Lionel Shriver

Trump is right about many things, which is why he must be stopped

10 November 2018

9:00 AM

10 November 2018

9:00 AM

At my lecture in Sheffield last week, the final question in an otherwise temperate Q&A was antagonistic. My last Spectator column led the man to conclude that I was a Trump supporter. Was this true? I was affronted. And let me tell you, these millennials are on to something. I spend way too much time causing offence, and far too little taking it. Huffing and puffing in indignation is so much fun.

Because I am not a Trumpster, I naturally rooted for the Dems to take the House in Tuesday’s midterms. Less intuitively, I did not want Democrats to take the Senate. I believe that DC is in such a perilous, fractious, hysterical and dysfunctional state that we are all safest with the American federal government in a state of maximum paralysis. I don’t want that government to be capable of doing anything.

In broad strokes, Trump is right about any number of items on his to-do list. That’s why he has to be stopped from acting on them. The areas of policy crying out for redress are too critical to make a hash of.

Trump was right, for example, that the American tax code, much like the UK’s, is obscenely complex and riddled with contradictions, injustice and perverse incentives. Having been kludged together in layer upon layer of exceptions, loopholes and quick fixes, US tax law recalls the lumpy build-up of chewing gum on the underside of a school desk. We might best have scraped back down to the wood and started from scratch. Rebuilding a fair, consistent, genuinely simplified system would have taken time, but the bother would have been worth it. My American tax return is two inches thick, and I don’t even live there.

Instead, Trump rammed through a hasty, careless, partisan bill that vengefully punishes residents in high-tax Democratic states — and since when is taxing taxes conservative? Lowering the corporate tax rate was at least economically savvy. As for simplification, the bill merely added another layer of chewing gum. Most of the cuts for individuals will expire in only a few years. Incredibly, the much reviled alternative minimum tax survived. Yet we have now, officially, addressed tax reform for the foreseeable future. One big missed trick.

Trump is right that Obama’s Affordable Care Act is unsustainable. As many commentators observed at the time, the original legislation did little or nothing to constrain the soaring cost of American healthcare. At 18 per cent of GDP and on course for 29 per cent of GDP by 2040, the burden of medical costs could single-handedly implode the whole American economy.

And never mind 2040. I have no understanding of how the math adds up now. As of 2017, the US spends annually over $10,300 per person on healthcare. (By contrast, the UK spends $4K per capita.) Average American household income is barely over $60K, and statistically a family of four uses up $41K of that on medical costs. Once they’ve put Band-Aids on their boo-boos, how do my compatriots ever afford a toaster?

Fortunately, in part because Trump loses interest when issues get too complicated, his administration’s attempt to scrap Obamacare altogether didn’t get through Congress. Note, however, that the bill he supported wouldn’t have faintly sorted a medical system just as kludgy, wasteful, inefficient, insensible and bureaucratic as the tax code. And it would have left tens of millions of Americans (many of them Republicans) high and dry with no insurance. The one bit of healthcare legislation Trump did get through dismantled the already-weak incentive for younger, healthier people to buy insurance: the ridiculously low fine on one’s tax returns for not having any. Thanks. That was a lot of help.

Trump is also right that American immigration policy cries out for an overhaul. For decades, the Feds have turned a blind eye to mass, low-skilled illegal immigration to provide cheap labour to particular industries, which through education, healthcare and welfare the public effectively subsidise. Asylum has been subverted into economic migration from disagreeable countries, meaning most countries. High-skilled legal immigration is an unpleasant, extortionate, protracted affair, and American universities expensively educate many gifted foreign students, only for ICE to kick them out. Recall my last column: immigration needs to be redesigned from the ground up in accordance with the country’s self-interest.

But what does Trump do? Obsess about his wall, which any Border Patrol agent will tell you is a fool’s errand. (Much drug and people trafficking is run under the border through a system of elaborate tunnels. The biggest source of illegal immigration is visa overstay.) The lengthy horror-show photo op this summer, when immigrant parents were separated from their children, made anyone who wants more effective enforcement of immigration law seem like a monster. In kind, the President’s slanderous rhetoric tars advocates of an intelligently self-interested immigration policy as fellow bigots.

Democrats are so crazed with blind crusading fervour right now that a divided Congress unable to pass major legislation is probably for the best; I don’t trust the opposition, either. But most of all, we need to keep Trump away from anything important. This President is dangerous less for being immoral than for being incompetent. Let’s not put too fine a point on it: the guy’s an idiot. He makes a Horlicks of any semblance of a solution to problems that really matter. He blows opportunities that might not soon come around again.

Liberals and conservatives alike have every reason to jelly this President in an immobilising aspic. Americans who care about fixing tax policy, healthcare, and immigration don’t want that man anywhere near these issues — and the same would go for anything else of consequence, like Iran, trade, the containment of China. What we want for the next two years is for nothing to happen, for Trump to be able to do nothing. I’d never have imagined it possible to hold one’s breath for four solid years, but this administration is doing wonders for my lung capacity.

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