Friday, 09 February 2018

Donald Trump: 1st Year

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It has been a year since Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States, and it’s safe to say there has not been a dull moment. Since before he was even sworn into office, Trump has been under relentless and unprecedented attack by his political enemies, who have openly and unabashedly been seeking to remove him from his office by fair means or foul. Talk of impeachment was in the air the day after the 2016 elections, and an unending torrent of targeted leaks, malicious rumormongering, and frivolous prosecution of Trump supporters by an independent counsel run amok have contributed to the year-long atmosphere of chaos and bitter partisan strife that have all but torn America asunder.

Under such circumstances, engineered to prevent the president from enacting any of his agenda items, most men would have long since surrendered in despair. But Trump, rather remarkably, has persevered and even managed to advance a surprising number of agenda items that cannot but palliate America’s ongoing crisis of Big Government and out-of-control federal debts and spending. Despite the needless confrontations provoked by ill-considered tweets, and the failure (so far) to secure funding for Trump’s touted border wall or to repeal ObamaCare, we are pleased to report that President Trump has outperformed the expectations of those constitutionalists who were hoping the new president would oppose the establishment agenda that has been pursued by both Democrat and Republican administrations — more government and more internationalism. While far from perfect on a number of issues, Trump to this point has been unique among modern presidents in that, instead of moving to the left once elected, he has moved to the right, enacting a more conservative and even constitutionalist agenda than most of us dared hope possible.

It has been more than a generation since ordinary Americans have seen significant tax cuts. Presidents George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama all hiked taxes significantly, and the tax cuts enacted under George W. Bush via legislation in 2001 and 2003 were not significant enough to have a lasting effect on an economy that had been foundering since the bursting of the stock-market bubble in 2000.

With the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA), passed in the waning weeks of the year, Americans are seeing the first deep tax cuts since the Reagan era, cuts that will likely ease the pain of tax season for tens of millions of middle-class American families, but which will require corresponding cuts in government spending to have lasting benefit.

The Trump tax cuts include a near-doubling of the standard deduction for married couples, from $12,700 to $24,000. For families earning average middle-class incomes, a reduction of their taxable income under the standard deduction by nearly $12,000 will drastically reduce tax obligations and enlarge returns come April 15. The child tax credit, formerly at $1,000, was doubled to $2,000. Overall all tax rates were dropped for most income brackets, with the sharpest drops in the second ($19,050 to $77,400) from 15 percent to 12 percent, the third ($77,400 to $165,000) from 25 percent to 22 percent, and the fourth ($165,000 to $315,000) from 28 percent to 24 percent. Only the first and sixth (out of seven) brackets remained unchanged.

On the other hand, the TCJA capped the state and local tax deduction (SALT) at $10,000, a clever provision that will disincentivize massive state and local taxation rates in states such as California, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland — all of them largely liberal Democratic states whose voters have been immunized for decades against massive federal taxation they are happy to have imposed on the rest of us — as long as it is offset by local tax deductibility.

The TCJA also got rid of the Obama­Care mandate, sunsetting it in 2019 — this, after congressional Republicans so ignominiously failed to repeal Obama­Care, despite years of promises to do so and controlling both houses of Congress and the White House.

Additionally, the TCJA jettisoned a number of other miscellaneous deductibles, like moving expenses and alimony payments, in the interest of simplifying the overall income tax system.

Tax reduction and simplification were two of President Trump’s guiding principles in the lead-up to the passage of tax cuts, but it is important to realize that this bill, while a vast improvement on any tax bill since the Reagan era, still falls far short of the president’s expectations, let alone what constitutional principles and simple prudence would dictate. For one thing, the lowest income tax rate remains at 10 percent, a figure vastly higher than many state and most local rates. And people with annual taxable incomes above $600,000 will still pay a whopping 37 percent, more than one-third of their income.

Photo: Gage Skidmore

This article appears in the February 19, 2018, issue of The New American. To download the issue and continue reading this story, or to subscribe, click here.

