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Columnists
Shaken and stirred: One year after Trump

When President Donald J. Trump sent out a triumphal email to supporters a few days ago on the one-year anniversary of his astonishing victory, he put perhaps the only indisputable remark of his presidency in the subject line: You shook the world. This was one Trump digital communication that was dead-on accurate. No one could possibly argue that sentiment.

It was the year that shook America, that transformed our politics, challenged the underpinnings of our political system, shredded our notions of liberalism and conservatism, and overturned our preconceptions of the presidency, of presidential comportment, of presidential communication.

Almost nothing is the same. The overseas presidential trip, the White House press briefing, the character of the Republican Party, the nature of the Democratic Party, the way the president speaks to his allies, the way he treats his opponents, the strictures of diplomatic life, the profile of the mainstream press — all are changed, changed utterly.

American politics is thoroughly unrecognizable from its earlier incarnation — an untamed wilderness without discernable paths today, rather than the manicured lawn with the well-lit walkway it was before.

There have been dramatic changes in American political life before, to be sure. Andrew Jackson invited a democratic spirit and populace into the White House and into our politics. Theodore Roosevelt introduced an activist, progressive reformism into the presidency. John F. Kennedy mobilized the English language and injected it with idealism at a time of abiding practicality, and two decades later Ronald Reagan injected it with optimism at a time of overwhelming pessimism. Sometimes changes in American character do come from the top, though from political figures thrust into office by upswellings from the bottom.

It is impossible, at a mere year's distance, to offer anything more than a tentative verdict on the effect Trump has had on the presidency, though it is impossible, also, to ignore the early signals. In an office where teams of strategists, analysts and speechwriters once carefully sculpted the words of the chief executive, Trump has been informal and instinctive -- and prone to invective. This thrills his adherents and horrifies his opponents. In a role animated by ritual and draped with dignity, Trump has discarded ritual, sometimes traducing earlier, staid conceptions of dignity. His supporters applaud this, his critics deplore it. To his backers he is Harry Truman, giving them hell. To his enemies, he is the devil himself, emerging unapologetically from hell.

Much of this came into sharp focus in the past week. The Democrats took the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia. Almost certainly, more was made of this than those Democratic triumphs warranted; the Republicans took all four special House elections this year in contests where national issues were at play, while the elections for governor were conducted amid state issues. Besides, the percentage of the vote Republican candidates captured in both states was almost identical to the vote Trump received a year earlier. (In fact, the GOP vote increased by a tiny amount in both gubernatorial contests.)

But rather than offer the entirely plausible, and persuasive, argument that these results merely reflected the regular order — blue states remaining blue, a Democrat replacing a Democrat in Virginia and the natural progression of a Democrat to the governor's chair in deep-blue New Jersey — Trump attacked a man who, 24 hours earlier, he had supported fervently.

On the eve of the election, Trump sent out an email boosting Virginia GOP gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie, arguing, "Ed will be TOUGH on illegal immigration. He will CRACK DOWN on the MS-13 criminal gangs." After the election results were posted, the president took the opposite tack on Twitter: "Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for."

The only truly significant result of Tuesday's balloting may have come in Maine, where in a referendum voters chose to enlarge Medicaid spending after the governor, Republican Paul LePage, vetoed just such a measure on five occasions.

This will steel the determination of Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who has opposed her party's efforts to overturn Obamacare, to continue to balk at presidential entreaties.

American politics may look a lot different a year from now, after the Republicans' control of the House and Senate are tested in midterm congressional elections. Those contests may truly be referenda on Trump and his policies.

But this much is certain: Trump is not likely to change his profile or his comportment.

The question historians will have to answer -- and very likely it will be visible to the non-academic eye as well -- is whether the change in tone and timbre Trump has introduced into the presidency is a passing phase or a permanent transformation. Though bitter rivals before becoming post-presidential intimate friends and admirers, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter introduced a whispery, almost bashful style to the White House. That was overturned by Reagan, much the way the Coolidge/Hoover reticence and reluctance were overturned by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Whatever the long-term effect, Trump is both consequence and cause of a bitter, brutal style of American politics, sketched in blacks and whites, with hardly a patch of gray anywhere on the national landscape. There are in our politics today heroes and villains aplenty — in fact they are the very same political figures, just viewed from different perspectives — and few whispery, contemplative introverts. Those who exist in the dangerous middle of the road -- where, according to country folklore, the roadkill lie — are scarce, and scared.

The result of the Trump presidency may be the emergence of the shouted word and the impulsive tweet — a far cry from the notion, expressed 28 years ago by George H.W. Bush in his inaugural address, that his presidency would be "the age of the offered hand." This instead is the age of the clenched fist — and of the clenched jaw. No historical revisionism, for Trump or any of his predecessors or successors, is likely to change that assessment.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.


Editorial
House GOP tax plan benefits wealthy

Republican leaders in Congress finally unveiled their tax plan earlier this month.

Boy howdy, did they deliver.

