afghanistan government peace negotiations, while reducing US troop levels.

    II. Trump achieved a peace treaty between Bahrain and Israel.

    III. Ditto between the UAE and Israel.

    IV. Also, mutual recognition between previously, technically at-war Sudan and Israel.

    V. And a reduction of US forces in Syria without imperiling the Kurds, as originally predicted.

  1. Other Muslims

    I. Trump midwifed an agreement between Kosovo and Serbia to normalize economic relations.

    II. Ditto between Kosovo and Israel.

The seven peace initiatives that I have just mentioned have been variously criticized as unfair arm twisting, cynically motivated, and achieved by bypassing the State Department’s established bureaucracy and protocols. Really? No libertarian would object to these peace initiatives, whatever the motivations or institutional processes. But any one of them would qualify Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize — especially when compared with Obama’s “preemptive” Nobel. (Obama retorted, “For what?”, but he took the award.)

  1. Obama’s Red Lines. During his presidency he unilaterally declared two ill-advised, so-called “red lines,” ultimatums which if transgressed would invoke a swift and terrible response from the US. One was aimed at Syria, the other at China.

The Syrian red line was a response to President Assad’s use of chemical weapons against rebels, in violation of international law. When Obama failed to follow up on his threat, the US lost respect and credibility in the international community. Russia immediately increased its presence in Syria and, jointly with Assad, perpetrated untold atrocities in the city of Aleppo, resulting in over 30,000 deaths according to some estimates.

The Chinese red line was a declaration by Obama promising to defend freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The Chinese violated the South China Sea’s international status by harassing boats and colonizing islands and atolls. Obama did nothing to back up his red line. Again, the US lost respect and credibility.

No libertarian would object to these peace initiatives, whatever the motivations or institutional processes.

As president, Donald Trump enforced both of Obama’s — now America’s — red lines. When Assad again resorted to using chemical weapons on his own people, Trump lobbed a missile at him. In the South China Sea, Trump has aggressively defended rights of navigation. Additionally, he has reinvigorated the Quad, a regional — America, Australia, Japan, and India — military co-ordination arrangement organized to meet potential Chinese aggression.

Both actions restored America’s credibility on the world stage, reducing international tensions. According to Bilahari Kausikan, Singapore’s top diplomat, when Trump told China’s President Xi that he’d just bombed Syria over its use of chemical weapons, he did much to restore the credibility in Asia of American power.

Whatever the libertarian merits (or lack thereof) of both red lines — and those merits are debatable — as matters of international law, Obama was, first of all, wrong in unilaterally declaring them; and secondly, ten times wrong in not enforcing them.

  1. Taiwan. In response to Chinese threats and intimidation against Taiwan, Trump has reasserted America’s commitment to the island’s defense by holding high-level talks with Taiwanese officials and providing defensive military kit.

Whether the United States ought to guarantee Taiwan’s security is, again, a debatable libertarian point, especially considering libertarians’ bedrock non-interventionist foreign policy. But today’s reality is that we have long been committed to this, and doing an Obama red line redux at this time would be counterproductive.

Human Rights

Although not as lecturing and moralistic as some previous administrations — and generally loath to interfere in other nations’ internal affairs — the Trump administration has taken some notable steps in defense of human rights . . . perhaps even walking the fine line between libertarians’ disdain for an interventionist foreign policy and their reverence for rights.

