Terrorist attacks are usually occasions for the United States to rally behind its allies, but President Donald Trump has his own way of doing things. In the morning after three men in a van ran over pedestrians and then went on a stabbing spree in London, leaving seven people dead (along with three accused terrorists, who were shot dead), Trump tweeted critically of London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who had advised the public, “Londoners will see an increased police presence today and over the course of the next few days. There’s no reason to be alarmed.” Trump took these words out of context:
Khan’s office responded with a statement saying the mayor “has more important things to do than respond to Donald Trump’s ill-informed tweet that deliberately takes out of context his remarks urging Londoners not to be alarmed when they saw more police — including armed officers — on the streets.”
Picking a fight with a mayor grappling with a terrorist attack seems like a singularly destructive thing for an American president to do, all the more so if it’s the mayor of the capital city of a longstanding and much valued ally. If Trump’s main goal is to smash America’s alliance with the United Kingdom, he couldn’t have cooked up a better response to the weekend’s terror. But this behavior is perfectly consistent with Trump’s wrecking-ball presidency, which has been all about smashing traditional alliances, government norms, and settled policies.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, recently said career federal employees have bemoaned Trump’s “destroy not build” approach. “They see their life’s work crumbling, because they see a president taking a sledgehammer to really complex aspects of policy,” Blumenthal told The Washington Post.
It’s easy to blame Trump’s approach on his toxic personality, but far more than one man’s predilections is at issue. Trump’s destructive presidency is enabled by the Republicans who control Congress. Over the last three decades, the GOP has increasingly abandoned any affirmative agenda in favor of a negative one: to tear down whatever it can. That’s why the president, contra Never Trump, is the fitting leader for the Republican Party.
Addressing workers from the North America’s Building Trades Unions in early April, Trump presented himself not in his usual persona of a dealmaker, but as a builder. “I’ve spent my life working side by side with American builders,” Trump said. “And now, you have a builder as your president. We are a nation of builders, and it was about time we had a builder in the White House, right? We have a builder.”
Trump’s harping on the word “builder” is a prime example of his rudimentary but effective populist rhetoric. He projects himself as a pragmatic leader who will deliver tangible outcomes to voters, not someone caught up in arcane ideological debates. It’s no accident that some of Trump’s key promises were tangible, physical structures: the border wall with Mexico, and a massive infrastructure bill to repair and to construct roads, bridges, airports, hospitals. Nor was the claim of being a builder president completely implausible. Prior to being president, Trump’s brand was very much tied to the imposing structures he made his name constructing (even if many of the structures gaudily bearing his name weren’t constructed by him at all).
But Trump hasn’t been a builder president. He’s been a demolition man. He is a leader who finds it easier to sabotage existing programs and alliances than to create new ones. Many of the positive achievements he campaigned on are log-jammed. The border wall remains a distant promise, not a near-term reality. Not only is Mexico not going to pay for it, but Trump hasn’t even been able to get Congress to cough up the necessary money. The grand infrastructure bill that Steve Bannon, chief ideologue of Trumpism, saw as central to creating a permanent political realignment is nowhere to be seen. (He’s expected to unveil his plan this week, one Democrats are almost certain to resist.) A version of healthcare reform passed the House of Representatives, but it was radically at odds with Trump’s campaign pledge that Americans wouldn’t lose coverage. Moreover, this version of Trumpcare is unlikely to pass in its current form, or indeed in any form, in the Senate. Trump’s attempts to impose a de facto version of his Muslim ban via executive order have been quashed by the courts. The one positive achievement Trump can point to is the successful confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, a staunch conservative in the mold of Antonin Scalia—but this is something Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio would’ve done if they had been the president, so it’s hardly a signature victory for Trump.
This is not to say that Trump’s first few months in power have been insignificant. Rather, they’ve been marked by what he has not done, and what he has damaged, rather than what he has created. His decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement is the latest in a string of acts that don’t build, but negate. Other examples include his abandoning of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and refusing to clearly say he stands by Article Five, the mutual defense clause of the NATO treaty, thereby engendering a crisis with the Western alliance. Meanwhile, Trump has found that he can effectively hamstring agencies simply by not filling positions. This includes, not only health and environmental agencies, but also the State Department and the Centers for Disease Control. Trump has also failed to put forward 442 nominees for the 559 key positions that require Senate confirmation. He himself claims that not filling these jobs is a deliberate strategy on his part. “A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint someone because they’re unnecessary to have,” Trump told Fox News in February. “In government, we have too many people.” Finally, Trump’s constant threats to sabotage Obamacare have been turning into an effective self-fulfilling prophesy, with insurers using uncertainty as an excuse to hike rates.
