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Politics

There’s still a case that a lot is going right in America, despite the circus in Washington. But 2019 is shaping up to be a much rougher ride.

Once again, I bring you good tidings of great joy!

Unemployment in the United States is at its lowest level since 1969, consumer confidence is near its highest level since 2000, and crime in the nation’s largest cities is at its lowest level since 1990. For a week this November, U.S. petroleum exports exceeded imports for the first time ever, a remarkable milestone in America’s steady march toward independence from foreign oil. Economic growth is up, poverty is down, electric vehicle sales are at an all-time high, and the Miami Dolphins recently reminded us all that miracles still happen in this amazing country.

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Welcome to the fifth annual Everything Is Awesome column! This holiday tradition began in 2014, after Republicans won a landslide in the midterm elections by warning Americans that an Ebola epidemic was imminent and everything was awful. That was the year The Lego Movie came out, and the point of appropriating the title of its theme song was not to claim that everything was literally awesome in America, but to spread some good cheer with a reminder that most things were actually getting better. That held true in 2015 and 2016, even though Donald Trump won the presidency by describing the country as a dumpster of existential despair, and in large part in 2017, even as Trump and his critics seemed to be competing to provide the bleakest descriptions of America’s dismal trajectory.

As 2018 draws to a close, it’s a nice time to remember that America is still pretty awesome. And even though the stock market ended the year down after years of gains, even though there are more uninsured Americans and homeless Americans after years of declines, even though the federal deficit is soaring at a time it ought to be shrinking, even though U.S. carbon emissions are rising again and wildfires are worse than ever, even though global confidence in America is at an all-time low, even though duplicitous tech giants seem to be tracking our every move, even though the president’s national security adviser, campaign manager, deputy campaign manager and personal lawyer have all pleaded guilty to felonies, even though …

Huh, come to think of it, that’s a lot of “even though.” It’s awesome that the jobless rate is down to 3.7 percent, but in the data and in the news, it’s starting to feel like something actually is changing, and we’re slouching toward non-awesomeness. The federal government has shut down for no good reason; the commander in chief is raging in his residence at the investigators who have implicated him in felonies; and the supposed grownups in his administration, most recently Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have been fleeing for the exits. Even among Washington Republicans who have tolerated and sometimes encouraged the president’s relentless assaults on longstanding political norms, there’s a growing unease that the daily chaos of the Trump show has become unsustainable, that the wheels are coming off the national bus, and that things are going to reach some sort of breaking point in 2019.

So this might be the final edition of this holiday tradition. But for the sake of auld lang syne, let’s step back one more time to evaluate where we are, how far we’ve come and, yes, where we might be going.

***

In 2017, the stock market rose 25 percent, and Trump sent no fewer than 32 separate tweets bragging about its awesomeness. On August 3: “Stock market at all-time high. That doesn’t just happen!” On November 27: “Stock Market has more record gains. Hopefully Republican Senators will give us the much needed tax cuts to keep it all going!” And on December 26, shortly after Congress did indeed pass a $2 trillion package of upper-end tax cuts: “Stock Market is poised for another year of SUCCESS!” The Dow had increased 149 percent during President Barack Obama’s eight years in office, but Trump insisted he deserved the credit for a spectacular turnaround, repeatedly attacking the press for failing to acknowledge his genius.

“The Fake News Media barely mentions the fact that the Stock Market just hit another New Record,” he complained. “Can you imagine if ‘O’ was president and had these numbers – would be biggest story on earth!”

Actually, the Dow hit 124 all-time highs in Obama’s second term; he just didn’t make a big deal about its awesomeness. Most presidents don’t talk much about the stock market, for good reasons: It’s not a particularly reliable evaluator of presidential policies, or the best reflection of the state of the economy, and they don’t want to own the problem when it goes south. But a bull market is good news for Americans with retirement accounts, and it’s certainly a positive indicator, which is why it made an appearance in all four prior everything-is-awesome roundups.

Anyway, Trump has been a lot quieter about the Dow in 2018, because it lost 6 percent of its value. He did weigh in on November 12, shifting the blame after the market fell nearly 2,000 points in two weeks: “The prospect of Presidential Harassment by the Dems is causing the Stock Market big headaches!” But it’s been quite a while since he’s described day-to-day fluctuations in the equities markets as an indisputable verdict on his own policies, the way he did constantly before the bears overtook the bulls.

Again, the labor market is still strong, and GDP growth has been solid in 2018; the Dow is not the economy. But the Dow isn’t the only sign of economic anxiety these days. The housing market has gotten soft. The corporate bond market looks dicey. Inflation has ticked upward, while real wages have been almost entirely flat, as corporations have plowed most of their tax cuts into stock buybacks rather than worker salaries or bonuses. Economists are increasingly worried about a slowdown in 2019 and perhaps a recession in 2020.

