Making America Meh Again

Donald Trump’s first month has produced a big bowl of nothing.

US President Donald Trump speaks following a tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, February 21, 2017.
President Donald Trump speaks following a tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on Tuesday and Washington.

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Looking forward from Donald Trump’s inauguration last month, both allies and opponents expected a sprint of action from the president and an emboldened Republican Party. All the parts were there: GOP majorities in both chambers of Congress, an ambitious House Speaker in the form of Paul Ryan, and an energized conservative movement eager to undo the Obama presidency. It was just a matter of time before Trump would make his mark on American governance.

We’re now one month into the Trump administration. His advisers and surrogates say he’s been exactly as promised: “A man of action and impact” who has upturned the status quo. And he has made a splash, of sorts, with a series of aggressive (and poorly conceived) executive orders that aim state power at Muslims, refugees, and immigrants. The most infamous of the orders, the travel ban, sparked mass resistance from opponents of Trump, across politics and civil society, immediately embroiling the White House in scandal and controversy. To that, add the firestorm over now-former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned his position following revelations that he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about post-election conversations with Russian officials.

But as much as this has all been troubling, it’s also true that—in terms of actual accomplishments—we have seen far more talk from the Trump White House than progress. Or put bluntly, for all the props and photo ops, President Trump hasn’t done much. The federal government is still understaffed, Congress is still struggling to craft its agenda, and the White House spends more time on damage control than it does on basic governance. Within one month of his 2009 inauguration, Barack Obama had moved an $800 billion stimulus package through Congress. By contrast, if you voted for Trump to do something then—one month into his term—you should be disappointed.

There’s no doubt President Trump wants to project the image of a hard-working deal-maker restoring the United States to lost greatness. “We have made incredible progress,” declared Trump last week during an impromptu news conference. “I don’t think there’s ever been a president elected who in this short period of time has done what we’ve done.” After bragging about (selectively chosen) poll numbers, Trump elaborated on these accomplishments. “The stock market has hit record numbers, as you know. And there has been a tremendous surge of optimism in the business world,” he said. “Plants and factories are already starting to move back into the United States, and big league—Ford, General Motors, so many of them.”

Little of this has to do with the president or his administration. Both job and stock-market growth have been on upward trajectories for the last year, and manufacturing decisions from automakers and other firms reflect long-standing plans. Trump is taking credit for events and trends that precede him and his election. When we set his examples aside, it’s ludicrous to say that Trump has had an especially productive month in office. In raw numbers, according to an analysis from the Washington Post, Trump has spent less than half of his first month in office on official business.

Yes, he’s issued executive orders. But with one important exception, those have meant little for actual policymaking. The order authorizing his much-promised “wall” with Mexico, for instance, mandates nothing that wasn’t already accomplished by the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which authorized construction of fencing and fortifications across the southern border. If Trump wants a full-on wall, he’ll need billions in congressional funding, which isn’t on the table, thus far.

His orders on deregulation, likewise, sound expansive—during that signing, Trump said that under the directive “if there’s a new regulation, they have to knock out two”—but come with few details. And the language of the order excludes whole categories of regulations, including those concerning “a military, national security, or foreign affairs function of the United States” as well as regulations related to management and personnel. Depending on implementation, or lack thereof, there’s a decent chance that this order will have little net effect on how the government conducts its business.

Trump has issued orders on crime control, fighting ISIS, health care, and rebuilding the military—each with fanfare, speeches, and signing ceremonies. But strip away the pageantry and there’s little more than signaling. Trump, in a real sense, hasn’t done anything.

The major exception is on immigration and refugees. There, the administration has made far-reaching and dramatic steps to expand enforcement and keep Muslim immigrants, and refugees, from entering the country. Not only has Trump taken steps to hire thousands more border and immigration agents, but the Department of Homeland Security has issued memos to senior officials giving guidance on how to interpret the president’s executive orders on immigration, directing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to treat most unauthorized immigrants as “priorities” for deportation regardless of criminal record. As Dara Lind notes for Vox, “They instruct ICE to work aggressively deputize local law enforcement agents to arrest unauthorized immigrants. And they make it much easier to deport children who come to the US alone to reunite with their parents — and the parents they’re reuniting with.” They expand the already-growing crackdown on immigration, fulfilling Trump’s campaign promise to direct state violence against largely Hispanic unauthorized immigrants and their communities.

Even then, large parts of this agenda are caught up in the courts as legal groups and state attorneys general challenge the administration on its travel ban and other measures. Where Trump has taken real action, it’s been compromised. And this is before we get to questions of federal staffing. Hundreds of Senate-confirmable positions await nominees, including deputies for key agencies like the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. The White House has yet to propose plans for tax reform, infrastructure, or Obamacare’s repeal, and congressional Republicans are mired in infighting over the latter as the political and economic challenges of repeal become apparent.

During the campaign, Donald Trump promised to make “every dream come true” for his supporters. He pledged to restore factories and jobs, to lift the country into an ill-defined (but racially exclusive) “greatness.” But so far, he’s done little but provoke mass opposition to his agenda and deep skepticism—even hostility—from the press, to say nothing of continued scrutiny over his business entanglements and the growing questions around his ties to Russia. There’s no question that the Trump administration has an expansive vision: that it wants to remake the United States in its image. And there’s no doubt that it will deal heavy blows to existing norms and institutions. But if there’s hope for opponents, it’s that all of this is clearly tempered by dysfunction and simple, almost anodyne, incompetence.