Media – Politics – Satire
Updated: date
Published: December 23, 2018

Canadian media pundit Conrad Black has been drinking too much Trump brand Kool-Aid

Writing from Washington, D.C.

Conrad Black at the 2013 CFC Annual Gala & Auction.

Editor’s Note: Stan Crock is a distinguished American journalist with a degree from Columbia Law School and a finely-honed bullshit detector. He takes former Canadian media baron Conrad Black to task for his positive comments about the track record of President Donald Trump in an October 2018 National Post column written by Black. Stan’s colorful biography can be found here.

In his National Post column of October 8, 2018, former Canadian publishing magnate Conrad Black wrote this about U.S. President Donald Trump: Most Canadians think Trump “is a buffoon, a bully, and a windbag, and don't confuse them with the facts, such as that he is a very successful president.”

Is Conrad Black a George Orwell pen name? Was Black separated at birth from Trump, receiving some of the same genetic allergy to reality and facts? The opposite of what Black said is true, though without any Orwellian irony. Trump IS a buffoon, a bully, and a windbag. And that’s an understatement. He is a pathetic, petulant, puerile, incompetent, venal and ignorant excuse for a human being and president. The notion that he is a very successful president depends on a definition of success that defies reason.

Black did make one accurate comment: his concession about Trump’s “tendency to unwisely provocative comment.” But that’s about it.

A key point Black tried to make, for example, was that the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was part of Trump’s “war to evict the entire political establishment of both parties.” Trump had some momentum, having won the Republican nomination, the election, and initially control of Congress. Kavanaugh gave him control of the Supreme Court as well.

Black’s use of “war” suggests a plan and strategy. Former Bill Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart similarly opined on CNN that Trump’s attacks on the Ninth Circuit and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts were part of a strategy epitomized in Trump’s inaugural address, in which he painted a dark picture of an America only he could save. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” Trump declared. This all is a justification for a power grab, Lockhart concluded, for if things are going well, there is no need to accrue more power.

Both Black and Lockhart are wrong. Trump lacks the gray matter for a strategy. As Bob Woodward’s book, Fear, documents, national security officials repeatedly tried to explain to Trump that the U.S. trade agreement with South Korea and keeping a missile defense system in South Korea instead of in the U.S. have critical, intertwined security implications for the peninsula, relations with China, and U.S. security. And that our policy prevents World War III. Seniors advisers also explained that trade deficits are not the economic Armageddon Trump thinks they are. No matter how many times they repeated all this, Trump didn’t get it.

President Donald Trump poses for his official portrait at The White House in Washington, D.C. on Friday, October 6, 2017.

International relations often is a five-dimensional chess game, and Trump can’t figure out the next move for tic-tac-toe. He is incapable of a strategy. His actions are what I call GRAPS – “gut reaction at perceived slights.” Trump’s attacks on the Ninth Circuit, calling it a “complete and total disaster,” are not part of a grand scheme, but a below-the-belt, knee-jerk (pun intended) punch at a target that can’t respond. Trump felt attacked by a court ruling that blocked yet another immigration executive order because he overreached. It was not an attack. The court looked at the executive order, as well as the law, and saw the conflict. But Trump perceived it as an attack and responded as he usually does, like a 7-year-old. Trump has a lot of fixed ideas that are not factual and refuses to learn that he is wrong.

Black showed that he, not other Canadians, misunderstands America when he predicted the Kavanaugh fight would enable Trump to “solidify Trump-Republican control of the Congress.” The fight over Kavanaugh backfired and arguably lost Republicans the support of college-educated women in the growing, vote-rich suburbs. That led to a big victory by Democrats in the midterm elections for the House of Representatives on November 6, 2018, and may well have set the stage for Trump’s defeat in 2020. Democrats crushed Republicans in three states – Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania – that were crucial to his success in the 2016 presidential election. And Trump is doing nothing to broaden his appeal.