Such taxation rates are far in excess of what Americans paid prior to the instatement of the modern federal tax system. The federal government set up under the Constitution in its original form — when limits on federal government authority, as made plain in the Ninth and 10th Amendments, were generally observed by America’s early elected leaders — was funded primarily by revenue from tariffs. No income taxes, corporate taxes, capital gains taxes, or any of the other burdensome and intrusive forms of taxation now taken for granted by America’s corrupt political leadership, were contemplated or enacted. An income tax was put in place temporarily to fund the Civil War, but repealed thereafter — until a constitutional amendment ratified in 1913 (the 16th) made a permanent federal income tax legal. Not only that, but the income tax was graduated; the more you earned, the higher a percentage of your income was taxed. Interestingly, a “heavy progressive or graduated income tax” was the second of Karl Marx’s 10 recommendations set forth in the Communist Manifesto to pave the way for the introduction of communism. This is in keeping with one of socialism’s guiding principles, the catchphrase for every planned economy: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Most Americans in 1913 were unaware of the malevolent potential of the graduated income tax, and naively accepted the government’s promises that the tax would only ever be a pittance, and would mostly be levied on the rich. The original income tax rate was a modest one percent on incomes over $3,000 ($75,000 in 2017 dollars), and an additional six percent for incomes over $500,000 (nearly $12.6 million in 2017). These rates affected only the wealthiest of Americans, and constituted little hardship for those who paid it. But before long, the graduated income tax grew into a monstrosity that was used to fund the massive wars and welfarism of the 20th century. Only five years after the permanent federal income tax was first enacted, the top rate (for annual earnings over $1 million, or $17.5 million in 2017) was raised to a vertiginous 77 percent, in order to pay for the expenses of America’s first major overseas intervention, World War I. Tax rates climbed higher during the Great Depression (to fund the New Deal) and during World War II — when quarterly income taxes and payroll withholdings were also rolled out. By the early 1950s, the highest bracket was paying rates of more than 90 percent.

Beginning in the 1960s and into the 1980s, tax rates were gradually lowered, as government found other, more creative ways to tax and to raise revenue via inflation. The Trump tax cuts represent another step in the right direction. But they are a far cry from the pre-1913 world in which most Americans never interacted with the federal government at all outside of the Post Office, let alone tried to satisfy its seemingly unappeasable appetite for money via income taxes.

Proper tax reform would entail not only tax cuts, but a phasing out of the socialist income tax altogether. But it would also necessitate corresponding cuts in government spending, which the present crop of Washington insiders, elected and unelected, is not likely to permit. Because of this, deficits and the national debt are likely to continue growing, in the longer run, because of the TCJA.

Aside from tax cuts, the Trump era has so far seen economic growth the likes of which have not visited our shores for many years. The stock market has been surging ever since the November 2016 elections, and at the time of this writing, the Dow has passed 26,000 for the first time — heady gains after many years of merely trying to recover to pre-2000 levels. By all appearances, we may, for the first time in nearly a generation, be entering a secular bull market of the kind that buoyed the economy during the ’80s and ’90s.

Other economic indicators, including economic confidence (at a 17-year high), jobs growth (1.7 million new jobs during Trump’s first year in office), the GDP (back over three percent consistently), and unemployment (back down near four percent, after years at or near double digits), all suggest that the economy both is responding to concrete policy changes enacted during Trump’s first year, and is anticipating greater things to come. Economic growth is partly fueled by confidence in future gains, and trends such as bull markets suggest that investors believe that corporate earnings will continue to grow with the help of Trump’s policies.

As a businessman, Trump is well aware of the stifling economic effects not only of taxation but also of government regulation. Here, too, Trump has taken decisive action, within his prerogative as chief executive and also to encourage Congress to pass legislation to roll back or otherwise limit the volume of regulations emanating from the federal government. Commendably, Trump issued an executive order soon after his inauguration requiring two federal regulations to be cut for every new one issued — to the consternation of the Left, who depend upon unelected regulatory authorities for the advancement of much of their agenda, from the environment to restrictions on free market activities. In this, the Trump administration claims to have far exceeded expectations, with 16 regulations repealed for every one new regulation promulgated.

