“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” - Les February 29, 2016
During an election year that seemed to move at the speed of light, the above quote from CBS chairman Les Moonves was barely a one day story. The context of Moonves’s quote related to the record ad revenue his company and other media outlets were collecting and of course, the needle moved even more when Donald Trump was on their air. His comments were echoed by CNN President Jeff Zucker, who called 2016 “the best year ever” for cable news, and it was not because they were doing deep dives on the fine points of tax policy. Showtime aired a series about the campaign dubbed The Circus and an after-action report conducted by the Columbia Journalism Review found that in a six day period near the end of the campaign, the New York Times filed as many stories about Hillary’s email as they did in the final sixty-nine days about her policy positions.
With Trump’s victory last November, one would have hoped the media writ large would course correct. While The Washington Post boldly placed “Democracy Dies in Darkness” on its homepage and The New York Times brags about skyrocketing revenue from new subscribers drawn in by its purportedly aggressive coverage of Trump, 11 months into Trump’s first term in office, he has succeeded in waving many shiny objects in front of reporters’ faces even as the federal government, and its role in our daily life, has been radically altered.
For all the spinning on cable news that Trump has been a failure, I would argue that a week from now, when, in all likelihood, Trump has a splashy signing ceremony for the Republicans’ massive tax cut for corporations and the wealthy, he will have achieved as much in his first year in office as Barack Obama, and, over the long run, potentially much more. Here’s why:
Trump Is Reshaping The Federal Judiciary For The Next 20 Years: The top line here is the seating of Neil Gorsuch, a 50-year-old conservative jurist who may serve until the 2040s, on the U.S. Supreme Court, but it goes beyond that - Trump is one retirement (Anthony Kennedy) away from locking in that majority with a replacement who, like Gorsuch, may serve for 25-30 years. A worst case scenario where either Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Stephen Breyer (or both) retire before 2020, would be cataclysmic.
But Trump’s influence extends well beyond the Supreme Court. After all, while it does render decisions of great consequence, it also issues fewer than 100 opinions a year. The real action is in the twelve circuit courts of appeal, and there, Mitch McConnell has used the Senate as a turnstile, approving more of Trump’s nominees (twelve) in his first year in office than any President in history.
Republicans Are Dismantling Wide Swaths of the Regulatory State: Do you care about the environment? Sexual assault investigations on college campuses? Consumer protection against heavy-handed (or illegal) actions of major financial institutions? Having unfettered access to all corners of the Internet? I have bad news for you. All of those things are under assault, a two-pronged assault in fact, that has rarely been seen in Washington.
The first prong was predictable - Trump installed many regulated-industry friendly leaders as Cabinet Secretaries and administrative agency heads to either reverse or stay implementation of Obama-era regulations in many of the areas (and others) mentioned above. The other, less so. Republicans in Congress have utilized something called the Congressional Review Act, which grants Congress power to overturn, by simple majority vote, any regulation passed in the last 6 months of a prior administration. In total, Congress overturned 12 Obama-era regulations, including an FCC rule on Internet privacy protections, an SEC regulation that required energy companies to disclose payments to foreign governments, and a Department of Interior stream-protection rule, which prevented coal companies from dumping waste into stream valleys.
The Tax Cut Bill: The idea that we would borrow at least $1.5 trillion and hand that money to corporations and the wealthy at a time when income inequality is already at a level unseen since the 1920s is bizarre enough without considering several other things.
First, the tax cut bill is more expensive than advertised because the personal income tax cuts in the bill have a sunset provision in 2025. The Bush tax cuts had a similar sunset provision and were (mostly) made permanent when they lapsed, adding trillions in long-term debt. So too here. Some future Congress and President (not Trump) will be put in the position of trying to raise taxes or borrow even more to make the tax cuts “permanent.” WONDER WHICH ONE THEY WILL CHOOSE?! Second, the tax cut bill will increase the deficit. We have seen this movie before - first under Reagan and then under Bush 43 - tax cuts do not pay for themselves and the growth of government will result in a deficit that is already nearing $700 billion a year, swelling even more. This crowds out our ability to invest in things like research and development, infrastructure, and other social goods. Ultimately, interest rates will also increase, making it harder (and more expensive) to buy a home, a car, or other goods and services. Finally, the tax cut bill includes a repeal of the individual mandate under Obamacare. This will result in fewer healthy Americans purchasing insurance, resulting in insurance companies raising premiums on the rest of us. The repeal, along with other, subtle tactics that have undermined the ACA (smaller enrollment window, no marketing to get people to enroll, etc.) is further eroding this salutary public good.
What makes these changes so pernicious, is that they largely happen in the background, not all at once. Three or four years from now, politicians will fuzzy up the next economic crash or trillion-dollar budget deficit (remember, Republicans argued that Bill Clinton was somehow to blame for the 2008 market crash because he signed legislation that overturned the Glass-Steagall Act (which had largely been rendered moot anyway) and not the Bush Administration’s reckless tax and monetary policy and indifference to regulation.) Climate change is something that is felt over time, Miami is not going underwater tomorrow, and people will debate whether job growth or loss was due to policies enacted (or reversed) without a clear cut answer.
Even more consequential is how difficult it will be to undo the damage. As noted, the Supreme Court is one retirement away from having a conservative majority locked in for years to come. Regulations take a long time to promulgate and become effective (and that is before legal challenges that can slow things down even longer). Corporations, already awash in trillions of dollars, now have a green light to further consolidate, which affects everything from what we watch on TV, read in the newspaper, and view on the Internet, while giving them even more money to lobby for laws and regulations that benefit them. Had you told a Republican politician that in Trump’s first year in office, all of the above would be accomplished, I suspect they would be quite happy.
Of course, what also helps is the media’s disinterest in focusing on these issues. It is far easier (and profitable) for them to gorge on controversy instead of considering whether allowing coal companies to dump run off into freshwater is good public policy or not. Media conglomerates are also not neutral referees. They must be responsive to shareholders, not the public interest, and the more money that is shoveled their way, the more “the circus” plays on in Washington, adding to their advertising revenue and ratings, the less their incentive to be fair-minded arbiters of the public good. And for those small corners of cable news or the print/web media that are reporting on these ills, left-wing outrage is just as profitable as the right-wing version even though little can be done to change things.
Even if Trump resigned tomorrow or was impeached, even if Democrats take back one (or both) houses of Congress in 2018, the effect of the last 11 months will be felt for decades. It may not be good for America (or democracy), but hey, at least Les Moonves is happy.
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