By David K. Shipler
Now we know, if we had any doubts, what lies behind Donald Trump’s expansive promises and self-promotion as a tough dealmaker: nothing. The health-care debacle makes it clear that when it comes to driving a hard bargain, Trump is a chump, to use a word that has become fashionable in the mainstream press. He can’t even twist arms in his own party.
His assault on measures to stem climate change, and his withdrawal from the trans-Pacific trade agreement, benefit only China, which is moving to fill the vacuum left by the American departure. Thomas L. Friedman calls this policy, Make China Great Again. And Trump’s shameless use of coal miners as props this week for his empty promises to bring back jobs in a declining industry made him look either cynical or ignorant.
The miners were evidently advised to wear casual short-sleeved shirts, not the customary suits and ties, to the ceremony where Trump signed an executive order to begin a long, legally contentious process of replacing the Obama administration’s restrictions on coal-burning power plants. The class-conscious picture—men in suits vs. men carefully dressed down—said as much about the Trump White House as last week’s photo of all white men discussing their bill stripping women’s health services from insurance requirements.
These images are icons of contempt. Moreover, they add up to a president who is just a life-size cardboard cutout that you can stand next to and have your picture taken. Behind the façade, there is no there there.
“You know what this is?” Trump said to the miners as he held up his executive order. “You know what this says? You’re going back to work.”
But market forces say otherwise. Abandoning the regulations requiring the closing of old coal plants and prohibiting the construction of new ones might slow the descent of the coal market in the near term. But mechanization and competition from cheap natural gas and renewable energy—the wind and solar power increasingly mandated by states, embraced by new industry, and favored by the public—mitigate against a resurgence of demand for coal. Doesn’t this vaunted businessman know anything about economic markets?
In a Los Angeles Times political cartoon, a miner at the front of a line of coworkers in hardhats asks Scott Pruitt, the global-warming denier who heads the Environmental Protection Administration, how “gutting the EPA and going backwards on climate change [will] bring back our coal jobs.”
“Oh, gosh, fellas,” Pruitt replies, with a couple of cigar-chomping fat cats behind him, “your jobs are never coming back, but the president thanks you for your gullibility.”
Hillary Clinton was savaged for her comment a year ago about the dim future of coal. The most circulated quote was: “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” But the line was taken out of the context of a compassionate and honest discussion of a shifting economy in which blue-collar workers would need help to adjust.
“We’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people,” she said. “Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.” It won’t be a surprise to learn that Fox News didn’t report those words.
Trump, by contrast, has never engaged the facts of the coal miners’ predicament, which will require job retraining and other government assistance that Republicans are loath to provide sufficiently.
A similar disregard for his supporters was evident in Trump’s embrace of the Republicans’ failed health care bill. Here was a man who made replacing Obamacare a constant theme of his campaign and a post-election pledge: “We’re going to have insurance for everybody. There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us. [They] can expect to have great health care. It will be in a much simplified form. Much less expensive and much better.”
Then, he enthusiastically endorsed a Republican bill that would have thrown 24 million Americans out of health insurance, allowed the insurance companies to eviscerate coverage—no mental health, maternity, or preventive care—and permitted much higher premiums for those between 60 and the Medicare age of 65. This was the “something terrific” he said would replace Obamacare.
Unsourced reports leaking out of the meetings he had with Republicans say that he didn’t even understand the bill he was calling great. He didn’t study its provisions and didn’t bother to familiarize himself with the impact it would have on his own supporters, those whose lives he promised to improve. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” he had said earlier: too complicated for him to take the trouble to grasp, evidently.
When will his voters begin to see the emptiness behind the cutout? An analysis by BloombergPolitics found that the bill’s tax cuts—the elimination of Obamacare’s 3.8 percent investment tax levied on individuals with incomes over $200,000 and married couples over $250,000—would have benefited counties that went for Hillary Clinton to the tune of $21.9 billion a year, compared with only $6.6 billion in counties won by Trump.
If Trump had been a stand-up guy, he would have told the Freedom Caucus to get lost, forced changes that would have pulled in Democrats, and rolled up his sleeves to do some of that hard bargaining he prides himself in. He would have learned enough to tell the rightwing extremists in his own party that cutting government out of health care, as they’d like to do, was inhumane and unrealistic, and that whatever fixes to existing law were made had to truly benefit the working class he has courted so zealously. Just imagine a populist president who was actually a populist, not an elitist, and who was willing to go against his own party in the interest of ordinary Americans.
Trump has leverage if he’s willing to work with Democrats, and they with him. So far, though, he acts as if he’s still the CEO of a family-owned company who can just order people about and fire them if they don’t jump to his commands. Fortunately for those of us who are mere citizens, government is not a business.