It is certainly long past time that the out-of-control “fourth branch” of government — the army of unaccountable, unelected bureaucrats responsible for the ever-growing regulatory regime binding down America’s citizenry with myriad Lilliputian threads — be severely curtailed or eliminated altogether. President Trump appears to be doing just that, and, following his lead, Congress has also legislated 16 regulatory cuts that the president has signed into law.

Internationally, President Trump’s announced withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord will, if implemented, not only extricate the United States from a radical socialist and sovereignty-compromising international accord, it will also kneecap one potential source of future anti-business environmental regulation. The Obama-era Paris Climate Agreement is predicated on the scientifically dubious dogma of anthropogenic global warming, and is one of the most potent globalist expressions of the anti-human, anti-progress agenda of the radical environmental movement.

Nor was the official announcement to withdraw from the Paris accord an isolated event. President Trump has exhibited a commendable hostility to many aspects of the globalist international order, including the United Nations itself. In a September address to the UN General Assembly, Trump pointed out that “the United States is one out of 193 countries in the United Nations, and yet we pay 22 percent of the entire budget and more. In fact, we pay far more than anybody realizes. The United States bears an unfair cost burden.” In that same speech he affirmed — to thunderous applause — that “as President of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first.” While President Trump does not appear poised to get the United States out of the UN anytime soon, the fact that he would be willing to deny the consensus of the “world community” in affirming American sovereignty is an encouraging step.

Still more encouraging in the area of national sovereignty was Trump’s prompt withdrawal of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the latest in a slew of international trade agreements designed by globalists to curtail American sovereignty and disadvantage the United States economically relative to other countries. As Candidate Trump noted frequently on the campaign trail, such trade deals are almost universally bad for the United States — while conferring benefits on other signatories. This is not an accident, although Trump has shied away from saying so. The reason that the likes of Mexico and China always seem to benefit in trade deals with the United States, while the U.S. economy continues to hemorrhage jobs and manufactories, is that such deals are designed to sap America’s economic strength and overall world standing. The architects of global order have always feared and hated a strong, independent United States of America, and cleverly contrive “free trade” agreements to minimize U.S. advantages.

The most consequential of all such “free trade” deals is the more than 20-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was enthusiastically backed by most congressional Republicans, conspicuously including then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, as well as Democratic President Bill Clinton and most of his party faithful. Warnings about the economic and political consequences of the agreement fell on deaf ears at the time; the prospect of economic windfalls courtesy of more open borders with Mexico and Canada was too enticing.

But the ensuing two decades have proven NAFTA skeptics — including The John Birch Society and The New American magazine — correct. Mexico in particular has benefited mightily from NAFTA, as dozens of U.S. companies have either relocated production facilities south of the border or simply built entirely new ones there. These so-called maquiladoras have been an economic boon for an otherwise anemic Mexican economy, providing tens of thousands of jobs, especially in Mexico’s border cities.

As a result, Trump has made renegotiation of NAFTA a top policy priority. This has been a bit of a disappointment for those of us who advocate for exiting NAFTA altogether. The transparent aim of the organization, after all, is to eventually become a platform for regional government, much as the European Community was for the EU. But as negotiations with Canada and Mexico have proceeded, it is becoming increasingly obvious that neither country intends to give up the advantages of NAFTA, and the Trump administration is now talking about withdrawing completely, much as Great Britain voted to leave the EU not long ago. It’s too early to tell where events will lead, especially with certain people in Washington determined to avert a U.S. withdrawal. But President Trump has shown evidence of learning from experience, and may yet conclude, as The New American did before NAFTA was even enacted, that the dangers of membership in NAFTA — to our economy, to our sovereignty, and to our Constitution — far outweigh any possible benefits. Stay tuned.