Effects of the proposal were still shaking out on Thursday, but one thing is clear: The wealthiest Americans, including Donald Trump, stand to benefit massively from this proposal.

The bill eliminates the estate tax (which affects only the richest of the rich in the United States) and the alternative minimum tax (which is designed to make sure rich people don’t take advantage of so many loopholes that they don’t pay any income tax at all).

The bill would also slash the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent. The argument is that, by eliminating tax breaks and loopholes that businesses have used for years to keep from paying anywhere near 35 percent, not that much revenue would be lost.

But, as The Washington Post described it, “an army of lobbyists” is about to “lean on Congress in a bid to protect their preferred deductions.” If you think Congress will stand firm against that, we have several lovely bridges we’d like to sell you.

Republicans are hoping that, if they give the middle-class a tiny break — or muddy the waters enough that it’s not clear if they’re getting a break or not — then most people will be OK with the plan, and not care that it’s a vast giveaway to the rich.

It’s not immediately clear how the middle-class would be affected, but some changes are spelled out.

• Taxpayers would no longer be able to deduct the money they pay on state taxes from their federal income tax bill.

• Although the standard deduction for income tax filers would nearly double (from $12,700 to $24,000), the personal exemption would be eliminated. That tradeoff would hurt large families, although the child tax credit would be increased by a few hundred dollars.

• Medical expenses could no longer be deducted from federal income taxes, nor could property or casualty insurance losses.

And the kicker: This bill would add an estimated $1.5 trillion, to the national deficit. Remember when Republicans cared about adding to the deficit? Sure you do. It was when there was a Democrat in the White House.

GOP partisans say that money will be made up by a surge in economic growth triggered by the tax cuts. This is the same trickle-down, voodoo economics that Republicans have been pitching for decades. There’s still no proof that it works. In all likelihood, Americans will be left to pay that bill down the road.

The United States could use some good tax reform. Simplification is actually a good goal. This bill is not good tax reform. It’s a gigantic giveaway to the Americans who could use it the least. When your Republican representatives vote for this plan, remember whose water they’re carrying.


Columnists
Oil has a price. Wildlife? Priceless.

Froma Harrop

The Bible tells how Esau sold his birthright for a "mess of pottage." It is a lesson on the foolishness of choosing immediate gratification over something of far more value but in the future. Esau, in sum, traded his right to be recognized as the firstborn son — with all the advantages his society attached to that status — for a bowl of lentil stew.

A mess of pottage is being cooked up again in the form of renewed efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. The hunger temporarily sated would be for $1 billion — the proceeds from selling drilling rights — to help pay for a buffet of tax cuts over 10 years.

Bear in mind two things. One is that $1 billion would be a tiny drop in the ocean of $1.5 trillion in deficits the tax cuts would set off. And two, it's about seven times what some oil industry experts say the sales would actually bring in.

As the name implies, wildlife refuges are areas set aside for native mammals, birds and fish to multiply and flourish. President Theodore Roosevelt established the first wildlife refuge in 1903, Florida's Pelican Island.

Back in the "drill, baby, drill" days of a decade ago, many conservatives argued that exploiting the oil and gas reserves in the Arctic refuge would help free America from dependence on foreign oil. And it would bring down the price of gasoline at the pump.

Were the U.S. facing a national emergency (which we weren't back then, either), we'd be having a different conversation. Not only is America now far less dependent on energy imports but also it's become an exporter. And note that there's currently very little rending of garments over the price of gas.

Thanks to the shale oil drilling boom, the U.S. is the world's largest producer of oil and gas. Domestic demand, meanwhile, has flattened as Americans shift to more efficient vehicles. Consider also that the revolution in electric vehicles has barely begun.

Falling energy prices have destroyed about 100,000 oil jobs in Texas since 2014. The industry's one bright light has been a surge in exports being sent out of ports in Texas and Louisiana. Destinations include South Korea, India and, of course, China. Some of the crude from West Texas shale fields is ending up in European countries seeking supplies outside politically unstable parts of the Mideast and Africa.

So why all of a sudden do we have to invade our pristine wildlife refuges in the name of energy security? We do not. The go-to incentive for selling all kinds of American birthrights -- let's add health care security to our wilderness crown jewels -- has been tax cuts.

Those salivating over the tax-cut stew should know that ravaging the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would not make it fiscally responsible. As implied earlier, recent Arctic lease sales would point to a haul in the range of $145 million, nowhere near the $1 billion projected by the Congressional Budget Office.

It's unclear that drilling in the refuge would even make economic sense for the players. Analysts say the price of oil would have to top $70 a barrel to make drilling worth the companies' efforts. The U.S. benchmark price recently stood at about $57. Some think the price will rise, but others see it falling. This would be a risky bet.

One doesn't know how to put a price on the continued survival of arctic foxes, musk oxen, caribou and polar bears. Some cost-benefit analyses of environmental protections present tough choices. Sacrificing America's natural birthright to partially offset a rich person's tax cut would be a mess-of-pottage deal.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.