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Patrick Luciani: Trump didn’t break America, but he tried

Commentary

Review of: Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America
Author: Maggie Haberman
Publisher: Penguin Press, 2022

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen once said that living with Trump as president was like living in a totalitarian state. Life with Trump was all-consuming, just like the Castros in Cuba, the Kims in North Korea, the Ayatollahs in Iran, and Putin in Russia. Your day is consumed thinking about one person and one person only. Donald Trump consumed our attention for the whole of his presidency and two years after he left office, yet he refuses to let go. Yes, he’s still around, but he is diminishing in our thoughts and slowly vanishing. He doesn’t scare us anymore because he has lost his power. Now he’s all bluster, panic, and desperation. This is not a good time to be Donald Trump. 

When New York Times journalist Maggie Haberman wrote Confidence Man, my first thought was, what could she possibly tell us that we don’t already know following the flood of books during Trump’s presidency? In reading her book, her intention wasn’t to come up with anything new but to document Trump’s character, methodically, before and after his presidency. A person she describes as insecure, vindictive, lonely, pugnacious, and addicted to television, with little interest in his country other than seeking its love and approval. This book was written for posterity, not to educate about someone we know so well.

 Nothing mattered but that people loved and worshipped him. But to con his countryman, he had another side, one more sympathetic. Haberman describes the Good Trump as “funny and fun to be around [and] capable of generosity and kindness.” In the end, Bad Trump was never far away, interested only in money, bullying, dominance, and fame, the drug that drove him every day. Trump measured his life by comparing his success to others. He had to be the richest, the smartest, and the one with the most beautiful woman. In one instance, he pulls former New York governor Mario Cuomo out of a club to show off his new conquest sitting in the back of his limo. Without introducing her, he said to Cuomo, “She’s a perfect 10.” It was the model, Marla Maples. Like a child, he had to show off his new toy that was better than yours. Trump never grew up. Harvard political theorist Harvey Mansfield describes Trump’s unabashed display of “manly vulgarity” and the ease he gets away with it. 

At heart, he’s also cowardly. Though his TV catchphrase was “You’re fired”, he had others do the dirty work. Trump wanted his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner fired but wanted his chief of staff, General John Kelly, to deliver the bad news. And it wasn’t the power of the presidency that appealed. Trump wanted loyalty but without reciprocity. He demanded that his generals—in a show of extraordinary ignorance—be more like German generals under Hitler. After serving 18 months, four-star general John Kelly resigned. He described Trump as a “fascist” with no interest in history and unfit to lead a constitutional democracy.

Other than his own, the hard work of policy and ideas held no interest in Trump’s imagination. He only craved love from massive crowds who came to adore him. When British Prime Minister Theresa May visited Trump at the White House after her victory, she could hardly get Trump to focus on issues. All he wanted to talk about were the crowds at his inauguration. He didn’t even know American U.S. troops couldn’t be deployed on American soil. The Constitution was something to be negotiated away if the price was right. In the traditional briefing with President Obama after the election, Trump showed no interest in matters of state but wanted to know how his predecessor kept his approval ratings so high. Some saw Trump’s crush on Putin as a tactic to move Russia away from China. His character belies that intention. It is easier to believe his motives were financial rather than geopolitical.

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Confidence Man carefully documents Trump’s life, his dependency on his father’s wealth, and his rise to fame despite the relatively few business successes and enormous losses, particularly in gaming. Yet he persisted; his once movie-star good looks managed to swing massive bank loans and generous government programs that kept his businesses afloat. It was the one talent he possessed; to con the rich and those who wanted to be rich. How else can one understand the idiocy of Trump University? One had to admire how he turned his name into a paying commodity with outsized ambitions but small-bore business skills. He had little use for the law or following rules other than to tie up his opponents in litigation for years. Others were richer, but he kept up the fantasy of success and fame to the point of deceiving his way into the Forbes list of wealthiest people.

Then he landed his dream job on The Apprentice, which brought him money and fame with the illusion that he was a business genius. As one voter said, “he’s a successful businessman; I saw him on television.” For many, Trump’s vulgarity wasn’t a defect but an asset. It meant he was one of the hoi polloi who hated those with high social standing. He both disdains and envies their education and intelligence while belittling them any chance he gets. Reading Haberman’s book, it’s shocking that Trump avoided jail time, given the corruption in his organization and New York’s real estate business. As president, Trump wasn’t there to reform the system but to bend it to his will and benefit. 

As Haberman reminds us, “he reoriented an entire country to react to his moods and emotions.” I would add, and a good part of the world. As pundit Jonah Goldberg said of Trump, his talent was to corrupt serious people and attract seriously corrupt people. In the end, democracy wasn’t subverted, and the rule of law survived. The drama isn’t over. The courts will have the final say in the coming year.