On other trade and business-related issues, Trump has so far kept his word in trying to create better conditions for economic growth. Soon after his inauguration, Trump lifted the Obama-era ban on the Keystone XL pipeline project, a conduit that would transport crude produced in the Alberta tar sands of western Canada all the way down to refineries on the Texas coast. The project, championed by Canada across party lines, was stymied for years by an Obama administration willing to kowtow to radical environmentalists. By the beginning of the Trump era, the Canadians had all but given up on the potentially lucrative and enormously beneficial project, which would have greatly diminished America’s dependence on oil from hostile and unstable parts of the world, such as Venezuela and the Middle East, and enhanced trade with our biggest trading partner and closest international friend, Canada. The Canadians were considering building a pipeline to the Pacific coast instead, to ship the oil that their southern neighbor apparently didn’t want to China and other more willing trading partners in the Far East. But a Trump presidency greatly enhances the odds that a completed Keystone XL pipeline will soon see the light of day.

The Trump administration, despite dec­ades of fierce opposition from radical environmentalists, has also moved to open up exploratory drilling in the so-called Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska’s north slope. Adjacent to the productive oilfields of Prudhoe Bay, the ANWR is really not a wildlife refuge at all, in the usual sense. Unlike nearly all National Wildlife Refuges in the rest of the country, it has no access roads, no visitor center, no infrastructure, no trails or trail maps, and no wildlife viewing areas. Instead, it is a huge (and undeniably beautiful) chunk of wilderness in northeastern Alaska, which can be visited only by charter flight and experienced only by wilderness camping. In effect, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is little more than a colossal land grab by the radical environmentalist Left in the heart of one of North America’s potentially most productive oilfields, and President Trump has finally taken steps to allow for exploratory drilling — another move away from dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

Perhaps Candidate Trump’s most controversial proposals, at least among the delusional radical Left, involved bringing America’s porous borders under control. His iconic calls to “build a wall” along the border with Mexico — and compel Mexico to pay for it — raised hackles abroad and among Hispanic Americans and provoked skepticism even among many political allies. To date, no physical wall has been constructed, but Trump has put in place a number of other policies that have dramatically raised morale among those charged with policing America’s borders and have had a visible effect on the volume of illegal immigration and smuggling activities on our southern border. For one thing, Trump immediately repudiated Obama’s “catch-and-release” approach whereby illegals apprehended were released on a promise to appear for a court hearing at a later date. Illegals caught now are processed, jailed, and deported, a circumstance that has greatly discouraged would-be illegals from coming north. This author, who lives in southern Arizona, has noted a drastic decline over the last 12 months in trash and other evidence of illegal entry in the wilderness areas near the Mexican border.

In addition to boosting the arrest rate of illegal aliens, the removal of criminal gang members by ICE increased by 36 percent in fiscal 2017 compared to the previous year. President Trump undid by executive order the DACA program (which protected from deportation illegals who were brought here as children) that President Obama created by unconstitutional presidential fiat, and has invited Congress to pass valid legislation to deal with the morally fraught issue of illegals who were brought to the United States by their parents. Trump is also pushing to end chain migration and the immigration lottery, and to return to a merit-based immigration system. As with all else, the radical Left is digging in its heels to protect one of its most important constituencies, but Trump has so far demonstrated a considerable canniness and will that have enabled him to drag his fellow Republicans along and to cow the opposition.

One of President Trump’s most lasting legacies will be his remaking of the federal judiciary, the radicalized branch of government that liberals have been relying on to stymie the president’s every initiative. For the moment, the strategy of judicial distraction and delay has worked, because of the hundreds of federal judges who hail from the radical Left, and are mostly appointees of Clinton and Obama. But Trump has set a blistering pace for judicial appointments, nominating 73 federal judges according to a December 22 White House fact sheet on his first-year accomplishments, and winning the confirmation to the Supreme Court of nominee Neil Gorsuch. Gorsuch, despite some establishment leanings, has so far positioned himself very firmly on the right, alongside Justice Clarence Thomas and very much in the tradition of the man he replaced, Antonin Scalia. Over time, Trump’s de-radicalization of the federal court system is bound to have a salutary effect on the overall disposition of the judiciary toward causes dear to the Right, including the right to life and the right to keep and bear arms. The retooling of the judiciary may yet go down as Trump’s single most influential presidential initiative.