  1. Xingjian. President Trump came out strongly condemning China’s Uighur gulag. In May, 2020, Congress voted 413-1 to impose economic sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the mass surveillance and detention of Uighurs. The president ordered the US State Department to urge EU member states and several Asian countries to be more vocal in attacking Beijing over its Uighur policies.
  2. Hong Kong. In May 2020, in response to China’s imposition of draconian security laws on Hong Kong, Trump declared, “This is a tragedy for Hong Kong . . . . China has smothered Hong Kong’s freedom.” Forthwith, the US would revoke the preferential financial and trade agreements with the ex-British colony. Following this declaration, Congress passed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, requiring mandatory sanctions — including visa restrictions — against foreign banks and individuals, over the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.
  3. Russia. As of March 2020, the United States had imposed additional sanctions on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine, election interference, other malicious cyber activities, human rights abuses, use of a chemical weapon, weapons proliferation, illicit trade with North Korea, and support to Syria and Venezuela.
  4. Venezuela. The Trump administration recognized Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela, as per that country’s constitution, after Nicolás Maduro’s rigged election. On March, 2020, the US Justice Department indicted Maduro on drug trafficking charges and placed a $15 million bounty on him for information leading to his arrest and conviction.
  5. Cuba. After threatening to reverse Obama’s Cuba policy, Trump and Vice President Pence met with representatives of the Cuban exile community in Florida for their thoughts. One group he met with was the Brigada de Asalto 2506, the veterans of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. The meeting was scheduled for a half-hour exchange of ideas. While most had not been Trump supporters, they found the president and vice president good listeners. According to my cousin, Carlos “Cachorro” León, a Brigade veteran and interim president of the organization, the meeting lasted four hours, after which Trump decided to leave nearly the entire Obama policy in place.

The one change Trump made was to prohibit American visitors to Cuba from spending their money in government venues — hotels and restaurants — whose income supported the repressive organs of the regime. He advocated that US visitors lodge and eat at private establishments in order to support private enterprise on the island.

  1. Trade. The Trump administration imposed tariffs on China in response to China’s forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft, and chronically abusive trade practices. Phase One of the Economic and Trade Agreement between the US and China, signed on January 15, 2020, addresses protection and enforcement of US intellectual Property rights in China. The entire first two chapters of the Agreement are dedicated to IP protection and enforcement and address numerous areas of IP, including trade secrets, pharmaceutical related IP, patents, piracy and counterfeiting, trademarks, technology transfer, and other, related topics — matters of rights that are fundamentally important to libertarians (National Law Review, November 24, 2020).

Although strong free trade advocates, libertarians generally draw the line at items produced by slave labor. Libertarians also frown on industries that benefit from government subsidies, such as tariffs. Tariffs increase the price of a good to the consumer, thereby incentivizing that consumer to seek an alternative product, which in turn hurts the industry of the producing country. Tariffs are suspect whether high or low. A low tariff hurts the consumer quite uselessly: it doesn’t increase the price of an object enough to discourage its purchase; it just increases the price. In effect, it’s a tax that benefits the government imposing it. But a high tariff can discourage the purchase of an item, reduce the imposing government’s take, and hurt the producer through lower sales.

To a libertarian, politics is about policy, not skin color, religion, gender, body mass index, or hand size.

To libertarians, Trump’s tariff policy is misguided in another sense as well: its attempt to reduce America’s trade deficit with China. Most libertarians, and most libertarian economists, regard the concept of “trade deficits” as misleading at best.

  1. Gays. President Trump is the first president to appoint an openly gay ambassador (to Germany), Richard Grenell, as well as the first openly gay cabinet member, also Grenell, in his capacity as chief of US Intelligence.

Libertarians don’t give a cumin seed’s concern for sexual orientation. Some even perceive mentioning it, even in a favorable context, as divisive. Nonetheless, given the Trumpster’s perceived bigotry, I feel it worth mentioning.

Domestic Policy

  1. The VA. The Trump administration endeavored to reform the Veteran’s Administration healthcare system after the scandals that racked it during the Obama administration. The reforms were passed as at least three separate bills.

I. On June 23, 2017, Trump signed a bill that that gives the leadership at the Department of Veterans Affairs more power to fire failed employees and protect those who uncover wrongdoing at the agency.

II. In January 2019, he signed a bill which provides for the following, among other reforms:

  • No more punishing GI Bill students for the VA’s mistakes
  • VA must fix incorrect payments
  • Local help for transitioning service members
  • Employment benefits for more reservists
  • Better access to jobs programs for homeless veterans
  • Enhanced burial rights

III. Finally, the Mission Act, passed in June 2020, provides healthcare choices for vets — a voucher system — and competition to the heretofore corrupt VA system.

