How the Democrats might save Donald Trump from self-destruction

President Donald Trump reacts to applause from members of Congress, Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., while delivering his first address to a joint session of Congress Feb. 28 in Washington. (CNS/Jim Lo Scalzo pool via Reuters)

Commentators have been erroneously predicting the self-destruction of President Donald Trump for so long that it is very difficult to give such predictions any credence. Yet, the possibilities of the Trump administration imploding are very high unless the Democrats save it. Why would the Democrats want to save the Trump administration? They don't, but they might do it without even knowing it.

Let's look at five ways that the Trump administration could self-destruct.

The first is by repealing and/or replacing the Affordable Care Act. Simply repealing it will upset millions of voters. The Affordable Care Act is more popular now then it was during the Obama administration, especially specific aspects of the program like not allowing insurance companies to deny coverage because of preexisting ailments and allowing children to stay on their parents' insurance until they are 26.

Losing these provisions would alienate millions of voters. The Republican response is to say, "We will keep those." What the Republicans really want to repeal is the mandate requiring everyone to buy insurance or pay a fine.

The problem is that the only way to make coverage of preexisting conditions financially viable for insurance companies is to force healthy people to buy insurance. Otherwise insurance premiums would go through the roof or insurance companies would go bankrupt.

You cannot force insurance companies to cover preexisting ailments without pairing it with a mandate requiring everyone to have insurance. The price of the politically popular coverage of preexisting conditions is the politically unpopular mandate requiring younger, healthier people to buy insurance. The Republican solution to this is to give greater subsidies to younger, healthier people so that they will buy insurance. The problem is that this is paid for by increasing costs for older Americans who are not yet on Medicare. 

Republicans also want to eliminate the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. There are certainly problems with Medicaid, especially in places like California where the payments are so low that many doctors refuse to accept Medicaid patients. But the doctors who do take Medicaid patients do not want to lose this money. More importantly, many hospitals have become dependent on Medicaid dollars since they are required to serve the sick who arrive at their doors whether they have insurance or not. Without Medicaid, many hospitals in poor areas and in rural areas will close. We have already seen scores of hospitals in rural America close when their states refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. These rural areas traditionally vote Republican. 

This is why the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association oppose the Republican healthcare plan. Need I remind you that most doctors and most people on hospital boards are rich Republicans? Thus, Trump has the potential of alienating millions of people, including significant Republicans, by repealing or replacing the Affordable Care Act. Once Trump repeals or replaces the Affordable Care Act, he owns healthcare and will be held responsible for any problems in healthcare, including premium increases.

How can the Democrats save Trump? By stopping the repeal or replacement of the Affordable Care Act. It is counterintuitive, but the best thing Democrats can do for Trump in the long run, is defeat him in the short run. With no change, the failures of the healthcare system will continue to be laid at the feet of Obamacare.

A second potentially disastrous plan for Trump is his attacks on existing trade agreements. What few people recognize is that free trade has been very beneficial to American farmers. American agriculture can beat out local farmers almost anywhere in the world because it is extremely efficient and subsidized by the federal government.

If the U.S. drops out of existing trade agreements and puts tariffs on imports, our trading partners will retaliate by imposing tariffs on American agriculture, which will make other nations like Argentina, Canada, and Australia more competitive. Mexico is already looking to other sources for corn. The Chinese and Europeans could put tariffs on pork, chicken, soybeans, wheat, and corn. If I were the Chinese, I would target my tariffs on agricultural products from Iowa and Ohio, two states that play a big role in presidential elections. And why not add a tariff to oranges from Florida while they are at it? That will get politicians' attention.

Need I remind you that rural America voted heavily for Trump and other Republicans? If Trump trade policies undercut rural America and cause agricultural prices to fall, their love affair with Trump will be short lived. They will turn on Trump and his Republican allies in Congress.

Added to this will be the higher prices consumers will have to pay for imports. If Democrats successfully portray this as the "Trump tax," he could go down in flames with cost-conscious consumers.