His worldly, occasionally coarse demeanor notwithstanding, Trump has proven a friend to social conservatives, and not only through his judicial appointments. Shoring up opposition to abortion on demand to the degree permitted within current law, President Trump lost no time reversing certain Obama-era executive policies that militated against the right to life. In his very first week in office, President Trump reinstated and even expanded the “Mexico City policy,” which blocked foreign aid from being used to fund abortions. He also published guidelines to ensure that ObamaCare was not used for abortions, and began working with Congress on a bill to support states in defunding abortion providers.

On gun rights, Candidate Trump was a vociferous supporter of the Second Amendment, and President Trump has proven no less stalwart, so far. Despite several highly politicized, high-casualty mass shootings over the last year, President Trump has shown no inclination to bow to the inevitable pressure brought to bear by enemies of the Second Amendment, who ensure that no gun tragedy is ever wasted, politically speaking. In fact, the Trump administration has been quietly rolling back certain gun restrictions, with the Department of the Interior lifting a ban on hunting with lead ammunition within national parks and the Justice Department narrowing its definition of people barred from owning firearms on criminal grounds. Such acts may seem small, but they are highly symbolic, and suggest that President Trump is the most Second Amendment-friendly president in a very long time.

Not all has been rosy in Trump’s first year. In some aspects of foreign policy, he has been a major disappointment, attacking Syria with a barrage of missiles because of a chemical weapons attack allegedly perpetrated on Syrian rebels and civilians by the Assad government. To the consternation of many of his supporters, his actions in Syria have come despite Trump’s campaign rhetoric opposing military intervention and nation-building in the Middle East and elsewhere. Trump is unquestionably a hawk, and as such favors dramatic increases in military spending, a necessary expedient to continue to maintain our tottering overseas military commitments. This is perhaps the main reason — alongside a determination to ignore the burgeoning cost of misnamed “entitlement” programs — that will guarantee that spending and debts continue to rise.

Paying down the national debt does not appear to be on President Trump’s radar screen right now. This means that the national debt, already past $20.5 trillion, is likely to rise by a few trillion more in short order. Neither Republicans nor Democrats in Congress have any interest in cutting government spending, which means that the borrow-and-spend charade will likely end in national insolvency and Argentina-esque hyperinflation and economic collapse before too many more years — unless Washington musters the will to do something about it. While many had high hopes for Trump in this regard, it would appear that the swamp will not be relinquishing its grip on the U.S. economy anytime soon.

Then there is the almost nonstop drama arising from Trump’s seemingly irresistible need to denigrate political opponents. While many of his ill-considered tweets and off-the-cuff comments are matters of character and style more than policy substance, they have unnecessarily antagonized even many of his political allies and given extra ammunition to his foes. Be it recalled that Ronald Reagan, an affable gentleman, was nonetheless hated and reviled by the Left; how much more so a combative, sometimes vulgar president reluctant to rise above the taunts, lies, threats, and vulgarity of the Left. By descending to the level of the Left and supplying his bitter enemies with an endless series of cudgels, Trump has given them the ability to do lasting harm to the body politic with conspiracy theories and rumormongering, sow division in the ranks of his political allies, and stymie a good deal of his agenda.

With midterm elections now on the horizon, there is a strong possibility that the brief window of opportunity that Trump and the Republicans have had to finally make good on years of promises — to repeal ObamaCare, to cut government spending, to restore some semblance of an orderly budget process, and, as the president would put it, to make America great again — will slam decisively shut with Democrat control of one or both houses of Congress. Not only that, the Democrats have made no secret of their plans to impeach Trump — based on pure vindictive spite — the moment they regain control of the House. Throw in the looming threat of a major war with North Korea, and Trump’s second year in office is likely to be a stormy one indeed — unless the president brings some of his baser political instincts under control and manages to placate some of his allies and an uneasy American electorate. Should he succeed in doing so, and, against all current expectations, manage to preserve or even enlarge the ranks of genuine congressional conservatives and constitutionalists, President Trump may yet be able to continue his rollback of Big Government and restoration of the country we once knew.

Photo: Gage Skidmore

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