Trump's Legacy: Domestic Policy Achievement
The list is so long we can't recount it all, but he did largely Make America Great Again.
Before the Christmas break, we began work on a project to summarize President Donald Trump’s legacy. First, we noted his work to draw in more voters, especially black, Hispanic, and blue-collar workers, to the Republican tent. Then we praised his myriad achievements in foreign policy, from combatting terrorism to Middle East deals to taking on China. Coming into the new year, we were all set to tackle a third and final installment: his domestic policy work, which has largely been excellent and praiseworthy. He is one of the most consequential one-term presidents in U.S. history, and his myriad accomplishments indeed largely Make America Great Again.
Then the first two weeks of January happened, and this became a somewhat different story, with another likely to follow.
Sadly, it’s unlikely that much of President Trump’s agenda survives the next four years. He’s now been impeached twice and leaves under a cloud of division, including in his own party. His successor, Joe Biden, has pledged to undo everything he can.
In some ways, it seems that no matter how good his agenda has been, the greatest risk to Donald Trump’s legacy is and always has been Donald Trump. His Achilles heel cost him the election, got him impeached a second time, and eroded his legacy — or at least the perception of it — over the final two months on his way out of office. During that time, he has done a lot less governing than complaining and failing to prove his election-theft legal case, stirring up strife and bringing bipartisan condemnation on himself. When he was governing, it was throwing a monkey wrench in a bipartisan compromise to the advantage of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer before ultimately violating his 2018 promise to not sign anymore gargantuan and wasteful omnibus bills.
That leads us to argue that his greatest failure is government spending. Despite promising to eliminate the federal debt in eight years, Trump is leaving office having added an appalling $8 trillion (30%) to the national debt, almost as much as the $9 trillion Barack Obama added in two terms. He and a Republican Congress also failed to repeal ObamaCare. The Tea Party suddenly seems so very long ago.
Alas. Such is the complicated mess that is Trump’s legacy. Nevertheless, many of his domestic policies deserve praise, and we’ll do so here, though we can’t possibly do justice to a complete list.
Let’s start with the judiciary, which was the primary reason our own Mark Alexander gave for endorsing him in 2016. Together with the steadfast and courageous leadership of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and outsized input from good conservative organizations like The Federalist Society and The Heritage Foundation, Trump revitalized the judiciary with 220 constitutionalists, or roughly a quarter of the entire judiciary. This includes 53 circuit judges and three new justices on the Supreme Court — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. The one measure of this that was left incomplete is the 50 open district judgeships he left open. Nevertheless, we expect that this work to defend Rule of Law and uphold the Constitution will pay dividends long after Trump is gone.
Next, let’s consider the economy. When Trump took office in January 2017, there were fears of another recession because Obama’s “recovery” was just that swell. By the end of 2017, Trump and the GOP Congress cut taxes for most Americans — without a single Democrat vote. Contrary to the Left’s rhetoric fomenting class warfare and instituting tax policies based on envy, the White House says of the GOP legislation, “A typical family of four earning $75,000 received an income tax cut of more than $2,000 — slashing their tax bill in half.”
Trump largely carried through on his promise of deregulation over the course of his presidency. Regulation is a form of taxation, and removing onerous burdens from businesses helps produce more commerce, which in turn provides real benefits for American families. The Trump administration says it “eliminated 8 old regulations for every 1 new regulation adopted,” which then “provided the average American household an extra $3,100 every year.”
Cutting taxes and regulation removed major impediments and set the economy on a growth trajectory that saw tangible gains for millions. Incomes, wages, and net worth rose for American families across the board. The stock market regularly set new records, helping the retirement accounts of millions of Americans. Unemployment hit a 50-year low. Nearly seven million Americans no longer needed food stamps. In particular, those left behind by the Obama “recovery” were doing well, namely the aforementioned blacks, Hispanics, and blue-collar workers.
As presidential biographer Conrad Black noted, “His is the first government in any important jurisdiction where the lowest 20 percent of income-earners were progressing more quickly in percentage terms than the top 10 percent — the closest that the advanced world has come to dealing with the income-disparity problem.”
Remember that just before the election, 56% of Americans said they were “better off now” than four years ago.
Trump also orchestrated major trade deals like the USMCA, and he took on unfair Chinese trade practices, even if he did so with tariffs that didn’t make that a cost-free battle. He fought for American jobs with a vigor that his predecessors never did, arguing essentially that fair trade is better than free trade. America First, as he put it. American manufacturing and jobs returned from overseas in part because of this work, but also because our corporate income tax, once among the world’s most punitive, was reduced to compete once again for those jobs.
Energy independence was something American presidents had talked about for 50 years, all while achieving nothing to make it happen — and often obstructing it. In roughly two years, Trump changed all that. The U.S. is, for the first time in 70 years, a net exporter of energy, as well as being the world’s leading producer of oil and natural gas. This brings economic benefit to Americans up and down the supply line. It also yielded good things for national security, because we’re far less dependent on foreign nations — some of them hostile — for our economic lifeblood.