Libertarians might argue about the extent of benefits conferred on veterans. As to the voucher system, libertarians love choice.

  1. Medicare. The Trump administration reformed the Medicare program to stop hospitals from overcharging low-income patients for their drugs. In general, libertarians would prefer a free market approach to healthcare . . . to avoid the corruption that necessitated this reform.
  2. Black Colleges. Trump provided a financial lifeline to the historically black colleges.

In December 2019, he signed a bipartisan bill that will permanently provide more than $250 million a year to the nation’s historically black colleges and universities, along with dozens of other institutions that serve large shares of minority students.

Hmmm . . . Nice move, and it certainly counters the Left’s perception of Trump as a racist. However, libertarians decry government subsidies in any form, especially when they buttress race-based identity politics. To a libertarian, politics is about policy, not skin color, religion, gender, body mass index, or hand size.

  1. Criminal Justice. In 2018, Trump signed the groundbreaking First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill that makes our justice system fairer and helps former inmates return to society. More than 90% of those benefitting from the retroactive sentencing reductions in the First Step Act are African Americans. The First Step Act addressed inequities in sentencing laws that disproportionately affected African Americans and reformed mandatory minimums that created unfair outcomes.
  2. The Economy. Although the US economic recovery began under President Obama, it exploded under Donald Trump, mainly because of two of his policies: tax reforms and tax cuts, along with a record number of regulations eliminated. These produced the lowest unemployment figures in 49 years, including the lowest rate ever recorded for African American and Hispanic American unemployment.

Both tax and regulation reductions are music to libertarian ears.

  1. Covid-19. The Trump administration has been criticized by many for its response to various specifics of the corona virus epidemic, but its response, compared with an average of other countries, has been, well . . . average. However, on two fronts it has outperformed nearly all countries.
  2. The Economic Recovery. The Trump administration’s middle-of-the-road response is partially a function of our federal structure, which allots a great deal of power to the individual states. But one thing is certain: putting aside questionable economic statistics from China, the US has outperformed every other country in its recovery from the epidemic’s economic contraction. We have the word of The Economist on that.

Libertarians abhor mandates; much preferring that health and safety precautions be left to individual responsibility. Those concerned about contagion can take precautions such as staying home, wearing masks, avoiding gatherings, and taking whatever other steps they deem necessary. According to Rusty Baillie, a Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, libertarian (and sometime coauthor with this author), when Idaho’s governor issued a statewide mask mandate, the county sheriffs refused to enforce it, stating that there was no law justifying it. Instead, private establishments chose to enforce mask requirements (or not) for those patronizing their businesses.

I. Operation Warp Speed. Operation Warp Speed, which incorporates much of the reduction in red tape mentioned previously under The Economy, is a Trump initiative to produce and deliver 300 million doses of safe and effective vaccines, with the initial doses available by January 2021, as part of a broader strategy to accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. In fact — as of this writing — the vaccine looks to be available by December, 2020. The development of a novel antiviral vaccine that is 95% effective in nine months is unprecedented.

II. Obamacare. The Individual Mandate, more formally known in neo-Orwellian terms as the Individual Shared Responsibility Provision of the Affordable Care Act, was passed by Congress in 2010. (Why neo-Orwellian? Because the term perverts the meaning of “responsibility.” Responsibility is a virtue that can only be exercised through free choice. When compliance is mandatory, it is not a virtue; it is obedience.)

The Individual Mandate was designed as a penalty to individuals who lacked health insurance. As a fine, it was contested in the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in the 2012 case of National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius.

Responsibility is a virtue that can only be exercised through free choice. When compliance is mandatory, it is not a virtue; it is obedience.

The 5 to 4 ruling turned on Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion, which upheld the constitutionality of the mandate by changing its original meaning from a “fine” to a “tax,” thereby putting it within Congress’ taxing powers. But under the Trump administration, Congress eliminated the mandate (2017, effective 2019).

Libertarians oppose being forced to buy insurance, much less being fined for the omission. They believe that individuals, not the government, are responsible for their health.

