Trump’s Critical Third Year Begins

The Briefing, Vol. VI, Issue 52 – This week:

  • Happy New Year!
  • What to watch for in 2019
  • The coming left-wing scramble to challenge Trump can only help him


In 2016, we learned that everything we thought we knew about politics — and especially about conservative politics — was wrong.

To begin with, Republican voters stubbornly refused to care about what the pundit class, conservative and liberal alike, thought they did or should care about. Specifically, they weren’t offended by Donald Trump’s supposed gaffes. They weren’t upset when he committed what from others would have been considered unpardonable public sins.

Perhaps most important of all, and perhaps the secret to Trump’s success, is that Trump never let up. With very few exceptions, he resisted apologizing for anything he said. He doubled and tripled and quadrupled down, and it worked. This demonstrated a disturbing fact about American politics: Those who consider themselves experts in its finer points don’t really know much, and certainly not as much as they thought. Perhaps we’ve been listening to the ignorant all along.

In 2017, Americans learned that “presidenting” could be unlike anything they’d seen before. They got their first glimpse at what life could be like under the least conventional president in U.S. history. And they discovered that the Trump administration was an unusual animal indeed.

For the most part, the results have been excellent for conservatives from a policy perspective. There are a number of reasons for this, but one has been mostly overlooked. Establishment Republicans’ antipathy toward Trump’s candidacy during the primaries, combined with what appears to have been a misplaced fear of stigma for those who joined him, prompted many perennial Republican government-types to avoid joining his administration. As a result, an unusually large number of true-believing conservatives were given the chance to take key positions. They did, and they have been very effective, advising Trump on judicial appointments, tax reform, and deregulation, successfully influencing him on all three of these key presidential initiatives.

Trump’s conservative advisors have also tried to point Trump in their direction on trade, only to find that the president is his own man with his own ideas. He can only be persuaded to do so much. And the final chapter on trade — with respect to China, Canada, Mexico, the U.K., and Europe — will have to wait until 2019.

Trump appears set to exit NAFTA in order to force Congress’s hand in adopting his new trade agreement. It’s a gutsy tactic, and the sort of thing you wouldn’t expect from a typical president. It’s likely to work.

Beyond his administration, there’s also Trump himself — the first president to go on (almost) daily Twitter tirades. The most outspoken (perhaps) in his criticism of the media. And if you doubted that there was a president who could get under liberals’ skins worse than George W. Bush, you are doubting no longer.

Then there was 2018. It was clear throughout the first year of Trump’s presidency that it was dividing the nation’s urban elites and its flyover population like never before. And that division produced the 2018 election. The bifurcated result from November demonstrated just how much those divisions had widened.

Democrats gained 40 U.S. House seats, nearly all of them in urban or suburban districts where Trump is viewed as polarizing and underperforms with usual Republican voters. They also won in Arizona, a state which fits that description — a place where Trump had won but underperformed in 2016.

Republicans, on the other hand, gained two Senate seats on net, ousting incumbent Democrats in Indiana, North Dakota, and Missouri. What does that tell us? Two things. First, they did very well in flyover states where Trump had performed well in 2016. These states have not only substantial rural populations (compared to their overall population, anyway), but also large numbers of “Trump Democrats.”

In short, there are two Americas — one in which the Party of Trump lost badly, and another in which it swept all before it.

There were two other important results that bolster the case that Democrats’ victory was not overwhelming. First, Republicans narrowly defeated an incumbent senator in uber-competitive Florida. It was a win based entirely on campaign hustle and shoe-leather, in which Trump’s 2020 campaign participated heavily.

Second, the GOP pulled off upset victories for governor in the key states of Florida and Ohio. Those were critical. And throw in an unlikely victory by a gubernatorial candidate considered by the establishment to be too extreme to win in increasingly competitive Georgia (where Trump underperformed in 2016). These are all good signs for Trump’s re-election effort in states that he basically has to win.

So, what will 2019 bring us? It won’t hold the answer about Trump’s re-election, which will obviously come in the following year. But it might reinforce how high the stakes are, and it might also divide the country further than before.

1) The economy’s direction next year will be critical to the 2020 outcome — perhaps the most important factor. It is vital to Trump’s success that the job market remain strong, that the stock market recover from its recent chaos, and that the current tariff standoffs be resolved quickly. As in 2018, a good economy will not guarantee a win for Trump, but it will cover a multitude of sins and make the outcome better than it would be otherwise.

To begin the new year, of course, the government shutdown also has to be resolved, one way or another.

2) Meanwhile, there are better than even chances of another Supreme Court vacancy in 2019. Even if the ailing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg proves healthy enough to continue on the court as planned until after the 2020 election, Justice Clarence Thomas might well choose to call it quits while he knows Trump will replace him with a young conservative.

Given the ugly battle over Justice Brett Kavanaugh, everyone has seen already how a Supreme Court battle can have unpredictable political effects. So might it be in 2019.

3) With Democrats taking over the House, Trump’s biggest opportunity to make changes in 2019, aside from regulatory changes, will be with judicial appointments to the lower courts, which will last well beyond his tenure as president. It is clear that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is now prioritizing these and will probably focus on them as much as possible throughout 2019 and 2020 as well.

Trump has already gotten 85 judges confirmed — not bad, considering the late start he got. If he works at it, he could nearly double that tally just by the end of 2019. He will likely renominate all or most of the 70 judicial nominees he currently has pending (including nine circuit court nominees). He will then have to nominate 74 additional judges (including three circuit court nominees), plus 18 others for announced future retirements coming up in 2019.

This will be Trump’s longest legacy — many of the judges he appoints now will still be serving in 2040. Nineteen of President Ronald Reagan’s judicial appointees still serve today. A second Trump term, especially if it coincides with a Republican Senate, will give Trump the opportunity to shape the entire judiciary like no president before him. Democrats and their nuclear option, which came too late to do much good for Barack Obama, may have made Trump one of the most powerful presidents in history.

4) In 2019, Democrats will jockey for the right to challenge Trump in 2020. And it will be unlike any Democratic nomination process since 2004, as this time, there is no expected coronation and there will be no single underdog.

Instead, a motley and diverse group of Democrats will make campaign announcements and hold debates and eat fried Twinkies in Iowa and run nuclear ads against one another. They will engage in huge fights over who is progressive enough; who is sufficiently supportive of abortion; who is the most enthusiastic about government health insurance for everyone; who is the most opposed to reporting violent criminals to ICE for deportation; perhaps even who is “intersectional” enough, if they get really crazy. This is probably not going to hurt Trump.

5) Finally, there will be elections in 2019. In addition to any special elections that take place, there will be governor elections in Mississippi (likely to be a snooze-fest) and Louisiana and Kentucky (likely to be exciting). For what it’s worth, Republicans will try to demonstrate that they are thriving in the age of Trump, and they will have three GOP-leaning and Trump-loving states in which to do it.

To sum up, 2019 will be the year that sets the stage for Trump’s re-election. It will be the year he flexes his muscles with judicial appointments that Democrats, by their own fault, will not be able to stop. It will be the year when an economic swoon could doom him, or an economic surge could make him very hard to beat.

It will be another great year to watch, and we’ll do it together. Happy New Year!

Next time: We continue our look at Republicans’ 2020 path back to a House majority.