Back in November, in the wee hours of election night, I penned an Education Next column titled “Trump Happened.” I observed:
Trump had no coattails, but the result is that a Republican president is going to take office with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1928. Yep, 1928. What does this mean for education? For starters, the period between now and inauguration is going to be cacophonous. . . Once we get to 2017, Trump and the congressional Republicans will have a sprawling agenda ahead of them—and education isn’t high on it.
Six months later, where do things stand? First off, I don’t think I had any idea how self-destructive Trump would prove to be in the White House. I don’t think anyone expected him to change the outlandish and narcissistic rhythms of decades, but I did kind of assume that he’d be happy to give speeches, claim credit for stuff, live in the White House, and let the hired help keep him out of trouble. I didn’t anticipate how wild the palace intrigue would be, how much chaos Trump would sow, or how reflexively he’d use Twitter and public remarks to turn problems into crises.
Four months into his term, Trump boasts the worst approval ratings of any president since polling began. At this point in their presidencies, Gallup had most modern presidents—from Reagan to Obama—in the 60s. Trump is in the high 30s. A special counsel is investigating his campaign’s ties to Russia. It’s come out that the House Majority Leader jokingly wondered whether Trump was being paid by Putin. Trump is complaining of a “witch hunt” and hints that he has secret tapes. John McCain is publicly making Watergate comparisons.
For folks who have better things to do than track the Beltway bubble, the situation is remarkable. It’s not about policy or even the press so much as about Trump’s self-inflicted wounds. Forget the “neutral” voices; consider what prominent, unapologetic conservatives are saying. Erick Erickson, editor of Resurgent, observed, “The president exudes incompetence and instability. . . The sad reality is that the greatest defense of the president available at this point is one his team could never give on the record: He is an idiot who does not know any better.” The iconic Charles Krauthammer wrote, “Donald Trump’s character—volatile, impulsive, often self-destructive—ha[s] not changed since the campaign. . . The country is now caught in the internal maelstrom that is the mind of Donald Trump. We are in the realm of the id. Chaos reigns.” One could go on and on.
I don’t know what happens next. Over the past 18 months, Trump has shown a remarkable knack for surviving even the most self-destructive behavior. And, as my colleague Andy Smarick has noted, Trump’s recklessness has proven less damaging to the nation than we might have feared. Andy contends that the strong immune response to Trump has been a testament to America’s anti-fragility, meaning that the biggest victim to date has probably been the president’s own White House and putative policy agenda.
Hill Republicans have quickly tired of distractions and of defending Trump’s questionable decisions. Trump’s effort to push his “skinny budget” wound up as a Democratic win, and it’s no longer clear that he can even get a Republican Congress to enact tax reform this year. Oh, and the Affordable Care Act is 10 to 15 points more popular than it was the day Trump was elected. Support for immigration and free trade are both up too. In short, Trump has been a drag for the things that he has talked about most frequently.
Wondering about federal education or housing policy in the midst of all this can feel like playing wiffle ball in the middle of a hurricane. Thankfully, the world doesn’t stop when Washington is in turmoil. So, for what they’re worth, here are a few thoughts as to what this situation means for education.
One, keep in mind that Congress can only chew a little bit at a time when things are normal, and it looks like the House and Senate are about to choke on hearings, investigations, and writing a budget. So, take all the breathless reporting on this or that White House proposal with several grains of salt. Recall that Trump got rolled on the “skinny budget” and jammed up on health care before he fired Comey, the special counsel was appointed, and Republican senators started talking Watergate. With all the dumpster fires currently burning in the White House, things will be even tougher going forward.
Two, it’ll also be tricky for the Department of Education to do a lot through non-statutory means. For one thing, the Department has a skeleton crew in key leadership roles, and the ruckus means it will be harder to get new people approved—if only because the Senate will be preoccupied with other things. And, when administration staff are already leaking exit strategies, it makes it tougher to attract good candidates. Thin staffing, a skeptical media, a weakened White House, and the constraints in ESSA will make it harder for the Department to take bold steps. (Unless, of course, the White House mess is so distracting that the Department leadership feels like it can do as it likes.)
Three, advocates may be well-advised to keep their agendas removed from the White House. Trump’s penchant for clumsy remarks and incendiary tweets has managed to make sensible policy proposals sound radical and ill-considered. And his unpopular, polarizing persona seems geared to hurting causes he’s trying to help. That makes him a dubious champion, at best.
Finally, don’t be too quick to presume who the winners and losers are if Washington is doing less. For instance, the situation means that Trump’s sensible promise to give the reins back to the states on education is likely to play out in unanticipated ways. The Department of Education will not be pushing and pulling, but a lack of clear and forceful devolutionary leadership would mean that risk-averse state officials will generally default to inertia and the directives of familiar bureaucrats.
We’re in the midst of a remarkable presidency, one where the usual rules don’t always apply. So, as is so often the case with Trump, we’ll have to wait and see.
— Frederick Hess
Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.
This first appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.