Trump was certainly exaggerating in his 2020 State of the Union Address when he said that “our economy is the best it has ever been,” but it most certainly was incredibly strong, due in large measure to his policy agenda.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic. The lockdowns in March and April created a veritable bloodbath of jobs lost and economic upheaval. Yet the epidemic of misery would have been far worse under the Obama economy because we wouldn’t have been hit while in a position of such strength.
Much of the stunted economic growth since May has been because many states, led by Democrats, have remained largely locked down. Low-income workers have been hit hardest by this ill-advised and ineffective strategy, though Democrats clearly managed to turn it into a political benefit by blaming the guy “in charge.”
The truth is the Trump administration’s response to COVID was laudable, including the travel restrictions for which he was falsely accused (again) of being racist. Particularly notable is the stunning success of Operation Warp Speed in bringing not one but two vaccines to market in record time. The lack of trust in that vaccine is the predictable result of deliberate division sowed by the Left and general distrust of government on the Right. But we expect time will prove the vaccine effective, and Trump deserves credit for that leadership.
He also deserves immense credit for not using COVID to justify trying to be the dictator leftists both feared and demanded he be.
Unfortunately, Trump’s daily rambling press conferences in the early days, and a concerted effort by the Left to demonize him, made the president the poster child for COVID misery. Thus he unfairly bore extensive and intense blame, yielding a large portion of the 81 million votes against him in November.
Trump’s support among evangelicals has been an enigma to many, but his defense of religious liberty amidst the cultural battles being waged against Christians goes a long way toward explaining it. He worked like no other president to protect religious liberty not just here but abroad. He stood for science on the transgender issue, which is the next great front in the Left’s assault on Christianity.
While Trump and the Republican Congress failed to defund Planned Parenthood — the nation’s biggest abortion mill receives $500 million in tax dollars annually — Trump did make progress around the margins by blocking some of its funding and restoring the Mexico City Policy, which prohibits funding for abortions abroad. He also became the first president to attend the annual March for Life.
Another cultural and political fad for which Trump bears mostly unjustified blame is the racial animosity ravishing the nation, particularly over the last eight months. We’ll grant that Trump is not a unifier, but much of the culpability for the division lies with Democrats. They and their allies in the mainstream media spent every day sowing division while blaming Trump. Too many Americans fell for those lies.
Trump’s actual record shows the lies for what they are. That’s true even of his immigration policies, which the Left falsely insists by definition are racist. When Trump came into office, the nation was beset by a porous border that allowed any and all comers to find permanent residence here, meaning Americans were competing against cheap labor for jobs and paying for lavish benefits for others.
Immigration policy should have nothing to do with race and everything to do with merit, law, and order. In the face of stiff resistance and a few defeats, Trump tried to achieve just that. The spectacle of separating families at the border was not his finest moment, but there are big caveats there too. It was the continuation of Obama policy, it often was separating children from trafficking adults who aren’t their parents, and it was overblown by the adversarial press. From doubling the 354 miles of border barrier to asylum rules to fighting human trafficking, he made significant progress, and we no longer routinely hear about an immigration crisis.
Trump also worked to achieve criminal justice reform, helping blacks and undoing much of the legacy of Joe Biden’s 1980s- and ‘90s-era crime legislation. That bipartisan achievement gets far too little play, because it undercuts the “Trump is a racist” narrative.
It shouldn’t go left unsaid that much of Trump’s success was brought about by surrounding himself with the right people. That didn’t always happen, of course, and many of his self-inflicted wounds were because of foolish spats with folks (formerly) in his employ who found themselves on the wrong side of his Twitter account. But in most cases, Trump’s people were good people.
It starts, of course, with Mike Pence. It’s outrageous that Trump put his loyal vice president in such a predicament early this month with the Electoral College spectacle, causing Trump’s most devoted supporters to turn on the VP as a “traitor” rather than acknowledge him as the unsung patriotic hero of the administration. For four years, Pence was a steady hand amid an often chaotic White House.
There was Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, of course, but Trump’s domestic policy was run by great people like Betsy DeVos at Education, Larry Kudlow on the economic team, and Ajit Pai at the Federal Communications Commission. And let’s not forget the stellar work done by William Barr at the Justice Department. We name far too few of the people at the forefront enacting Trump’s policies, but, contrary to media characterization, his team was patriotic, honest, and hardworking.
In sum, we haven’t by any means given a comprehensive narrative of all that President Donald Trump and his team accomplished in just four years. His work outshines many a two-term president, and we wish more Americans had been willing to let good and even great policy outweigh personality considerations. If they had done so, the Democrats’ nefarious election strategy would have failed. Even so, Republicans should find Trump’s record of achievement to be the inspiration for a winning policy agenda in future years.