Black posited that Trump would be “only the third president since the Civil War (Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson were the others) to control the Congress and have a Supreme Court in sympathy with his views also….Thus is Trump rewarded for producing four-per-cent economic growth, a full-employment economy, shrinking energy imports, the revival of serious nuclear-arms control, a reduction of illegal immigration, and a Western alliance that isn't just a league of pick-pockets.”

Can someone please give Black a pan to make breakfast with the eggs he has to wipe off his face? Don’t EVER mention Trump in the same breath as FDR and LBJ. Or anyone besides maybe Third Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Trump no longer controls Congress. And his fact-free, infantile spat with the judiciary could motivate the courts to assert their independence. It takes a lot for a Supreme Court Chief Justice to rebuke the White House, but Trump’s unwise provocative comments managed to do just that.

Even before Trump’s inflammatory remarks, judges appointed by a variety of presidents overturned dozens of administration actions. Trump abandoned a transition operation so his team never learned the missions and operations of government agencies, as Michael Lewis documents in his new book, The Fifth Risk. As a result, his appointees lack basic knowledge of how to govern and provide a justification for their actions, as the law requires. Of course, many of the actions can’t be justified and exceed executive branch authority, violating either the Constitution or statutes. So any judge who hasn’t been lobotomized would block them.

But let’s put aside jibes and rhetoric for a moment and try to confuse Black with facts. Trump’s alleged successes – according to Black in his column – are listed in italic type in the points below. For each of Black’s claims of a Trump success, I explain the reality in plain text immediately after:

  • Four percent economic growth: The GDP growth rate in Trump’s first year was 2.3 percent. To be fair, the economy of the first year of an administration reflects the policies of the previous administration, so you shouldn’t count it. So let’s look at 2018. For the first three quarters, GDP growth averaged 3.3 percent, not 4 percent, and not much above the 3.22 percent average since 1947. Not exactly something to crow about. Trump had one quarter of 4 percent growth, then reverted to the mean. And Trump’s refusal to lift a finger about climate change will damage long-term economic prospects, according to his own administration’s report. If you want 4 percent growth, look to the Clinton administration, which had it in five of its eight years. (Historically, growth is faster under Democrats than under Republicans. That Republicans have a reputation for better economic stewardship shows that Republicans have used a Goebbels strategy successfully for a long time.)
  • To be sure, growth under Trump was faster than under President Barack Obama. But President George W. Bush saddled Obama with a financial-crisis-induced recession, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Recoveries from financial-crisis recessions are far slower than from run-of-the-mill, business-cycle recessions. And the economy performed better under Obama than the average of recoveries after previous financial-crisis recessions. On average, unemployment in such circumstances rises 7 percentage points over five years, while under Obama, unemployment rose 5.6 points over only two-and-a-half years. Because Obama’s and Trump’s circumstances were so different, comparing growth rates for their administrations would be comparing apples with elephants.

  • Full employment: Unemployment is at rock bottom, and that’s terrific. (Unemployment was 3.7 percent in October 2018 when Black wrote his column.) Job growth was slightly higher during the first 10 months of 2018 (average of 196,000 monthly) than the first 10 months of 2016 (average 182,000), Obama’s final year. But the labor force participation rate has been below 63 percent for almost all of Trump’s presidency, while it was above that figure for almost all of Obama’s presidency. The drop in labor participation rates inflates the cut in the unemployment rate.
  • Here’s how that works. Let’s say there are 200 working-age people in the population, 100 of them are working or seeking work (are participating in the labor force), and 90 of them are employed, and 10 are unemployed. That would be a 50 percent labor force participation rate (100 out of 200) and a 10 percent unemployment rate (10 out of 100). Let’s say the next month, the 10 unemployed people get discouraged, stop looking for work, and are out of the labor force. Meanwhile, no new jobs are created. So now 90 out of 200 are participating in the work force, lowering the participation rate to 45 percent. All 90 participants are working, so the unemployment rate plummets to zero without one new job created because the denominator of labor force participation shrank from 100 to 90.

