President Trump finally got the major legislation he wanted when Congress passed a massive tax cut. Whether this will be an enduring legacy, however, is another question. The next Democratic Congress should be able to undo much of the tax bill — and, for that matter, much of what this administration has wrought through legislation. As the so-called resistance looks ahead to another year of protest, Trump opponents should distinguish between what’s likely to stick, and what isn’t.
For all the talk about how Trump was a different, more populist kind of Republican, the tax law he signed is cartoonish proof that the GOP is slavishly devoted to the interests of the rich. And despite the tax “reform” label, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s crowning achievement does not simplify the tax code; it makes the tax code more complex. It was so hastily drafted and contains so many new giveaways to the wealthy that tax attorneys will be among the biggest winners. It’s a huge gift to people who least need relief in a time of increasing inequality. One of the most telling features of the bill is that the modest breaks for the middle class are set to expire in less than a decade, while the corporate cuts are permanent.
As a result, the bill is remarkably unpopular, with surveys suggesting that it is opposed by more than half of the population and supported by only a third. Indeed, since the advent of modern polling, the only major legislative initiative that was less popular with the public was the Republican proposal to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
What makes programs like Social Security sticky is that they provide valuable benefits to ordinary people. Tax “reform” doesn’t qualify. The next unified Democratic government will not pay a political price for modifying the GOP’s deeply unpopular cuts. Democrats will probably not fully repeal the bill — many of the middle-class breaks may be extended, for example — but they can and will substantially increase taxes on the wealthy the next time they have the opportunity.
Of course Trump is making his presence felt beyond legislation. As president, he has a great deal of power to affect how legislation is implemented after the fact. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is busy dismantling critical regulations. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions is reducing civil rights and voting rights enforcement. The interim director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has literally removed consumer protection from the bureau’s mandate. And similar changes are happening throughout the executive branch.
As with the tax cut, however, such policy changes will mostly not endure. The next Democratic nominee to head the EPA will prioritize environmental protection over corporate profits. The next Democratic attorney general will robustly enforce civil rights. The next Democratic head of the CFPB will see his or her job as protecting consumers rather than dismantling consumer regulations.
Granted, some damage by Trump cronies can’t be undone. The deregulation of carbon emissions, even on a short-term basis, will hurt the whole planet. Victims of employment discrimination or police brutality who get claims rejected will probably never be made whole. Consumers who get ripped off under practices that have been made legal by the CFPB are out of luck. And the next Democratic administration will have to spend time and resources undoing policy changes, sapping energy that could have been used elsewhere.
Perhaps most concerning, from a long-term perspective, is the Trumpification of the judiciary. When the Senate confirmed the 49-year-old arch-conservative Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, it instantly granted Trump a durable political “win.” Just how much of a win will depend on future events. Gorsuch replaced Antonin Scalia, another arch-conservative. But three nonconservative Supreme Court justices — the moderate Anthony M. Kennedy and the liberals Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer — will be 80 by the midterm elections. If one of them leaves the court and Trump confirms a replacement, the court will move rightward for decades. This shift would have a huge influence on the course of American politics, not least by sharply constraining what the next Democratic Congress can accomplish.
Even if Gorsuch is Trump’s only Supreme Court nomination, Trump is getting federal judges confirmed at a record rate. He’s packing the lower courts with young, reactionary and, in some cases, comically unqualified judges who will affect American jurisprudence for the worse.
Legislation isn’t forever. Damage to the nation’s reputation isn’t forever, either. A resounding defeat at the ballot box will suffice to undo much of Trump’s handiwork. Reserve your most acute outrage for everything else.
Scott Lemieux is a lecturer in political science at the University of Washington.