During the 2016 election, many conservatives noted with disdain that Donald Trump had a history of veering left on, among other topics, gun control. They doubted the sincerity of his newfound allegiance to the Second Amendment, though that didn’t stop the NRA from pouring millions into supporting him in the general election.
At a televised meeting with lawmakers from both parties to discuss gun control in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, it seemed like the old Trump was suddenly back.
In comments that shocked political observers, and some of the Senators and Members of Congress in the room, Trump expressed support for the idea of an assault-weapons ban, challenged Republican Senator Pat Toomey with being “afraid of the NRA,” and derided the idea of due process as an obstacle to gun confiscations. He has also in recent days ordered Attorney General Jeff Sessions to proceed with a regulatory reinterpretation of federal law in order to ban bump stocks and similar devices.
Many on the right were outraged, even among usual strong supporters of the President. But reactions on the left were more mixed and even somewhat confused, as many came to appreciate something many conservatives and libertarians have already experienced. Simply put: Having Donald Trump on your side of an issue can often hurt more than it helps.
Proposals for deregulation or privatization that once had broad bipartisan support, like privatizing the air-traffic control system, can become toxic when embraced by this administration, particularly if given a public embrace from the President himself.
One exception has been the tax bill, which Trump did a surprisingly effective and persuasive job of selling during his State of the Union address. It was also, tellingly, Trump at his least Trump-like: Reading a carefully prepared script assembled by staffers and genuine policy experts. During the bill’s consideration and passage through Congress, he was a lot less helpful with his sporadic public comments.
Trump’s support frequently results in public opinion shifting the opposite direction
When Trump goes off script, he’s prone to tumble into remarks and framing that only help discredit the argument. In the aftermath of Parkland, both sides of the debate have gotten their taste of Trump the unhelpful ally.
First came the idea of permitting concealed carry on public school campuses, which Trump inartfully framed as “arming teachers” and then followed up with a ridiculous boast about how he would have rushed to take on the gunman himself if he’d been there. It was cartoonishly egotistical, and misrepresented the underlying policy proposals in a way that made the idea easier to attack.
Then came the left’s turn on Wednesday, when Trump blurted out “Take the guns first, go through due process second,” and attacked the idea of requiring even cursory judicial approval before police confiscated privately-owned firearms. This constitutionally deficient idea goes far beyond anything that’s been discussed so far. Proposals for a “gun violence restraining order” like the one adopted in California, still require going to a judge first before police can confiscate somebody’s legally owned guns.
For a while on social media, pundits on the left and right were briefly aligned in making the same observation: Such a comment from President Obama would have sparked howls of outrage. And for conservatives, the whole session seemed like confirmation that Trump was still at heart the “New York liberal Democrat” that his opponents alleged during the primary.
Just how strong is the Trump effect on public opinion? Since 1993, Gallup has been asking Americans a standard question to gauge their views on free trade vs. protectionism. For most of that time, the results were near-even, with hostility to trade in the lead from 2005 until 2012. Then came Trump, who made protectionism and railing against trade deficits and free trade agreements one of his signature issues. In 2017, those who saw foreign trade positively spiked to 72%, while those viewing foreign imports as a threat to the economy plummeted to just 23%.
It might be the case that the best thing for any cause in American politics right now, is to have the President of the United States embrace the opposite view. As the 19th Century libertarian Frederic Bastiat once observed: “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.”
(Photo of Donald Trump at the Marriot Marquis in November, 2016 by Michael Vadon via Wikipedia)