When unemployment hit the Obama administration high of 10 percent in October 2009, labor force participation was about 65 percent. It then started a pretty steady decline, dipping below 63 percent in December 2013, when the unemployment rate was 6.7 percent. Obama benefitted from this lower participation rate as the unemployment rate dipped to 4.7 percent at the end of 2016. Commentators noted that connection. But they don’t make it as often about the benefit Trump gets from that trend. For example, if the labor participation rate now were 65% – roughly 5.4 million more people – and we had the same number of people employed as we do today, the unemployment rate would be 6.9%.

    Black notably did not mention this issue. Nor did he mention that Trump has proposed nothing to change this undesirable trend, such as a program to bring people back into the labor force (other than the preposterous notion of restoring coal mining jobs).

  • Shrinking energy imports: The yolk is on Black again. Crude imports in 2017 were higher than they were in 2016, 2015, and 2014, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. Imports rose steadily from 2.68 billion barrels in 2014 to 2.89 billion in 2017. Imports of fossil fuels for the first eight months of 2018 came to 16.994 quadrillion BTUs, down from 17.244 in the first eight months of 2017, but up from 16.993 in the first eight months of 2016. So it’s not clear whether energy imports will shrink by year’s end. That depends partly on the strength of the economy. If it doesn’t crater and demand for fuel is strong, imports may not shrink.
  • Another aspect of energy policy, net imports, clearly is heading the wrong way, thanks to Trump’s benighted trade spats. As Oil and Gas Journal reported in September, 2018: “The nation’s overall petroleum trade balance went from net imports of 2.9 million b/d [barrels per day] in June to 4.54 million b/d in August, which is more than a 56% increase in 2 months. ‘Placing constraints on exports of American-made energy works against America’s energy future,’ said API Chief Economist Dean Foreman. ‘While the picture is still a bit muddied, it seems to be getting clearer—the trade war appears to be limiting the US’s access to crude export markets. As we produce more energy here at home, the US needs markets for its products in order for our economy to continue to grow. There’s no question that the 1.6 million b/d increase [of] US petroleum net imports, which undid a full year’s worth progress, is a setback to the US’s goal of energy dominance.’”

  • Serious nuclear-arms control: What serious arms control? If Trump had his way and everyone bowed out of the Iran nuclear deal, Tehran would be free to go full-speed ahead with a weapons program with no inspections. North Korea manipulated Trump as it made vague promises, Trump declared mission accomplished, and Pyongyang continued to build new nuclear facilities. Trump threatens to dump the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement with Russia, which eliminated thousands of warheads, so he can build more of them, as Russia is doing. That’s an Orwellian version of arms control if I ever saw one.
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Russia-U.S. summit in Helsinki on July 16, 2018.

    But oh, I forgot. We can rely on Vladimir Putin’s good faith, which he has demonstrated repeatedly in Crimea, Ukraine, Georgia, elections in the U.S. and elsewhere, while poisoning, shooting, or jailing opponents. But all that aside, Trump surely can use his relationship with Putin to wrest a great deal. Trump proved his mettle in a Russia-U.S. summit meeting in Helsinki on July 16, 2018 when he kissed Putin’s ring and posterior. Maybe that $50 million penthouse Trump supposedly promised Putin will buy some goodwill.

    Trump is many things, but serious is not one of them, including as a negotiator. As Russia, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea are finding, there are few world leaders who are easier marks. And he receives nothing in return for giving these countries passes on their murderous behavior. (I guess he is serious in one respect, a serious threat to world order.)

