Political journalists cover what happens in American politics. That’s the job. And so, over the past year, we’ve written about the tax bill, the travel ban, the resistance, the tweets, the regulatory repeals, the looting of the American government. It was a long 2017.
What we miss in those stories is what doesn’t happen. But what doesn’t happen matters too. Time, energy, and money are limited. Opportunity costs are real, and that’s particularly true in a White House as unfocused, understaffed, and ill-managed as this one.
And so, in my 2017 retrospective, I want to explore some of the things the Trump administration didn’t do, and the price we may pay for it.
In 2016, the most recent year for which we have data, a record 63,000 Americans died from drug overdoses — and two-thirds (and possibly more) of those deaths were opioid-related. To put that in perspective, that’s more Americans than died from HIV/AIDS in the worst year of the epidemic, more Americans than die annually from motor accidents or gun violence. If current trends continue, opioids could kill 650,000 over the next decade.
This is a crisis that needs not just money but also focus, leadership, and creativity. Progress is possible — Vermont’s success has proven that. The federal government could be scaling up Vermont’s program; it could be throwing its vast scientific and public health resources into research and support; it could be spending real money on a race-to-the-top program to fund, study, and expand promising state and local responses; it could be working to change our cultural understanding of addiction, our counterproductive tendency to treat it as a moral failure.
Instead, capital — both financial and political — that could have gone toward solving the opioid epidemic was plowed into undermining the Affordable Care Act and funneling trillions in tax cuts to corporations. Trump eventually declared a state of emergency over the opioid crisis, but didn’t even ask for new funding to fight it. According to a member of his own opioid commission, he’s been “all talk and no follow-through.”
The opioid crisis is just one example. Others abound. Climate change, outdated infrastructure, college affordability, mass incarceration, child care, and much more deserves to be on a list like this. There was a vast array of problems more pressing, and policies more promising, than those the Trump administration pursued in 2017.
We will pay the cost for what the Trump administration did over the past year, of course, but we will also pay the price for what we did not do with that time and those resources instead. That price will be harder to see, but in the long run, it will likely be higher.
What if we hadn’t spent the last year trashing America’s global leadership?
In 2017, the Pew Research Center surveyed 37 countries and found “a median of just 22% said they have confidence in Trump to do the right thing in world affairs.” Trump’s behavior, meanwhile, has frayed our most important relationships. “The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over,” Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, said, in a stunning rebuke to the European–American alliance.
The world looks at America and sees a weakening power with chaotic domestic politics and a correspondingly unpredictable foreign policy.
All this has left China, with its expansionist ambitions, floored at its luck. Evan Osnos, who covered China for the New Yorker, told me that Trump “has been such a gift to them that they are suspicious it’s real. A few thousand years of history have taught them the universe is cruel, and they can’t quite figure out how it was that the cosmos delivered to them this American counterpart who seems so hell-bent on giving China a historic opportunity for leadership.” (Osnos expands on this idea in a must-read new piece.)
The time spent destroying America’s global leadership, giving China an opportunity to accelerate its rise, and rewarding Russia for interfering in our elections could, under another administration, have been time spent building new relationships, modernizing our military, leading the world’s fight against climate change, taking cybersecurity seriously, and preparing ourselves for the problems of the future.
And America’s global brand matters for reasons beyond geopolitics. As our standing drops, consider the inventors who, looking at an angry and unwelcoming America, may not come here, the PhD students who may choose not to stay here, and thus the companies and ideas that will not be born here, and perhaps not born at all. It has been to America’s benefit that Silicon Valley took root here. Its successor may not.
These are costs we will never quite know if we’ve paid. You don’t miss the business that didn’t get founded, the patent that never got filed, the experiment no one ever attempted. Similarly, if countries developing in this era attach themselves a bit more closely to China’s model than to our own, if they look at America and see a society that’s less worth of emulation than was once true, there will be a cost to that too — a cost in liberty around the globe, in the values that animate the international order, and it could be immense, even if we never quite realize we’re paying it.
What weren’t we thinking and talking about?
Politics in the Trump era is, for many, a terrorizing distraction, a daily obsession. It crowds out other questions, pursuits, ideas, discussions. Trump has weaponized social media and cable news, he has mastered the news cycle by owning our outrage, he has learned that he can command the conversation by lobbing incendiaries into our cultural and tribal divides.
As a result, he takes up inordinate mental space, among both his supporters and his opponents. As this analysis from Echelon Insights shows, Trump dominated the national conversation on every single day of 2017:
What if we had not spent all of 2017 thinking about Donald Trump? What if all those mornings hadn’t been dominated by his tweets, if all those evenings hadn’t been spent absorbing new evidence that his campaign was linked to Russia and that he was trying to obstruct the FBI’s investigation? What other conversations would we have had, what other issues would have filled the space?
I don’t pretend to know the answer. But I don't believe that the role politics is playing in so many of our lives now is healthy, that the daily pitch and tone of the conversation is constructive. Even if you celebrate political engagement, and I do, this isn’t a renewed civic spirit, but a sense of emergency, of threat. It, too, is a cost, and we are paying it daily, with untold long-term consequences for our country.