Sean Speer: Ontario desperately needs to get back to growth

Commentary

An end-of-year news release caused a major economic story to go mostly unreported late last year. The federal government’s announcement of its major fiscal transfers to the provinces and territories for 2023-24 revealed that the Province of Ontario will receive an equalization payment for the eleventh time since the program’s launch in 1957 and the first time in five years. 

There are extenuating circumstances at play. The interaction between high inflation and the equalization program’s design (which sees its funding envelope grow in parallel with nominal GDP growth) automatically led to an increase in the program’s overall spending and an equalization entitlement for Ontario. University of Calgary economist and regular Hub contributor Trevor Tombe has written a first-rate explainer on the policy peculiarities that produced such an outcome.

But it would be wrong to totally dismiss the news as an arithmetic aberration. Just because Ontario’s fiscal capacity exceeds the national average is hardly a sign of a dynamic and robust economy. It’s notable for instance that even before accounting for resource-based revenues, the province’s fiscal capacity lags that of Alberta and British Columbia.

This trend towards a middling economy didn’t happen overnight. As co-authors and I outlined in a 2020 policy paper, Ontario’s rate of economic growth has been in secular decline for decades. Over this entire century, its annual average growth is barely 2 percent. 

Slow growth isn’t without consequence. It’s become a cumulative drag on Ontarians’ living standards including relative to its U.S. neighbours. The province’s GDP per capita (which is a good barometer of its standard of living) exceeded that of its neighbouring states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania when I was born 40 years ago. Today Ontarians are poorer than their American peers from Warroad, Minnesota to Buffalo, New York. 

There’s a case that Ontario has in effect become the “sick man” of North America. And there’s reason to think it’s actually bound to get sicker.

RBC Economics projects that Ontario’s real GDP growth will be the worst among the provinces in 2023 and second worst in 2024. In fact, RBC anticipates that Ontario’s economy is the only one across the country that will actually contract over the coming 12 months. 

One would think that such a distinction would jolt Ontario policymakers into a pro-growth policy agenda. The province’s economy needs “shock therapy.” But it probably wouldn’t get it. 

The Ford government first came to office in 2018 with bold promises of an “open-for-business” agenda that has never quite materialized. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been any positive policy developments. Examples include: early regulatory reforms; tax reductions (including accelerated depreciation on capital investment as well as lowering business property taxes, and employer health taxes); significant investments in public infrastructure; some interesting developments on intellectual property; and Labour Minister Monte McNaughton’s ambitious agenda in the labour, skills training, and immigration portfolio.

But it’s fair to say that in overall terms the government’s record is underwhelming. Its early ambitions have mostly narrowed to an odd mix of populist economics, left-wing accommodation on COVID-19, education, and public spending, and a tendency to find itself in political controversy without the accompanying conservative reforms to show for it.

The province now finds itself at a crossroads. It’s stuck in a slow-growth cycle of sclerosis and stagnation. It’s no longer enough for the government to focus on frivolous issues. It needs to recommit itself to growth.

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The good news is that Queen’s Park already has something of a blueprint for a renewed focus on a pro-growth agenda. It just has to deliver on its own outstanding policy commitment to develop, implement, and monitor a long-term growth agenda for the province. As the 2021 provincial budget set out (italics added): 

The government will take further steps to create a more competitive environment for job creators through a plan for long‐term economic growth, informed by business leaders and entrepreneurs, workers and labour representatives, community organizations, experts and most importantly, the people of Ontario. Ontario will outline a long‐term growth plan that: 

  • articulates a clear vision for attaining higher rates of economic and productivity growth that will ultimately lead to a more prosperous provincial economy for all the people of Ontario;
  • undertakes an in‐depth analysis of the province’s competitive strengths and challenges;
  • provides goals to work towards over a five to 10‐year timeframe; and 
  • identifies initiatives that will achieve those goals.

Research tells us that such a clear, coherent, and transparent long-term growth strategy can tilt policymaking in a more pro-growth direction and mitigate some of the political economy pressures towards short-termism and special-interest policymaking. It can anchor the government’s policy agenda and enable greater alignment across ministries and policy areas.

Bringing expression to long-term growth ought to be the top priority in the lead-up to this year’s provincial budget. It’s hard to overstate how important it is that the Ford government reorients its attention to economic growth. A sustained period of economic underperformance will shift this year’s formulaic dip into equalization-receiving status into a new norm. Ontario is at risk of permanently becoming a “have-not” province.

The province’s only path back to economic health is through higher rates of productivity. There’s no other way around it. That means reckoning with its unhealthy dependence on the real estate sector, its wrong-headed emphasis on GDP growth in and of itself than rather than rising GDP per capita, and its geographical concentration of economic activity. It means in short getting back to broad-based growth.

The Ford government’s forthcoming budget therefore is a crucial moment for the province’s economic future and its own policymaking legacy. Will we get a long-term growth strategy or a smattering of “business-as-usual” policies? One should hope for the former but anticipate the latter.