    Trade is another area where Trump is a snake oil salesman and chump. Take the new trade deal with Canada and Mexico, which Trump touted as a great breakthrough and deal for all three countries. As usual, he utterly lacks credibility. I talked to two American and one Canadian trade experts who all agreed that the new accord, for the most part, merely tweaks parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which Trump regularly trashed. Much remains intact. NAFTA II added some new sections dealing with areas such as data security and the Internet, which were not issues when the original NAFTA took effect in January, 1994. But those needed updates differed little from provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump also trashed. Consistency has not been Pinocchio-in-Chief’s strong point.

    If NAFTA is essentially unchanged except for the updates, it is indeed a great deal for all of the countries because the original was – something Trump never would acknowledge because it’s a factual statement. The U.S. especially benefitted. In January 1994, when NAFTA took effect, there were 16.9 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Four years later, though some jobs indeed moved to Mexico, there had been far more gains, and the number of manufacturing jobs actually increased to 17.6 million.  The rise reversed what had been a steady decline since May 1979, when the number hit 19.5 million. That’s not something most Americans, and certainly not Trump, know.

    That’s just part of the story. U.S. employment overall grew 21 percent between 1993 and 2007. In the decade after NAFTA took effect, the U.S. economy grew 44 percent, significantly faster than the economies of Mexico and Canada. During that decade, U.S. exports to Mexico and Mexico’s exports under NAFTA grew at similar rates—more than 200 percent. But these figures don’t give the full picture. For example, of every $1 of Mexican manufactured exports that arrived in the United States, 40 cents came from parts and materials made in the U.S. To be sure, in a complex economy, it’s impossible to isolate one cause such as NAFTA for an economic boom, but it’s also impossible to show that NAFTA overall hurt U.S. workers.

    So is NAFTA II a great breakthrough that only Trump’s negotiating genius could achieve? Of course not. Aggravating matters, Trump’s illegal tariffs on steel and aluminum (they violate U.S. law) may offset any benefits from NAFTA II. One of my relatives works for a building-management firm that is getting hammered by price increases due to the tariffs. Another friend’s firm uses an aluminum product not made in the U.S. Because of tariffs, the price has sextupled, and the wait time for delivery has more than tripled. His customer: The U.S. government. So Washington and taxpayers are getting screwed.

    They are not alone. The Federal Reserve’s December Beige Book, a review of economic activity in the Fed’s 12 districts, said margins were narrowing because input costs rose faster than final goods prices. Most of the Federal Reserve’s 12 districts saw only modest to moderate growth from mid-October through late November 2018, while Dallas and Philadelphia noted slower growth, and St. Louis and Kansas City noted just slight growth. Tariffs were also hurting the agriculture sector. Economic headwinds are starting to blow.

    Then there is the trade deal with China. The “incredible” deal Trump struck with Beijing is indeed incredible, but not the way Trump meant. What is not credible is that China will give up its business model – illegal and unethical ways to obtain intellectual property; subsidies to target industries; and the Made in China 2025 vision – for a 90-day delay in tariffs. The stock market realized on December 4, 2018 that Trump was blowing smoke, and that was one reason the market dropped 3 percent that day. If Trump were a tough negotiator, he would have imposed the tariffs to force China to move fast on reforms. Instead, he delayed tariffs while getting nothing substantive in return.

    Why? Not because he’s a great negotiator, but because he had to fix a crisis of his own making at home – in effect a huge tax increase for U.S. businesses and consumers. As the effect on my relative’s and friend’s companies ripples through the economy, companies will lay off workers as the 2020 election approaches. Trump had to do something to stem the tide because when he acts impulsively, he simply can’t see the next move until he gets blindsided.

  • Reduced illegal immigration: Numbers on illegal immigration actually don’t exist. The proxy is arrests at the southern border. That number declined in 2017 to 304,000 from about 400,000 in 2016. But the figure has declined steadily from the 2000 peak of 1.64 million. Under Obama, the number went from about 700,000 to 400,000. It’s not as if reducing illegal immigration is a novel Trump initiative. But the numbers for 2018 actually are heading in the opposite direction. The total of 340,030 apprehensions near the southwest border and individuals deemed “inadmissible” for the first eight months of fiscal year 2018 were 10.8 percent higher than during the first eight months of fiscal year 2017. If Trump cuts funding to Honduras, Guatemala and others countries – thus creating refugees instead of helping the countries address the root causes of emigration – the cross-border numbers will continue to climb.

