Liberals have an unbecoming habit of dismissing Republican presidents as too dim-witted and disengaged to occupy the Oval Office. Democratic voters like to believe their politicians are brighter, more truthful, simply more prepared to lead—and Donald Trump is hardly the first right-winger to snatch power while defining himself against this smarter-than-thou liberalism.
George W. Bush was mocked as a frat boy who basically inherited the White House thanks to his family connections—and then his administration invented the permanent war and gave away so many hundreds of billions of dollars in tax revenue that the federal government couldn’t function. Ronald Reagan came off as a dopey B-movie actor merely playing the role of commander in chief—and then he set the terms of political debate for a generation. No one should presume that Trump’s cartoonish ignorance will continue to constrain his presidency.
Of course, an important difference here is basic competence. Trump has surrounded himself with people who are as plainly unqualified for their jobs as he is. The disregard for expertise was too much even for Sean Spicer, who reportedly quit after Trump asked him to work for Anthony Scaramucci, a Wall Street financier with zero experience running a communications operation of any size. Important roles in several agencies remain unfilled, and the Trump team’s increasing legal troubles will only make this staffing problem more acute. Ideology aside, people qualified to hold the most crucial positions in government are smart enough to turn them down at this moment. Nobody wants an audience with Robert Mueller’s investigators.
And yet none of this dooms Trump’s agenda, which is fundamentally one of destruction. It is disturbingly easy to break stuff, and incompetence is a powerful tool. That’s especially true now, when so many of the systems that govern our lives—schools, infrastructure, housing, immigration—are already collapsing from neglect. It’s hard to imagine they’ll survive the Trump era intact; some came into it broken.
So the progressive imperative is not only resistance, but creation in the face of destruction. Not everything Trump wants to destroy needs saving: The free-trade deals and neocon foreign policy he once decried have made the world poorer and less safe. We’d do well to end both. But on just about everything else, we’ll need to rebuild.
Health care is as good an example as any. Thus far, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have failed in their efforts to get rid of Medicaid (primarily because they can’t find a fig leaf of “reform” big enough to cover up their true intent). But Trump has vowed to simply break the Affordable Care Act and leave it at that. He has a really good chance of succeeding. In fact, he’s already doing it.
The president loves to point out that premiums have gone up and insurers are pulling out of the individual markets. Sure, but why? For two important reasons. First, because millions of sick people are finally getting access to care. Insurers can no longer just refuse to cover people who actually need insurance, and they’re trying to find a new way to make money. This is actually a good thing—we need health-insurance companies to make money if they’re going to stay in the exchanges. Federal subsidies cover those costs for the vast majority of consumers. Moreover, claims data for the first quarter of 2017 suggest the influx of sick patients that Obamacare invited into the system has leveled off. As all those sick people get healthy, costs should go down—if the markets are properly regulated.
Which they won’t be, under Trump. That’s the second reason the individual markets are in turmoil: Congress and the president have created chaos. At least one reason insurers have fled the markets is Trump’s repeated threat to cut federal payments that help cover the costs of their poorest, sickest customers. Several counties in Ohio and Nevada are in danger of having no insurers in their exchanges next year.
Obamacare has worked, at least on its own terms: It has cut the ranks of the uninsured by almost half. But it has done so using a market-based system built on a shaky foundation that requires Washington’s active support to function. It is complicated to a fault, and even without Trump’s hostility, nothing about this administration suggests that it has the capacity to successfully manage the Affordable Care Act into maturity.
So the repeal-and-replace debate is just a prelude to the real reckoning that will be forced by Trump’s destructive incompetence. A market-based system that depends on employers to help pay off insurers will necessarily leave out tens of millions of Americans; the problem will worsen as more employers refuse to offer benefits (or, in the tech sector, even to acknowledge that they are employers). Obamacare found a way for the federal government to pay the bill for many of those left out, but it’s unsustainable without close support and guidance. So what comes next? What’s the road out of the shambles that Trump will leave behind and into a Medicare-for-all model? This is the sort of creative work to which we must turn.
Similar reckonings loom across the federal government. Immigration is the other obvious example. It’s not just the deportation pipeline; millions of families are stuck in the hellish stasis of our outdated system for legal immigration, and Trump’s promised harassment of immigrants will force us to face the gap between our values and our laws. So what’s a functioning, ethical immigration system in a world in which capital moves freely and quickly across national borders?
Trump will continue to defy prediction, because he has no strategy beyond compulsive reaction, no goals beyond self-aggrandizement. But one thing is sure: His administration’s incompetence will break already fragile systems. We have both an obligation and an opportunity to build better ones.