Riding in a taxi today in Singapore, the cabbie brought up Pres. Trump and asked me what I thought. Before I could answer he told me that he liked him, and I got the sense he didn’t know what to think of all he was hearing about the Trump administration lately. He wasn’t unusual. In previous conversations with cabbies (there’s always time to talk in taxis), they compared him favorably relatively new, and controversial (at least internationally), Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Mostly they seem to like Trump’s self-confidence and previous business experience (which happened to involve four bankruptcies, of course, even if he was a successful game show host).
So, prompted by a taxi driver, let me say express an opinion about Trump that I’ve had for awhile, but haven’t emphasized:
He’s not actually wrong about everything.
And furthermore, now that his presidency seems to be failing (due to incompetence, inexperience, or unfitness or likely a mix of all three), I’m concerned that a couple of the issues he brought up will get discredited on the American political scene.
Before we go on, let me make something clear: I didn’t vote for Trump and never would have. The case against him was pretty obvious. First, he’s a horrible person, with his record of admitting to repeated sexual assaults (bonus here, though: Evangelicals, through their support of him, have forever lost the right to claim that personal morality matters in politicians – ever), stiffing contractors, and constant lying. Second, he used bigoted appeals in his campaign and built his political profile on conspiracy theories. And third, he was clearly unfit for the role of the presidency, with his lack of respect for our institutions by threatening to lock up his political opponent and an astonishing lack of policy knowledge, which has only become more apparent during his presidency since he is constantly amazed at how hard things are.
GETTING BACK TO THE POINT
So, having made my low opinion of Trump clear, let me focus again on where he was right, at least during the campaign:
1. He tapped into the perfectly valid sense that many Americans share that the economic system is rigged against them.
2. He focused on defending our borders.
THE ECONOMY IS RIGGED
Trump was right to point out that the modern U.S. economy is rigged. For example, in the trade deals of the last few decades (bi-partisan trade deals, by the way) lower-income workers were thrown into direct competition with foreign laborers earning a fraction of what they did. Under that approach, of course, their jobs would disappear. For my part, I’m fine with trade. I think it’s good in theory and practice for the most part. But while trade might benefit the world overall, there are always losers, and I do not think enough was done in the U.S. to offset their losses.
Now, many of these trade deals have been defended by saying workers are getting cheaper products. Call it the Wal-Mart defense. But that is of cold comfort if you are not making any economic progress. The defining feature of the U.S. economy in the last 40 years has been the disconnect between increased productivity and wages. Workers are producing more, but still earning, in real terms, what they did back in the 1970s. Wages are supposed to increase with productivity, in theory, but for the most part, they have not. Instead, virtually all income gains have gone to the very top of the income distribution.
Americans were asked many years ago to accept a system that they were told would be disruptive, yes, but would have clear benefits for everyone. That has not happened. What’s the point of being part of a society – of a system – if it’s just going to throw you under the bus? Trump, through his rigged economy comments, challenged the system itself, and that was right to do so. This is something Bernie Sanders did, as well, on the Democratic side, but we all know how that turned out.
BORDERS STILL MATTER
The other issue that I believe Trump was right about – and Republicans by extension, I suppose – is that mass illegal immigration is not a good thing.
Obviously, Trump and many of his supporters put a racist spin on it. That was disgusting and wrong (even deplorable, I could say). For my part, I am no modern ethno-nationalist. In fact, I’m very much one of those horrible liberal internationalists that people like Steve Bannon and the folks at Breitbart hate so much. I believe in universal liberal values, think all people are fundamentally equal, and enjoy diversity of culture and language. And I think people should be allowed to move to new countries as much as reasonably possible.
For me, reasonable means two things: one, we need to have some controls and standards – laws – on immigration, and two, we must uphold those laws. While I’m very much open to the aspiration of a borderless world some day, that is not practical at this time. Borders controls have two main, important functions: security and ensuring the long-term viability of our public systems. Security probably seems obvious. We don’t want to let in dangerous people. As for our public systems, I mean our social insurance, education, public health, and retirement programs. These all depend on carefully balanced estimates of the population and its trajectory. We need to make sure that our immigration policies keep those public systems sustainable. Sustainable does not mean closed. We can absolutely benefit by letting in workers on temporary licenses. But those licenses need to be designed in such a way that they strengthen our public systems, and once established, they should be enforced, either by targeting the workers or the employers. (In fact, just target the employers; there are fewer of them).
Why do I stress enforcement? Because behind these immigration problems is a deeper issue: rule of law. When mass illegal immigration takes place, we have a massive breakdown of the rule of law. It is nonsensical to me to get up in arms over Trump’s clear threats to the rule of law and give others a pass.
Not that the rule of law needs to be harsh. For example, the children of illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. when they were very young are Americans for all practical and cultural purposes. To throw them out, as many conservatives seem to want, is inhumane. I also think we can find ways for illegal immigrants who came here as adults and have been productive citizens to stay. However, I think it is also unreasonable, as many liberals suggest, that we make those illegal immigrants who came as adults full citizens with federal voting rights. (Whether they get state or local voting rights could be addressed on a state-by-state basis, I suppose.)
To finish on immigration, let me say that I speak from personal experience. I live in Singapore. We came here for my wife’s job. We are, in a sense, economic migrants. But we followed the rules. And I understand full well that Singapore can kick me out anytime it chooses. It would be ridiculous of me to overstay my visa, evade authorities, then ask to be allowed to continue living here and, oh, I’d like voting rights, too. The government of Singapore is, quite rightly, under no obligation to take that request seriously.
During the taxi ride I mentioned earlier, the cabbie also mentioned how he liked Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”. As this post makes clear, I think U.S. policies could use some improvements, but as I told the cabbie, I never bought into #MAGA. I’m enough of a patriot to believe that America was pretty damn good before Trump ever ran for the presidency. We have our flaws, for sure – some of them very serious. I didn’t take any time in this post to reflect on our seeming bottomless desire for war and dominance. And we have ugly bigotry (although I can tell you that that is a widespread human condition that every society struggles with). Since living abroad, I’ve studied other political-economic systems more closely. Some have a lot to learn from the U.S. approach, especially on the issues of individual rights and rule of law, while others get a lot of things right. (I’m looking at you, Denmark.) But overall, I’d say we have a pretty good track record. Let’s just stay on the right path.