A Western alliance that isn’t just a league of pickpockets: Thanks to Trump, it is fast becoming a Western alliance that just isn’t. Trump has antagonized every one of our traditional major allies while sucking up to our enemies. European leaders now want their own military because the U.S. president no longer is reliable. Characterizing allies as pickpockets might make sense if the U.S. got nothing for its military investments. In fact, no country has benefitted more than the U.S from the post-World War II order, which Washington helped create. No country has seen more prosperity. No country has seen more global cultural and social influence. No country has provided more humanitarian aid to help the world’s most vulnerable. With remarkable speed, Trump has reversed all that progress. The U.S. now is anathema, not an archetype.

    Black’s litany of “successes” actually highlights a lot of the ruinous Trump policies. Black also ignores that Trump has undermined every important component of U.S. strength: the FBI, the intelligence community, the military, the Justice Department, the judiciary, the First Amendment, the NATO alliance, free trade, the Federal Reserve Board, and elections. And he ignores the elephant in the room: the Mueller probe. While Trump, indeed, won the Electoral College vote, his legitimacy has been undercut because Russia’s strategic hacking and the hush money Trump paid to avoid disclosure of sexual dalliances before the election suggest he won through fraudulent means. In his National Post column, Black did not even try to defend Trump on these scores, perhaps realizing he couldn’t.   

As important as anything else is Pinocchio-in-Chief’s utter evisceration of the concept that what comes out of a president’s mouth is true and important. He is willfully indifferent to the truth and cares only about the impression he leaves of himself – the definition of a bullshit artist. To be sure, not everything that came out of a president’s mouth in the past was true (Richard Nixon, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Bill Clinton, to name a few). But for reporters, covering the White House was a solemn and sought-after job because for the most part that was where you could find an accurate exposition of considered strategic policy. In the Trump White House, one finds neither truth nor consideration nor strategy.

CNN’s Jim Acosta reporting from a campaign rally held by presidential candidate Donald Trump in Las Vegas on February 22, 2016.

Trump has so violated the norms of White House processes that the press corps should acknowledge that by not enabling Trump to dictate the day’s headlines with whatever diversionary tactic he devises. Instead of ceding that power to Trump, editors should exercise news judgment, ignoring fabricated falsehoods and focusing on facts and reality as dispensed by those with a record of accuracy. That may not be what Trump wants the story to be that day. Tough.

Some fundamentals about Trump just won’t change. He demonstrates the profundity of his ignorance when he continues to talk about NATO dues. Countries have pledged to contribute 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) to their own defenses, not to NATO. But does that figure make sense? Strategy should determine budget. Budget should not determine strategy. Put the horse first.

What does strategy dictate? We don’t need to worry about Soviet troops streaming through the Fulda Gap as we did during the Cold War. The issue today isn’t how many sorties we need to hit a target, but – thanks to cheap smart bombs – how many targets we can hit with one sortie. That means we don’t need as many military aircraft. Terrorism, cybersecurity, China’s oceanic land grabs, Russian incursions, North Korean nukes, and Iran are the top issues. They don’t require the same level of defense spending as the Cold War did. Is Trump asking what the spending requirements are for future strategic needs? Is he asking why Iceland, with no army, should spend 2 percent of its GDP on military spending? Of course not.

Black ignores one of the most troubling aspects of the Trump presidency, one that has largely gone under the radar: the implications of the yawning budget deficit that his profligate tax cut spawned. The reason it is dangerous is that no one has repealed the business cycle. At some point the long-running economic expansion will peter out. Analysts said that was another contributing factor to the stock market plunge on December 4, 2018 and the market has declined even further since. The sharp drop in new jobs in November, 2018 to 155,000 from 250,000 in October may be another harbinger, though I don’t like making predictions based on a snapshot.