  1. The Judiciary. In spite of being accused of lacking principles or adhering to any philosophical tradition, Donald Trump’s judicial philosophy is squarely originalist, a philosophy that focuses on the text of the Constitution, the intentions of the Founding Fathers, and the wording of legislation. This can be inferred from his judicial appointments, nearly 90% of whom are members of the Federalist Society, which argues for and promotes originalist judicial interpretations. Originalists argue that new legislation, rather than new interpretations of the constitution, is the best way to bring about social change.

Trump’s judicial appointments — about 218 so far, and nearly a quarter of all federal judges (Obama appointed 312 — over one-third) — have been chosen by reason of their originalist views. Originalism is not the same as political conservatism, though many originalist judges tilt that way. Most insist on — or give lip service to — keeping the two philosophies separate. Many, but not all, succeed.

Justice Samuel Alito, in his dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges, a decision that legalized gay marriage, opined that, “The constitution says nothing about a right to same-sex marriage.” Yet the Constitution says nothing about marriage. The decision was properly based on the due process clause and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Libertarians, whether left- or right-leaning (yes, there are left libertarians, Murray Rothbard to the fore), agree on originalist judicial interpretations . . . mostly because the territory outside of this philosophy is too subjective, and therefore subject to arbitrary tyranny.

  1. The Environment. The Trump administration’s environmental record has been misrepresented:

I. CO2 Emissions. In spite of Trump’s withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Accord, under his administration US emissions fell by 3%, slightly more than what the Paris accord demanded according to the terms President Obama had agreed to. According to the US Energy Information Administration, US CO2 emissions in 2019 were the lowest they have been since 1992. Per capita emissions were lower in 2019 than they’ve been at any time since at least 1950. (The US reductions were the largest in the world in absolute terms rather than as a percentage change.)

Counterintuitively, the reductions were a result of America’s free markets (including Trump’s attempt to “free” coal). Coal use for primary energy production went down 3%, despite the president’s talk of reviving the industry, while renewables rose 11%. Kevin Kennedy, of the World Resources Institute, said that the emissions reductions were not a result of US government policy but of coal becoming “increasingly uneconomic” compared to gas and renewables.

Trump’s rationale for exiting the Paris Climate Accord wasn’t because he denied the science behind climate change, but rather that he thought the terms of the compact were unfair to the United States. Nonetheless, Trump has no federal plan for CO2 emissions reductions, leaving much of the policy work to the states and private initiative.

Libertarians have a variety of views on climate change, mostly focusing not on the science (apart from questioning flawed models), but on the proper role of government to mitigate it, if in fact it is a danger to life and property. Almost all would strongly prefer individual and corporate efforts to mitigate it and adapt to it — as humankind has adapted to past episodes of climate change.

II. Endangered Species Act. In August 2019, the Interior and Commerce Departments announced new rules concerning implementation of the Endangered Species Act. The changes were scathingly criticized by nearly every left-leaning conservationist group in the US:

  • “Trump Plan Guts Endangered Species Act” (Sierra Club)
  • “U.S. Significantly Weakens Endangered Species Act” (New York Times)
  • “Endangered Species Act — Now Under Political Attack” (earthjustice.org)
  • “Endangered Species Act Stripped of Key Provisions” (Washington Post)
  • Et al.

Yet, according to The Hill, the Trump administration has recovered more species from the endangered and threatened species list than any previous administration in its first term. Why the discrepancy?

In the past, interpretation and enforcement of the Endangered Species Act has caused many problems in its implementation, often to the detriment of the animals it purports to protect. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has automatically given species with the less urgent designation of “threatened” the same protections as those considered “endangered.” Ditto the “habitat” and “critical habitat” designations.

The new changes were driven by the recent Supreme Court ruling in Weyerhaeuser v. Fish and Wildlife Service and bring the USFWS (Interior) in line with the National Marine Fisheries Service (Commerce), which has never had the same so-called “blanket rule.” Treating “threatened” and “endangered” in the same manner was never the intent of the original legislation.

