Substance and style — it’s easy to get them confused or mistake one for the other. And they’re never entirely unconnected, though exactly how much so is a matter of debate.
That’s especially true when it comes to evaluating Donald Trump’s performance — a word particularly ambiguous in his case, as referring to either oratorical style or policy substance.
The new president’s detractors see a would-be autocrat threatening freedom of the press (“dishonest media”) and the independence of the judiciary (“so-called judge”). They see a barefaced liar or fantasist who maintains that his 306 electoral votes (two of which were cast for others) were more than George H.W. Bush’s 426 in 1988, Bill Clinton’s 379 in 1996 and Barack Obama’s 365 in 2008.
But the detractors’ case can be overstated — and often has been in the press, much of which seems bent on validating Trump’s news conference statement that “the press has become so dishonest.” They pooh-poohed his misleading reference to immigrant violence in Sweden, only to learn, from rioting just a few nights later, that it’s a real thing.
The press expects that Trump’s denunciation of leaks is the preliminary to a government crackdown on free speech. But so far, there has been nothing like the Obama administration’s subpoena of New York Times reporter James Risen, its naming Fox News’ James Rosen as an unindicted co-conspirator in another case and its prosecution of more leakers under the Espionage Act of 1917 than all previous administrations combined.
In substance, Trump’s administration has accomplished quite a lot in five weeks. It overturned a passel of Obama administration executive orders issued on the falsifiable and now falsified assumption that Democrats would hold the White House indefinitely.
The Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines are now headed for approval, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and Waters of the United States mega-regulations are on the way out.
Federal hiring is frozen, and two old regulations must be rescinded for each new one issued. The result has been some major changes in policy, as promised during the campaign — the way the political process is supposed to work.
The executive order blocking travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries has been blocked by a federal appeals court decision — labeled “totally unconvincing” by former New York top court judge and Trump critic Robert Smith — which the administration has meekly obeyed. A rewrite is being prepared.
Meanwhile, this week’s executive order enforcing existing immigration laws that the Obama administration refused to enforce (“prosecutorial discretion”) seems likely to deter future illegal entries. And it may well incentivize people who are already here illegally to, in Mitt Romney’s phrase, “self-deport” as state legislation in Arizona has done over the past decade.
Trump critics have pointed out, accurately, that immigration from south of the border has slowed since the 2008 financial collapse. The Trump enforcement strategy seems likely to slow it further, in a way that could falsify predictions of a majority-minority population by 2040 or so.
That’s consequential, whether you think it’s a good thing or not. And it’s probably what Trump voters hoped their candidate would accomplish.
Consider also the Trump record on appointments. The press is full of articles about the number of important positions still unfilled. True enough — and true also of the early Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations. It’s an inevitable result of the detailed disclosure requirements and Senate confirmation process required by statute.
And there have been headlines after the firing, only 24 days into the job, of national security adviser Michael Flynn.
But some of Trump’s appointments have been clearly first-rate. Defense Secretary James Mattis and new national security adviser H.R. McMaster not only bring records of impressive accomplishments as military leaders and thinkers but also have shown a steady willingness to speak truth to power.
Then there’s Judge Neil Gorsuch, who appears certain to be confirmed for the Supreme Court. In his engagingly written opinions as an appeals court judge, he has shown an openness to arguments from all ideological sides and to qualms about an ever-expanding administrative state.
These are not the kind of people you appoint to the highest positions if you aspire to impose authoritarian rule over a free people.
Nor are they people you’d appoint if you want to abjure alliance commitments or kick sand in the faces of allies. Trump has had amicable and constructive meetings with the elected leaders of Britain, Japan and Canada and has argued with Mexico’s leader not to argue in public about the wall.
So whatever you think of the style, you have to admit there’s significant substance there.