That wouldn’t necessarily be Trump’s fault. The economy moves in cycles, and the U.S. has enjoyed a record 98 consecutive months of job growth since the Great Recession ended, so it’s overdue for a stumble. Presidents tend to get excessive credit or blame for the economic conditions on their watch. This explains why Republicans refused to acknowledge the obvious improvements under Obama, who took office when the economy was shedding 750,000 jobs a month and contracting at a depression-level 8 percent rate; Trump even accused the fastidiously nonpartisan Bureau of Labor Statistics of manipulating the unemployment rate to produce good news under Obama, though he changed his tune after the first positive jobs report came out during his own presidency. In reality, presidents don’t control the business cycle, and to Trump’s recent frustration, they don’t control the Federal Reserve, either. It’s unfortunate that basic economic data have been drafted into America’s all-consuming partisan wars.

Still, presidents do affect the economy. While it was silly to blame Obama for the vicious downturn he inherited in 2009, he could plausibly argue that his economic stimulus and other policies helped drive the recovery over the rest of his term, just as his critics could plausibly argue that the recovery was too slow and tepid. And while it was silly for Trump to take credit for the recovery he inherited last year, he could plausibly argue that his tax cuts provided a shot of economic adrenaline this year, which might be the first year with 3 percent growth since 2000. But Trump also owns the red ink created by those tax cuts. The deficit rose to $779 billion this year, unprecedented during an economic expansion, and is expected to balloon above $1 trillion next year. That explains why the Medicare trust fund, which had grown increasingly stable during the Obama years, is now on track for insolvency in 2026, three years earlier than the projections in its previous report.

While some of the less awesome aspects of the American economy pre-dated Trump, he’s barely even tried to keep his grandiose promises to fix them. He talked big about rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, but so far he’s been an obstacle to new public works. He vowed to end the opioid epidemic that has ravaged the U.S. workforce, but deaths from drug overdoses have soared to an all-time high. Income inequality is growing and prescription drug prices are still rising, despite Trump’s rhetoric about reversing those trends.

Trump’s most direct impact on the economy may ultimately come from the global trade war he’s launched against China as well as some of America’s closest allies. His tariffs are already raising the prices of products made with steel, which is one reason General Motors recently announced it was shutting down five U.S. factories. (The reopened U.S. Steel factories that the president keeps touting at his rallies, meanwhile, are entirely fictitious.) Foreign retaliation to his tariffs is also causing problems, depressing U.S. exports of soybeans and other targeted products. And the trade war is still in its early stages; one reason the markets are so jittery is that Trump has suggested he wants a much broader and more intense war. No one can be certain how that would turn out, and markets don’t like uncertainty.

Whatever one thinks of Trump and his policies, he is a constant source of uncertainty at home and abroad. He threatened to bomb North Korea, then declared he had fallen in love with Kim Jong Un. He proclaimed in early December that he would proudly “take the mantle” of a government shutdown rather than blame the Democrats, then tried to blame the Democrats for the shutdown a week later. He promised a middle-class tax cut, then seemed to forget the promise the next day. Republicans used to complain that Obama initiatives like health care reform, Wall Street reform and regulation of carbon emissions created “job-killing uncertainty,” but Trump’s efforts to dismantle all those initiatives have created uncertainty as well.

One thing to remember about uncertainty is that uncertain things sometimes turn out better than expected. Trump’s incendiary tweets and saber-rattling public pronouncements do seem to be bringing China and other targets of his tariffs to the negotiating table, and his threats to quit NAFTA have produced a deal that seems marginally more favorable for the U.S. than the original. So far, the widespread fears that Trump’s erratic behavior would lead to nuclear war or economic calamity have not been realized. He has not provoked a constitutional crisis by firing special counsel Robert Mueller, even though he did fire an FBI director and recently forced out his own attorney general for refusing to interfere with Mueller’s investigation. He has not defied the authority of any of the federal judges he has attacked. He has not dismantled our democracy or defaulted on our debt. He upset the foreign policy establishment when he abruptly pulled U.S. troops out of Syria, but whether or not that was a wise move, the worst-case scenarios that have been floated about Trump don’t usually involve his unwillingness to use force.

So be of good cheer! The U.S. still has a powerful economy and a functioning democracy! But the other thing to remember about uncertainty is that uncertain things sometimes turn out worse than expected. And things are already weird.

