Tuesday, January 9, was a noteworthy day in politics, particularly if viewed with the question of Trump’s re-electability in mind. On three different fronts, events cautioned against writing off or underestimating the president, whose manners and morals Americans rightly revile. In other eras, the president’s lack of virtue would have posed an insuperable obstacle to his attaining office, but this is a more easy-going time, when Americans temporize more and cut others more slack when it comes to low and disreputable behavior. Indeed, the cynicism that has prompted many formerly disapproving GOP party stalwarts to support and collaborate with Trump, has given him a boost and a shot at political viability, that’s disturbing. That Trump’s leading detractors within the GOP would be so willing to make common cause with him would have been difficult to foresee just one year ago. Yet this cynicism is the cornerstone on which the GOP establishment will build its Trump-era achievements.
1. The market is booming
The Democrats have every reason to be afraid. For what if, despite Mr. Trump’s bigotry and ineptitude, his White House ends up being associated with prosperity and peace? Since his inauguration, the stock market has climbed. On Tuesday, stock indexes again closed at or near all-time highs. The major indices rose about 20 percent in 2017, meaning that everyone with money invested in the market is significantly richer than when Mr. Trump took office just one year ago.
Trump has taken other actions on the economic front that will become “credits” for him if “good times” continue. He opted for continuity and moderation at the Fed in choosing Jerome Powell to succeed outgoing Fed chair Janet Yellin. Trump can also take credit for the poorly crafted “tax reform” bill that Congress has passed, which will lower taxes for many Americans, at least through the next election cycle, after which many of the benefits will expire. (Note the cynicism again.)
2. Inter-Korean talks
Tuesday brought news of a positive break in the tense situation on the Korean Peninsula. With little fanfare, representatives of North and South Korea met face-to-face and agreed that North Korea would participate in the Winter Olympic Games, which will open in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on February 8. In the US, the evening news aired startling footage of delegations from the two sides, shaking hands and grinning after their meeting in the Demilitarized Zone. It was the first such meeting since late 2015, breaking up a dynamic of deterioration that North Korea’s worrisome advances in proto-nuclear bomb testing had brought on.
Though North Korea’s desire to participate in the Olympics mainly prompted the meeting, it was symbolically and diplomatically important, resulting in “gains” for the Koreas and the Trump administration. The sudden thaw in relations is a win for North Korea, in that it will be spared the humiliation and “invisibility” of being excluded from the international games (an exclusion that Russia, for example, will be suffering). Inclusion is meaningful to all Koreans as a symbolic token of unification. It also allows the North to share in the gratification and global recognition that comes from South Korea’s hosting the games. The South’s concession gives credence to the prospect of better North-South relations, which its new president, Moon Jae-in, has promised.
Amid the happy buzz of this inter-Korean detente, whom did President Moon credit but Donald J. Trump? Moon connected the breakthrough to Trump’s blunt promise to wipe the North Korean regime off the face of the earth should it attempt a nuclear strike on the US or its allies. For the past several months, Trump has engaged in nuclear brinkmanship. Now, though, he can argue that it’s paid off.
3. Cuing Congress on immigration reform
Above all, Tuesday’s unusual meeting on immigration reform, which brought Congressional leaders of both parties together at the White House, illustrates what makes the president so politically dangerous. This meeting, which was novel in its conception and effects, was the lead story in a news-heavy day. What made the meeting novel was that Trump instigated bipartisan discussion of the immigration issue right there on the spot. Pledging to “take the heat” and sign whatever immigration reform bill Congress might come up with, he prompted a nearly one-hour discussion between Democrats and Republicans, who sparred back and forth as the television cameras rolled. At the end of the meeting, participants emerged with consensus on the four broad topics that an acceptable bill must treat. Mr. Trump looked presidential, in that he gave direction to his party and the legislature, while reminding the Congress that working out the details of legislation was its Constitutional role, not his.
Video of the event showed Republicans and Democrats in the same room, publicly and spontaneously working out a point of policy: just what is supposed to happen routinely in the House and Senate chambers, but which in fact has not happened there in decades. The publicity that used to surround such spontaneous exchanges is the very thing that once gave serving in the US Congress such enormous prestige. One can only hope that the ballyhoo surrounding Tuesday’s activities will inspire senators and representatives to revive their historic tradition of open and authentic deliberation.
Word has leaked out that, in the unrecorded portion of this meeting, Trump used vulgar language to demonize immigrants from Haiti and African countries. The fact that Trump is both immoral and a nimble politician is precisely what his opponents must reckon with more aggressively. He is inept, unacceptable, and embarrassing; he is also intent on transforming American trade and foreign policy and restoring American prosperity. Trump’s opponents mustn’t be satisfied with denouncing his latest outrage: they must devote their attention to figuring out how to defeat this thick-skinned monster and his party at the polls. Trump is a change-agent without a heart, and he will continue to hold power and rack up “successes” until those who oppose him figure out how to chip away at his base by offering viable alternative policies.