Gerson: As year ends, moral authority of the presidency is in tatters

Vice President Mike Pence’s obsequiousness at a recent Cabinet meeting — “Thank you for seeing through the course of this year an agenda that is truly restoring this country … ” and on, and on — might be appropriate at a Communist Party Central Committee meeting, or at a despot’s birthday party. But it is not the language of any self-respecting republic.

The divestment of self-respect is a qualification for employment in the Trump administration. Praising the Dear Leader in a Pence-like fashion seems to be what the Dear Leader requires — not in the way we might need dessert after dinner but in the way an addict needs drugs. President Donald Trump divides the world into two categories: flunkies and enemies. Pence is the cringing, fawning high priest of flunkiness. It is hard to know whether to laugh or puke (and difficult to do both at the same time).

It is precisely the claim of miracles by mediocrities that makes it hard for some of us to judge Trump’s first-year record with any objectivity. In comparison to his claims of world-historic change, Trump has accomplished little. But how does Trump’s record compare to more realistic expectations?

The Republican case for Trump comes down to: the appointment of conservative judges; the “defeat” of the Islamic State; and tax and regulatory reform. Whatever your view of the merits of these actions, they are consequential. Add to this the facts that Trump hasn’t blown up the world or suspended the legislature, and Trump is gaining a strange new respect among some conservatives.

There is less here than meets the eye. Trump chose Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court from a Federalist Society list, and didn’t fatally undermine Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s careful confirmation effort. The demolition of the Islamic State was largely the continuation and culmination of an Obama-era strategy. And the tax overhaul also has serious distributional and deficit problems.

This agenda was remarkable only for being so typical.

For Republicans and conservatives, it is important to count the costs — the tonnage on the other side of the balance.

The war against terrorism has been rebooted on the basis of anti-Muslim bigotry, which undermines domestic law enforcement and anti-radicalization efforts. Authoritarian regimes around the world feel more secure. Dissidents and democratic activists feel more lonely and abandoned. Fleeing refugees feel more desperate and friendless. The president is conducting delicate nuclear negotiations with demeaning pet names. Morale at the State Department is in collapse. Trump has alienated important allies with demands for protection money. America has stepped back from effective economic competition in Asia, leaving China a more dominant regional power. Russia, in all likelihood, has helped elect a favorable American president in the largest intelligence coup of modern history.

Trump has tried to undermine the credibility of important institutions that check his power and expose his duplicity. He attacks the very idea of truth in a daily torrent of despicable lies. The moral authority of the presidency is in tatters.

Trump’s domestic agenda … requires another column. But after a year, this much is clear: Almost all Trump’s accomplishments are the work of traditional Republican policy staffers and congressional leaders. Almost all Trump’s failures are functions of his character. And that isn’t going to change.

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