As for “habitat” and “critical habitat,” the court ruled that an area must first be “habitat” before it can be considered in the narrower category of “critical habitat” as defined in the act. (Amazing, eh?)

Previous Endangered Species Act regulations, although well intended, had the unfortunate result of making rare species a liability for the private landowners on whom recovery depends.

Critical habitat designations on private lands can penalize landowners, discouraging them from participating in conservation or recovery of listed species, and can discourage property owners from maintaining or restoring habitat for listed species. The punitive regulatory approach benefits neither landowners nor imperiled species, many of which depend on private lands for habitat and rely on human intervention for conservation and recovery. Defining habitat can help avoid future conflicts with landowners and make imperiled species and their habitat less of a liability for private citizens.

While few listed species have gone extinct, less than 3% have recovered. Indeed, when the Fish and Wildlife Service last reported to Congress on the progress of listed species, it found that significantly more species were declining than improving. (This information comes mostly from PERC, the libertarian Property and Environment Research Center. The reason is simple: previous Endangered Species Act regulations, although well intended, had the unfortunate result of making rare species a liability for the private landowners on whom recovery depends. A species’ presence can reduce land values and significantly restrict use, incentivizing landowners to ensure that no endangered species are present, or their property is designated critical habitat.

Clarifying when areas will be designated as “critical habitat” under the Endangered Species Act can reduce conflict and build landowner goodwill for conserving and recovering many listed species. Ultimately, the decision to include or exclude areas in critical habitat designations should be guided by one factor above all others: the effect of the designation on landowners’ incentives to conserve and restore habitat.

Adherence to originalism, a libertarian value, is, in this case, a win-win for species preservation and private property rights.

III. Wildlife Management. Under the Trump administration, US Fish and Wildlife Service is increasing cooperation with affected parties. For example, the growing wolf population owes much to the fact that state and federal officials, tribes, conservationists, and landowners worked together to address landowners’ concerns and thereby mitigate the perverse incentives that have frustrated the recovery of other species.

Additionally, the federal government is relying less on a one-size-fits-all approach to regulations and delegating more responsibility to state agencies that have a better understanding of local conditions.

Libertarians are advocates of organic, or ground-up, work, as opposed to top-down, dirigiste, one-size-fits-all mandates. So in this case, delegating wildlife management to local outfits is a step forward.

* * *

As of this writing, Donald Trump is still president. He hasn’t conceded, even though the transition has begun. Election lawsuits abound and the Electoral College hasn’t certified a winner. But what is most surprising is the whiff of nostalgia for the orange man that is just barely surfacing — surprising, because this country hasn’t been this polarized since the Civil War.

A recent issue of The Economist — a virulent Trump hater — surveyed the foreign policy challenges of the incoming Biden administration. Aside from Trump’s balance of trade tariffs, it reluctantly acknowledged the realpolitik of Trump’s China policy and defense policies, urging Biden to build on these while tempering the diatribes and soothing the dialogue.

What is most surprising is the whiff of nostalgia for the orange man that is just barely surfacing.

But the kicker was the magazine’s warning to Biden concerning North Korea. Kim Jong Un will test America’s new president. How and when, and whether the new administration will have the testicular (or ovarian, as the case may be) fortitude to pass the test, is a concern. Trump was a firm believer in the Sun Tzu admonition to “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,” even though he wasn’t particularly good at the first part.

And then, on November 25, The Hill, one of the few “objective” news sources left, led with this headline: “Prepare for Buyers’ Remorse when Biden/Harris Nationalize Health Care.” By nationalization they mean the transfer of a major branch of industry or commerce from private ownership to federal control.

We live in interesting times.

One Comment

  1. Geezer

    I. All the opinions (majority and four dissents) in Obergefell v. Hodges can be found here:
    https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/14-556_3204.pdf

    As Clarence Thomas reiterated several times in his dissent:
    “Since well before 1787, liberty has been understood as freedom from government action, not entitlement to government benefits.”

    II. The “2” in “CO2” should be a subscript, not a superscript.

    III. I miss the “Preview” button.

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