But we can look at history. Expansions since 1854 have averaged 39 months. They have averaged 59 months since 1945. The current expansion has lasted 114 months. The expansion from 1991-2001 lasted 120 months. Both are outliers that bring up the average. (Note the overwhelming majority of these two long expansions were during Democratic presidencies.) The expansion will end. The only question is whether the downturn will be a mild business-cycle downturn or something more dangerous. The latter is possible because Trump is dismembering financial safeguards put into place after the Bush financial collapse. Financiers may be able to play dangerously with other people’s money yet again. Who knows where the danger lies? Underfunded state pension funds? Student debt?

Whatever the reason for the coming downturn, the tax cuts and resulting deficit put the administration in a fiscal box. It has little room to enact a financial stimulus package because of the debt. Compare the situation now with what Obama faced. The budget deficit as a percentage of GDP was 1.1 percent in 2007 and jumped to 3.1 percent in 2008 because of Bush's bank bailout, which was necessary. The 1.1 percent figure was historically low, so it was a good baseline to start with as the government financed a way to crawl out of the recession. With Obama's stimulus package and plummeting revenue because of the recession, the deficit as a percentage of GDP soared to 9.8 percent in 2009, the highest figure since World War II. But that stimulus package was critical to bringing the U.S. and global economies back from the brink.

Today, thanks to the GOP's woeful fiscal irresponsibility, the starting percentage will be 4.6 percent in 2019 and 2020, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That's not assuming a financial debacle. It’s a horrible starting point. And this does not assume much spending to alleviate what former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers aptly called the infrastructure deficit, another national disaster. Are Republicans willing to eat their fiscal-hawk principles with a Republican in the White House? If the past is any indication, they will show they are serious about deficits only when a Democrat is president. So maybe they will add even more fuel to the deficit fire. Any significant stimulus package could force the deficit to reach the double-digit percentage of World War II. This is unforgiveable fiscal mismanagement of the highest order. Why no mention of this, Conrad Black?

To prepare for the inevitable, Congress should quietly rescind some of the backroom deals in the tax cut. Such stealthy revenue increases would replicate Ronald Reagan’s numerous tax increases, which pretty much offset his tax cuts without raising income tax rates. He raised taxes on cigarettes, gas, capital gains, and corporations. He limited tax-advantaged deductions and benefits under pension plans. He taxed high-earners' Social Security benefits and forced the self-employed to pay both sides of the payroll tax instead of just the employee side. He generated revenue by broadening the tax base without raising individual income tax rates. It was a smart ploy to raise revenue, one that most Republicans either forget or simply refuse to acknowledge.

Congress today has to close different loopholes. The good news is that the public doesn't know what's in the recent tax bill so it won't know and object if Congress rescinds some of the benefits. The special interests that pushed the provisions will go berserk. So the question is whether Congress will have grown vertebrae and be able to withstand the inevitable pressure to retain the goodies. I would not bet on it. That means a self-inflicted financial disaster may loom for the U.S. That cannot bode well for Trump. He can’t blame this one on Obama. If the Democrat-led House passes legislation to deal with this and related issues, and the bills die in the Republican Senate, we all will know who the obstructionists are.

Successful Trump presidency? Hooey. In the next two years, barring impeachment, it’s likely to get worse. Trump is in a hole and keeps digging. He doesn’t have the brain power to know that when you are in a hole, the smart thing is to stop digging. From the basic functioning of government to climate change to national security to the economy, the United States will pay an incalculable price for the damage this buffoon and windbag is inflicting.

Editor’s Addendum – Those readers who wish to peruse the October 2018 National Post column by Conrad Black which motivated contributor Stan Crock to set the Trump record straight can do so by following the link below:

© Stan Crock. All Rights Reserved. Publication by 2012-2024.
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