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Trump’s Chaos Is Causing Lasting Damage

The terrifying impact of the president's permanent uncertainty.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The consolidation of Republican power in Washington was supposed to create huge dividends for every kind of interest group by eliminating legislative gridlock and brinkmanship and giving a single party power to set policy. By the same telling, this was supposed to be a particular boon for business owners (and, downstream, for workers), who would welcome a climate of lower taxes, laxer regulation, and greater certainty with new investment, and thus more jobs.

The concept of “certainty” was one Republicans in Congress wielded as a brickbat against President Obama for eight years only to abandon it when President Donald Trump, through a mix of incompetence and malevolence, turned uncertainty into a weapon.

In the realms of health, immigration, and foreign policy, Trump has managed to leave stakeholders on all sides of issues—consumers, providers, civilians, enforcers, diplomats, and entire countries—completely befuddled in ways that threaten to cause great harm. The question is whether people around Trump can convince him that the policy environment he has created needs to change, or, more ominously, whether he has convinced himself that chaos gives him the upper hand.

Trump is certainly capable of such delusion. Since Congress failed to pass Trumpcare, the president has threatened to use policy levers at his disposal to disintegrate the individual insurance markets, on the presumption that it will force Democrats in Congress to vote for a more systematic dismantling of the Affordable Care Act.

In reality, it would create a long and indefinite suffering for which, polling suggests, the public would hold him and Republicans accountable. We will find out soon whether Trump is serious or bluffing (or whether he simply needs someone to spend 10 minutes explaining reality to him). What’s notable about the whole mess is that the very Republicans in Congress who fancied themselves avatars of business certainty could strip Trump of his power to weaponize chaos in Obamacare, but have so far declined.

Trump’s threat is centered around payments the government makes to insurers that cover low-income individuals and families who can’t afford to pay deductibles and copays. During the Obama presidency, Republicans argued in court that the ACA does not authorize those payments, understanding that if the courts agreed, insurance markets in many states would fail and Democrats would bear the political consequences.

Thanks to the magical power of cynicism, Republicans’ unexpected consolidation of power in Washington has given them second thoughts about that argument, but the logic of their earlier position, and of their antipathy to the ACA, has inhibited them from doing anything to root the payments in firmer grounds. In other words, they have left the fate of the insurance markets in the hands of a president who has mistaken Democrats’ self-interest for his own.

Obamacare skeptics in the health insurance industry, and the Obamacare haters at the Chamber of Commerce, have joined the call for Trump to rescind his threat. Perhaps they will prevail on him to change course, but it is worth noting that even if he abandons this particular daredevil routine, Trump has given insurance companies a strong sense that his administration is conflicted about how to administer health policy, is not fully committed to the success of the markets—enough cause for alarm, in other words, to raise premiums or abandon the markets altogether.

The fact that there’s a fair amount of intention baked into the health care fiasco should alarm those concerned about Trump’s policy incoherence in other realms. Trump and his cabinet have empowered immigration enforcement officials to cast a wider net in apprehending and deporting immigrants, without making the kinds of clear adjustments to policy that would let immigrants, their families, and their employers (a mix of citizens and non-citizens) know where they stand.

The result has been a wave of stories about law-abiding immigrants with deep family and community roots in America getting kicked out of the country, casting a pall over immigrant communities everywhere. Here, the political drawbacks aren’t so obvious, but the suffering is just as real. Neither Trump nor Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems particularly alarmed by the prospect of millions of people being afraid to leave their homes. In a way, saddling them with unclear status is both politically easier than setting clear enforcement priorities, and the best way to place everyone without U.S. papers on notice that they can’t feel completely secure here. If you prioritize that over “policy certainty,” then chaos might be the optimal strategy.

Perhaps even more alarmingly, though, the Trump administration has allowed this same kind of incoherence to bleed into the foreign policy realm, where Trump has also touted the merits of being mercurial. Not having any clear sense of the country’s international priorities or a clear presidential worldview to use as a north star is a practical nightmare for foreign service officers and others engaged in the day-to-day work of holding alliances together, warding off crises, and making sure that other nations are clear about U.S. intentions.

But it’s also a great way to get us into a war. It is, for instance, why intelligence officials might believe the U.S. is considering a preemptive strike against North Korea, while defense officials counter that even airing such a suggestion is insane.

The lasting backlash to Trump’s presidency is in some sense a product of this pattern, which began with the Muslim ban and now threatens to shut down the government. It is why simmering concerns on the left that the intensity of the Trump opposition will fade are likely overblown. Just as businesses vote for “certainty” with lobbying dollars, the people threatened by Trumpian chaos will not be easily lulled into complacency. The problem—the one that underlies every reason that electing Trump was a world historical error—is that four years is a very long time. Trump is very likely to serve only one term, if American democracy can survive it.