Will the Democrats save Trump from himself on trade? Probably not since Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' wing of the Democratic Party agrees with Trump on trade. They may even help him do his thing either because they think it is a good idea or because they figure he will take all the blame for anything that goes wrong. After all, few Bernie Sanders Democrats live in rural areas.

Third, Trump's immigration policies could turn around and bite him. The American children and spouses of undocumented immigrants will never forgive Trump for the fear he has instilled in their loved ones. More important politically, his anti-immigrant program will undermine rural areas by reducing the number of agricultural workers and thus raising costs for farmers. This is also true of the construction industry as well as hotels and restaurants. These industries have been fighting increases in the minimum wage, but losing a huge chunk of their workforce will force them to pay a lot more than the Democrats ever proposed. Farmers are already looking to hire more "guest workers," who cost more than their undocumented workers. 

Again, most of the owners and leaders in these industries are Republicans. How many times can Trump kick traditional Republicans in the gut before there is a response?

Here the Democrats will fight Trump tooth and nail because of their commitment to their Hispanic constituency. Whether they can save Trump from himself remains to be seen.

Fourth, there is the foreign policy field. Here Trump has promised to project strength while at the same time undermining alliances with friendly states. His budget will significantly cut domestic programs while increasing spending on defense. He has so little regard or understanding of the State Department that he has still not filled important positions there. Granted his appetite for conspiracy theories, almost anything could happen in the foreign policy arena.

My prediction is that he will bomb North Korea. It is an easier target than Iran, but will put Iran on notice that the U.S. is serious about nuclear proliferation. China will complain loudly but secretly probably be relieved that North Korea's missile and nuclear programs have been significantly degraded. If he does it right before the 2020 election, it might even get him reelected. The American people love to rally around the flag at the beginning of a war; it is only later that they begin to have second thoughts.

The danger for Trump is what happens after the bombing. Would North Korea invade the south? Will the regime collapse with refugees overrunning China and South Korea? Or, suppose the bombing does not successfully take out North Korea's nuclear missile program? What then? Even one nuclear strike against South Korea would be catastrophic. 

There is nothing the Democrats can do to stop Trump's foreign policy adventures. He is the commander in chief.

Finally, there is Trump's tendency to say things that are not true. I am not sure which is worse, that he is lying or that he might believe what he is saying. In any case, at some point, he becomes like Chicken Little. He has told falsehoods so many times, that people may not believe him when he has an important truth to convey.

For example, if the Iranians were cheating on the nuclear deal, would the media and Democrats believe Trump without substantial proof? Most people believed Colin Powell when he spoke about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction at the United Nations in 2003 because even his opponents considered him a man of integrity. History has shown that Powell believed what he was saying but it was not the truth.

Who would believe Trump under similar circumstances? Probably only his loyal supporters. Trump has a huge "hermeneutic of suspicion" problem. A large part of the American public, to say nothing about the rest of the world, believes he is a serial liar. How can he lead if people don't believe him?

His tendency to go back on his word will also have consequences. He prides himself as a deal maker, but he is also known as a deal breaker. No bank in the United States will loan him money because of his history of avoiding repayments through bankruptcy. Contractors have also been stiffed by him. He also fired the U.S. attorney for New York City after telling him only a few months ago that he could keep his job. Can anyone in Congress trust his word on a deal? He has already broken numerous promises that he made to the American voters during his campaign for the presidency.

All of this makes you wonder whether the Trump administration is going to end in farce or tragedy.

This provides the Democrats with a dilemma. They can fight Trump tooth and nail and perhaps save him and the country from himself. If the economy continues to grow, that could mean his reelection in four years because most of the country will be better off than they were four years earlier.

The alternative is to sit back and let Donald be Donald. Let him enact his disastrous programs. This would be terrible for the country and the world, but it might result in a tsunami of Democrats returning to office in the long run.

These are not good choices, but that we can even think about them shows what a mess we are in.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Thomas Reese's column, Faith and Justice, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.


Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here