It’s not surprising that Trump’s biggest impact has been through negative action. There are practical reasons for going this route. It’s difficult to find any sort of consensus between Republican moderates and Tea Party types in the House of Representatives. There’s no GOP consensus in favor of either the border wall, infrastructure spending, or tax reform. As an insurgent candidate turned unexperienced politician, Trump has trouble recruiting like-minded people who share his outlook. Indeed, on certain issues Trump would run into roadblocks if he moved too decisively in any direction, leaving sabotage as his best option for achieving his ends. NATO membership is a prime example. If Trump tried to pull out of NATO or renegotiate the treaty, he’d meet with massive resistance not just from Congress but also his own national security advisor, H. R. McMaster, and Defense Secretary James Mattis. So instead of taking the direct approach, Trump achieves his isolationist goal indirectly by behaving like a buffoon around fellow NATO leaders, browbeating them to spend more on defense while pointedly not affirming Article Five. The upshot is a much weaker NATO and a more isolated America, which is what Trump wants in any case.
Business Insider columnist Josh Barro argues that pulling out of the Paris agreement is “performative isolationism,” a way for Trump to claim an accomplishment despite his halted agenda. “Trump hasn’t been able to retrench and realign the US in the ways he claims he wants to because the consequences would be too negative,” Barro wrote. “By contrast, withdrawing from the Paris agreement is little more than a middle finger to the rest of the world. An obscene gesture, but a gesture nonetheless.” There’s much truth to this, but it can be pushed farther. If Trump’s sabotage is “performative,” then whom is Trump performing for? The answer: his base. Beset by scandal, Trump knows he has to shore up support from his most ardent fans. It’s telling that many of these acts, from Paris withdrawal to Obamacare repeal, are aimed at gutting President Barack Obama’s legacy. Trump’s rapid ascent in the Republican Party was fueled by his ability to tap into the intense Obama-hatred of the GOP base, starting with his spreading of birther conspiracy theories.
The Paris decision is seen as a victory, and a return to White House influence, for chief strategist Steve Bannon, who had been in Trump’s doghouse for the last few weeks because the president was jealous of his rising fame. Trump clearly feels he still needs Bannon, who has a visceral feel for the GOP’s right-wing base. As a self-described Leninist who favors the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” Bannon is the perfect advisor for a president more intent on destroying than creating. His nationalist populism promises that working class citizens will be uplifted by a big-ticket New Deal style-project, but as a practical matter Bannon has always only been successful as a trickster figure, a Breitbartian clown who knows how to rile up and polarize politics in order to stonewall legislation (as Breitbart did with immigration reform).
The Republicans whom Trump is rallying include not just ordinary citizens, but many members of Congress. Again, the specter of scandal is likely animating Trump’s desire to stay in the good graces of the people who have the constitutional power to impeach him. As it happens, a negative agenda of undoing Obama’s legacy fits well with the Republican Party of House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But it’s hardly a new approach for the party. Since the early 1990s, when Newt Gingrich commandeered the GOP, the Republicans have essentially been the party of no: happier with rejectionism, gumming up the works, and threatening government shutdowns than with proposing actual policy, all in the name of reducing the size of government and limiting its reach.
Republican rejectionism became codified in the Obama years, with McConnell openly stating that his goal was to ensure that Obama would be a one-term president and have no legislative legacy. McConnell’s obstructionist agenda was intensified by the rise of the Tea Party in 2010. As Andy Karsner, who served as assistant secretary of energy for efficiency and renewable energy in the George W. Bush administration, told the Washington Post, “We are in an ugly era of people who do not understand what the legislative branch is even for.” He added that the Trump White House and its Republican counterparts in Congress “have no skill set, they have no craftsmanship. They have no connection to the time when people passed legislation.”
The one consolation for Democrats is that Trump, in so forthrightly adopting a negative approach to governing, is making the stakes of our politics absolutely clear to voters. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost by trying to distinguish Trump from allegedly more respectable Republicans like Ryan and McConnell. But in the 2018 midterms, and the presidential election in two years, Democrats must show the electorate that Trump’s sabotage-and-destroy agenda is also the Republican Party’s. The only party that truly wants to build a better America is the one that’s out of power.