The Trump administration is “substantially ahead of schedule” in implementing its agenda, Donald Trump claimed a few days ago. As with all of Trump’s bombastic claims, it is worth treating this bit of braggadocio with a healthy dose of skepticism. Compared with the outsize promises he made on the campaign trail, his administration has achieved remarkably little. Obamacare has not been repealed, and taxes have not been slashed. Immigrants continue to flock to America, and Mexico has not agreed to pay for his wall. And yet, I fear that there is much more truth to Trump’s claim than the gleefully mocking responses to it would suggest.
Just take the past week: In the span of a few days, Trump has dealt a major blow to Obamacare by cutting government subsidies to insurance companies. He has gone further in attacking the media than ever before. He has rolled back key restrictions on coal plants. He has imperiled NAFTA. He has begun to unravel the Iran deal. And he has taken the United States out of UNESCO.
Since the day Trump got elected, there have basically been two big questions about the degree to which he would transform the country: Would he become more moderate as he grew into the immense responsibilities of his office? Or, insofar as he did pursue a radical agenda, would he prove capable of overcoming the resistance of the opposition and the inertia of the government bureaucracy?
The answer to the first question is as clear-cut as it could possibly be. In the wake of a couple of weeks in which Trump repeatedly threatened to revoke NBC’s broadcasting license, stepped up his race-baiting attacks on the country’s top black athletes, and dissed the erratic leader of a hostile nuclear power, nobody can seriously suggest that Trump has become more moderate on the job.
The answer to the second question, though, is a bit more complicated. It has become obvious, even to Trump, that the limits on his power are real, at least for now. Courts have substantially weakened his travel ban. Congress has voted down some of his most important legislation. To pursue his agenda, Trump increasingly has to rely on executive orders and independent agencies like the Federal Communications Commission or the Environmental Protection Agency. And yet, the hope that Trump would effectively be stopped from doing much of anything is just as much of a fantasy as the outsize expectations of his biggest fans.
Across a whole range of issues, we are increasingly seeing a real give and take between an administration hellbent on enacting radical change and a system cautiously trying to push back. For now, the result is that neither side can claim a clean victory. Some of Trump’s ambitions have undoubtedly been frustrated. And yet, he is, on the whole, succeeding in dismantling key parts of Obama’s legacy.
Then there is the worrying fact that Trump is, day in, day out, weakening democratic norms to an extent even I would have found unimaginable a year ago. It would be tempting to ignore his Twitter ravings as inconsequential if they didn’t have the power to change the opinion of millions of Americans. The latest sign of the damage his extreme statements can do comes in the form of a poll about, of all things, football. About 2 in 3 Trump supporters used to have a positive impression of the NFL. As soon as Trump started to step up his attacks on team owners, the league’s approval ratings plummeted. Today, less than 1 in 3 Trump supporters have a somewhat or very favorable view of the NFL.
This poll scared me more than just about any other I have seen in the past months. If Trump can turn his base against the NFL, then what can’t he get them to do? And if he can get his base to go along with just about anything he does, how can we be so sure that he won’t take more and more radical steps to overcome opposition to his agenda?
About a year into the rule of authoritarian populists like Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Viktor Orbán, a lot of very well-informed observers laughed off suggestions that they might do real damage to the democratic system in their respective countries. Putin, a lot of Russia scholars argued at the time, should be understood as a technocratic modernizer from the comparatively liberal city of St. Petersburg. Erdogan, a lot of Turkey scholars kept insisting, was on the way to reconciling Islam and democracy by following the path blazed by Christian Democrats in countries like Germany and Italy. Orbán, a lot of Hungary scholars believed, was a moderate conservative whose tough talk was belied by his Oxford education and his past as a liberal politician.
As it turns out, all of these experts were wildly, disastrously wrong. Today, Russia and Turkey are dictatorships with a thin electoral veneer. Hungary is well on its way toward joining their autocratic ranks.
The obvious point here is that humans have a tendency to dismiss the possibility of radical change. Even people who are horrified by Trump’s actions and policies ultimately think of themselves as this thriller’s embattled heroes. There may be a few close calls along the way, but in the end we are sure to triumph. History cannot possibly belong to the likes of Donald Trump. But this is a mistake: As the examples of Russia, Turkey, and Hungary show, it very much can.
The less obvious and even more important point here is that it takes time to implement radical changes. If we judge Trump’s progress by the absurd standards he himself set out on the campaign trail—like “immediately repealing and replacing the disaster known as Obamacare”—he is undoubtedly falling behind. But if we judge him by a more objective standard, it becomes clear that he has indeed succeeded in making some very significant changes in his first 10 months in office.
It is perfectly possible that Trump’s attacks on the media, his gradual undermining of Obamacare, his opposition to the Iran deal, and his attempt to dismantle NAFTA will ultimately falter—making the past week look like the desperate flailing of a hapless president. But it is also possible that these are steps toward the implementation of a truly radical agenda—which will see this White House curb international trade, ratchet up conflict with Iran, take away health care from millions of Americans, and diminish our freedom of speech.