***

There’s been a clear but unspoken deal in Washington during the two years of full Republican control: Trump would nominate conservative judges and sign conservative legislation, and in return GOP congressional leaders would refrain from investigating his scandals, opposing his policies or stridently denouncing his behavior. The deal has mostly held up despite revelations that president paid hush money to his mistresses during his campaign and evaded hundreds of millions of dollars in federal taxes; despite his for-profit university and his charitable foundation getting exposed as essentially fraudulent; despite his attacks on his own FBI, Justice Department and intelligence agencies; despite presidential gaslighting so brazen and repetitive that The Washington Post’s fact-checkers had to invent a new falsehood category called the “Bottomless Pinocchio.”

But now Democrats have taken back the House, so the deal is off. Meanwhile, the Mueller investigation is clearly heating up, with the focus apparently shifting to the president’s actions and his family’s finances. And even congressional Republicans are freaking out about the mass exodus of the Trump administration adults they had been counting on to babysit an impulsive president. In other words, the uncertainty of the past two years is likely to look quaint compared with the high-volume insanity coming in 2019.

It is conceivable that the Washington circus will have little effect on the economy or even the country. American politics is already dysfunctional, and so far that hasn’t stopped businesses from hiring or consumers from buying. But it’s hard to imagine that the economy will be helped much by a Washington paralyzed by investigations and brawls and presidential tantrums. And the Trump-led backlash against Mueller’s methodical investigation—the cries of “WITCH HUNT,” the Mafia-like attacks on “rats” who snitch to law enforcement, the partisan excuses for lying to the FBI, tampering with witnesses and other serious crimes—is already making America look like a banana republic.

The United States is no longer seen as a global beacon of strength and hope; an international survey by the Pew Research Center found that only 27 percent of people around the world have confidence in the current president, and even fewer among America’s closest allies. It is unlikely that America’s moral standing will be restored by a year of public furors over Trump’s domestic and international financial escapades, to say nothing of his refusal to accept intelligence that Russia meddled in U.S. elections and that Saudi Arabia slaughtered an American-resident journalist.

The real danger of the coming storm, though, is not just that it will show other nations America at its worst, but that it will intensify America’s worst domestic trend, the ferocious partisan polarization that subsumes every issue into a political and cultural fight to the death. The president recently said that “the people will revolt” if he is impeached, an unsubtle reminder of the violent paranoia he has encouraged in his base ever since he first offered to pay the legal fees of supporters who beat up protesters at his campaign rallies. Trump’s fallback rhetorical move is to dehumanize his adversaries as unpatriotic enemies of the people, whether they’re Democrats or reporters or migrants seeking asylum or black athletes kneeling to protest police brutality or people who say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” He might think of this as basic political hardball, a logical extension of the cable shoutfests from which he gets much of his news. But it isn’t fun to think about the history of countries where the leaders themselves drop the pretense of governing for everyone, and egg on their supporters like that.

It’s not awesome for a political system to be paralyzed by investigations and efforts to obstruct those investigations; it’s even less awesome for a nation to be inflamed along partisan lines about the legitimacy of those investigations. But what’s really not awesome, as most Washington Republicans admit privately, is the conduct that prompted the investigations, and the daily barrage of lies launched by the commander in chief at the heart of the investigations. The preferred Beltway cliché for the president’s behavior is “not normal,” and it’s true that it is not normal for the leader of the free world to unleash relentless attacks on the intelligence of prominent African-Americans, to portray Syrian refugees and Central American immigrants as potential terrorists and carriers of disease, to suggest that the worst wildfires in U.S. history were caused by a failure to rake leaves. But Trump’s attacks on America’s longstanding bipartisan norms are not just not normal; they are not good. As I noted in the caveats to last year’s awesomeness roundup, Trump’s incessant bullying, obsessive TV-watching, petulant name-calling, over-the-top bragging, transparent blame-shifting, racial scapegoating and shameless lying are behaviors that no good parent would tolerate from a child.

No one in Washington genuinely believes the Mueller investigation is going to wind down with a whimper in 2019. It is building toward a deafening roar that will force the system and the public to grapple with allegations of presidential crimes, or else with a presidential decision to shut down an investigation into those allegations. The president is a survivor, and his approach to survival mode will determine our foreign policies, our domestic policies and the politics of just about everything.

The underlying thesis of this annual awesomeness essay was that the actual conditions in America are more important than the frequently untethered political debate in Washington. And in 2018, yet again, there was much to celebrate about those conditions—peace and prosperity, more or less. But in 2019, that thesis might not be true anymore, because the political debate might dominate American life in a way it hasn’t in a long time, and has the prospect of changing the country itself. So perhaps this will be the last time I use this forum to say: Have a happy—and awesome—New Year.

Michael Grunwald is a senior staff writer for Politico Magazine.

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