Broken promises in a time of 'plague'

Broken promises in a time of 'plague'
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“Promises and pie-crust,” Jonathan Swift once wrote, “are made to be broken.”

For Donald Trump, Swift’s ironic aphorism is a philosophy to live by. A candidate who fashioned an electoral majority out of a pledge to build a wall across the 2,000 mile southern border of the United States and make Mexico pay for it, President TrumpDonald TrumpOmar, Muslim Democrats decry Islamophobia amid death threats On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Trump cheers CNN's Cuomo suspension MORE meets or exceeds the stereotypes of the promise-making and breaking professional politicians he denigrates.

To be sure, Trump has kept some of his promises. The United States has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord, renegotiated NAFTA, and withdrawn from the Iran Nuclear Agreement. The Trump administration has reduced government regulations, capital gains and income taxes. The president has appointed conservative judges. 

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That said, his breaches of promise — especially when made during one of the greatest crises in our history — ought to give anyone cause for concern about his willingness and ability to do what a leader in a democracy should do: build public confidence by telling the truth; being clear and consistent; deferring to experts; taking responsibility for successes and failures on his watch; affirming the integrity and patriotism of critics; and refusing to pander, even if it’s in his political interest to do so.

Examples are not difficult to find (even if we exclude now abandoned promises to eliminate the federal deficit; grow the economy by 4 percent a year; allocate $550 billion for infrastructure projects; “drain the swamp” and appoint “the best people”).

In February 2017, President Trump promised to release a health care plan that would be better and much less costly than Obamacare “in a couple of weeks.” In July, 2020, he indicated on Fox News he would sign a “health care plan within two weeks, a full and complete health care plan… Nobody will have done what I’m doing in the next four weeks.” He didn’t. Instead of delivering on his promise to guarantee insurance for Americans with pre-existing conditions, Trump directed his Department of Justice to ask the Supreme Court to end Obamacare, which provides exactly that protection.

Trump told Americans that while he was in the White House they would “get tired of winning.” But when the pandemic made millions of people afraid of getting sick, losing their jobs, their homes, or their lives, he predicted at least two dozen times that the Coronavirus would “go away” (It didn’t). He assured Americans that Coronavirus test results often come quickly (the average wait time remains four days, and for 10 percent of Americans ten days or more); he said schools can open safely for in-person learning because children are “immune” from COVID-19 (They aren’t); he claimed — repeatedly — that hydroxychloroquine is an effective and risk-free treatment (It’s not); and he promises a vaccine may be available “right around” November 3 (It won’t).

Asked by Geraldo Rivera about a national moratorium on evictions, mandated in the CARES Act (which expired in late July), President Trump promised a solution “very soon”: “A lot of people are going to be evicted, but I’m going to stop it.” His executive order, however, only called on HHS and the CDC to “consider whether any temporary measures halting residential evictions… are reasonably necessary to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 from one State or possession into any other State or possession.”

The president promised, if re-elected, to do something only Congress can do: make permanent his executive order suspending payroll taxes, the source of revenue for Social Security and Medicare, two programs he repeatedly has said he would not cut.

Trump has blasted President Obama for signing executive orders, maintaining they amounted to an unconstitutional “power grab.” “You’re supposed to cajole,” he claimed, “get people in a room, you have Republicans, you have Democrats, you have all those people who get elected to do this stuff, and you’re supposed to get together to pass a law. Obama doesn’t want to do that because it’s too much work… He wants to go back and play golf.” Trump indicated he might not see his properties while in office because “I’m going to be working for you, I’m not going to have time to go play golf.” As of this writing, President Trump has issued 177 executive orders, far more than Obama’s 109. He was missing in action during the recent negotiations with Democrats on a pandemic stimulus package. And of May, President Trump had spent part or all of 248 days at a golf course, compared to Obama’s 98 during a comparable period of time. By mid-July Trump was beginning to close in on 300 golf outings; Obama played 333 times — in 8 years.

Since he came down the golden escalator at Trump Tower and declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president, Donald Trump has had a promising career as a politician. Unfortunately, he has not kept many of those promises.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of "Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century."