Discover more from Drezner’s World
A Very Important Post About.... Laughing in the Face of Absurdity
I can't believe I need to write a column about Trump being a bad president. In 2023.
A few days ago, Matt Taibbi weighed in over at his Substack about a minor media kerfuffle (in which I play a minor cameo) with a backstory so convoluted that I’m relegating it to a footnote.1 What the hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World believes to be relevant is that I appeared on a podcast called “The Comedy Cellar: Live from the Table,” hosted by Noah Dworman, to discuss my thoughts about a David Brooks column. It was an hour-long civil conversation… except when I mentioned how Trump was an objectively bad president, and Dworman countered with, “[Donald Trump] was not a bad president by any objective standard.”
I laughed at this contention. According to Taibbi, “Dan Drezner… laughs hysterically and at great length the instant it registers that Noam plans on countering a claim that Trump was a bad president.” Taibbi’s take on my laughter is… well, it’s something:
I’m not sure I could classify Donald Trump as a good president. I’d feel extremely confident however in saying, for instance, that George W. Bush was a worse one, not just for the WMD lies and accompanying Iraq disaster (which Drezner supported, by the way), but because of his and Dick Cheney’s ambitious innovations in anti-democratic grotesqueries like state-sponsored kidnapping (i.e. rendition) and mass surveillance. Drezner is doing what Bump did, albeit with more humor: gagging in disbelief when a mainstream piety sent up the flagpole isn’t instantly saluted. (emphasis added)
To be clear, the mainstream piety that triggered my reaction was, “Donald Trump was an objectively bad president” — a statement that Taibbi does not even defend (he’s “not sure”) so much as he pirouettes to criticize George W. Bush. Still, based on the dozens of indignant emails Dworman has sent over the last ten days, it’s clear that he, Taibbi, and their ideological kin took some offense at my mirthful reaction.
Here’s my extremely measured position on this: if you are going to try to claim that Donald Trump was not an objectively bad president, I’m going to laugh in your face every day of the week and twice on Sundays.
Drezner’s World is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
This is not to say that Trump, as president, did not some do some good things. Taibbi loathes Bush, but I bet if someone liquored him up real good he would confess that, say, PEPFAR was a legitimately good policy accomplishment created by the Bush administration. I’d add the Proliferation Security Initiative, TARP, and the way he handled the transition to the Obama administration to that list as well. It might be a short list, but there’s a lit.
Does that mean Bush was a good president? Oh hell no. The invasion of Iraq proved to be a mostly unmitigated disaster. The 2008 financial crisis happens in no small part because of what happened on his watch. He was abysmal on climate change and gay marriage. The magnitude of those policy miscues far outweighs the likes of PEPFAR.
Bush was a bad president who did a few good things. So was Trump! The 45th president did fewer good things because he served only one term, but one can conjure up a few items. His criminal justice reform law was a good idea. So was Operation Warp Speed. The Abraham Accords are way overhyped but still a net positive.
Those good things are massively outweighed by the disaster that was the Trump administration. Consider:
Using normal criteria, Trump is unique in the modern annals of for leaving office with a worse economy than when he started: “President Trump took office at the crest of the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. He leaves presiding over the worst labor market in modern U.S. history…. there were still 3 million fewer jobs in the United States than there were on Inauguration Day 2017, when Trump stood in front of the Capitol and vowed to reverse the American carnage. No other modern president has left the U.S. with a smaller workforce than it had when they took office.”
Trump’s abysmal economic numbers could be attributed to COVID-19. Fair enough! It seems pretty clear from the reportage, however, that Trump’s bad luck was the residue of his atrocious design. Neither he nor his policy principals took infectious diseases seriously as a potential threat. Trump badly bungled the early stages of the pandemic, to the point where he subordinated any questioning of China in order to secure his underwhelming phase one trade deal. The less said about his use of the bully pulpit during the pandemic, the better.
As for foreign policy, Trump accomplished remarkably little outside of the Abraham Accords. He coddled Saudi Arabia to the point where he supported a stupid embargo of Qatar and refused to acknowledge MBS’ role in assassinating a U.S. green card holder and contributor to the Washington Post. He browbeat U.S. allies but received little to nothing in the way of policy concessions. He met with Kim Jong Un three times without accomplishing anything of note. He withheld U.S. aid to Ukraine to force President Zelenskyy to provide dirt on his political opponent. Russia and China were in stronger positions at the end of his term than at the start; indeed, Trump’s trade war with China proved to be pretty much an own goal outside of a few Huawei-specific measures. Even the decent ideas his administration had, like the bolstering of the Quad, were eclipsed by the Biden administration’s vastly superior implementation.
Evaluating Trump as a normal president is ridiculous, however, because it elides all of Trump’s abnormal, illiberal, and illegal behavior. On the abnormal side, I wrote a whole book and curated a three-and-a-half-year Twitter thread keeping the receipts on Trump’s own allies, staffers, and subordinates describing him the way one would describe a two-year old having a meltdown. On the illiberal side, it’s amusing that Taibbi prioritizes Bush’s “ambitious innovations in anti-democratic grotesqueries” without nary a word about, oh, I don’t know, Trump’s retreat from civil rights or or his ramping up of drone strikes or his use of targeted assassinations or his inhumane treatment of migrants crossing the border or his support of the clearing out of Lafayette Park. As for illegal (and illiberal), Trump obstructed justice during the Russia probe, refused to concede losing the 2020 election, and then fomented a violent insurrection to forestall the peaceful transfer of power. His behavior was so egregious that multiple officials resigned their offices immediately after January 6th rather than ride out his last two weeks in office. You have to work really, really hard to be impeached twice and indicted four times in just four years, but Trump did it!
Finally, one could object that being president is a political job and Trump still commands political support within the GOP base. Even by that purely political standard, however, Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by nearly three million votes to Hillary Clinton and then did such a great job of governing that four years later… he lost by more than seven million votes to Joe Biden. This might explain why his preferred candidates during the 2022 midterms crashed and burned so badly.
Donald Trump was an objectively bad president, and I can’t say I’m interested in debating that premise.2 It’s like debating whether the Earth is round or flat — a waste of everyone’s time.
Taibbi concludes, “I think a lot of people in the world I once inhabited, in center-left media and academia, don’t realize they’ve slipped into a deeply unattractive habit of substituting checklists of unquestioned assumptions for thought.” What I don’t think Taibbi realizes is that he and his ilk have become so sure of their belief that they stand above the currents of conventional wisdom that they cannot acknowledge when two plus two equals four. They have instead devolved into the most unthinking faction of the contrarian class.
There contretemps involves the episode that Live From the Table’s Noah Dworman recorded immediately after mine, with the Washington Post’s Philip Bump. Dworman pushed Bump on his Hunter Biden reporting, and Bump pushed back. To the likes of Bump, Dworman’s assumptions and his line of questioning were suspect. To Dworman and his supporters like Taibbi and Miranda Devine at the New York Post, Bump’s anger was a sign that he was living in a bubble.
After the recording, Bump tweeted out that, “he was disparaging his prior guest to the people in the room.“ That guest would have been me. Dworman categorically denies Bump’s assertion, saying he’d been nothing but complimentary towards me… and yet the thing is that Dworman took so much offense when Bump laughed at something in his episode at the 29 minute 14 second mark of his episode with Bump, he responded by saying, “you’re laughing like the crazy professor I had on.” So you’ll forgive me if I think he has credibility issues.
And now I have wasted ten minutes of my life trying to recap this thing.