Outside The Box: Donald Trumps Teflon Presidency Is Wearing Thin

Donald Trump’s presidency seems to consist mainly of one embarrassing meltdown after another. Other presidents would have been sunk by these scandals and slip-ups, but Trump always appears to emerge unscathed.

This is an illusion. Trump is doing his best to make his administration look like a non-stop episode of “The Apprentice,” where a tightly controlled script ensured Trump always came out on top.  But three recent developments remind us that things are different for Trump as president.

This week’s election results in Pennsylvania, Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, and the wave of student activism following the latest school massacre in Parkland, Fla. each make Trump’s vulnerabilities clear.

A president who has been eager to link his political fortunes to the financial markets will find it difficult to shrug offobjectively bad economic news that can’t easily be twisted to suit his agenda. Whether or not the economy veers off track, Trump’s Republican friends in Congress already see the writing on the wall for this November’s elections.  And although they can’t vote (yet), student activists are showing the rest of us a blueprint for political action that holds Trump accountable.

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The special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District provides the strongest evidence that Trump is not immune from the basic rules of politics. Trump is a deeply unpopular president, and that has consequences. As commentator Harry Enten observes, in seven special elections before this week’s, Democrats outperformed expectations by 16 percentage points. Democrat Conor Lamb outperformed by 22 points in winning a deep-red district Trump carried by 20 points in 2016, and there are more than 100 Republican-held House districts more competitive than the one Lamb won.  

No amount of spin can obscure the cold, hard facts. Experts see “a disturbing pattern for Republicans” that signals electoral danger for Trump and the GOP come November.

It is also possible that Trump will pay a political price for impulsive economic decisions he’s made in recent weeks.  Earlier this month, Trump, who reportedly was “angry and gunning for a fight,” announced tariffs on steel and aluminum imported into the U.S. Trump’s move is a risky one. While crowds may have cheered Trump’s “America First” campaign rhetoric, following through on protectionist promises could be a job-killer.  

Indeed, Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill and in the financial sector worry that tariffs could harm the U.S. economy.  Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) said the tariffs would have the effect of “impos[ing] a tax hike on the American people…that will harm both workers and consumers.” U.S. allies affected by the tariffs have threatened to retaliate in kind. Conservative columnist Bill Kristol warned that the day Trump announced tariffs would go into effectcould “be viewed as an inflection point” if “the world trade and economic order starts to crumble.”

None of this is pre-ordained, of course. It’s still not known which countries will be impacted by the tariffs (Trump has already been convinced to allow at least some exemptions, and more may follow).  But if and when tariffs go into effect against some countries, including perhaps close U.S. allies, Trump won’t be able to avoid the economic logic that greets his decision. Markets are already rumbling with uncertainty over the prospect of a trade war. 

Still, some will say that Trump will avoid accountability, as he always does, by promoting a “post-truth” world where objective reality itself ceases to exist and ordinary political rules do not apply.  

It’s easy under such circumstances for citizens to feel powerless, and Trump exploits this vulnerability — consider his autocratic declaration that he alonecan handle the problems the United States faces. 

But young people in Florida and across the U.S. are showing their elders how to puncture Trump’s dangerous manipulation: by speaking up and taking action. In just one month, they have built a powerful movement thathas already scored legislative victories while activating and energizing students as young as 11 years old. These students are telling us what in truth we already know: We alone decide whether there will be consequences for Trump and his chaotic presidency.  

Many Americans are now being proactive — organizing, speaking up, voting, and running for office. The implications for Trump are sobering. If Democrats win control of the House of Representatives in November, expect to see oversight hearings, subpoenas, and meaningful investigation of the Trump scandals, and perhaps even impeachment hearings (especially if Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation bears more fruit).

Trump’s Teflon shell is not shatterproof, and reality may have an unpleasant reckoning in store for this former television reality-show host. The president has no special gift that allows him to avoid consequences for his actions — unless Americans continue to participate in his charade.

Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs. His latest book, “ Power Without Constraint: The Post 9/11 Presidency and National Security ,” was published in May 2016 by the University of Wisconsin Press.


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