Politics & Policy

Could Trump Build a Broad Centrist Coalition?

President Trump arrives to deliver his address, February 28, 2017. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/Reuters)
If Trump delivers on a few of his promises, the result could be a consolidation of the American political center.

It’s unwise to overread a speech, especially a Donald Trump speech — words are at bargain prices in the Trump administration — but it’s striking just how non-ideological the president’s address last night was. Some bits could have been given by George W. Bush, other bits by Barack Obama; I hear a good deal of both Roosevelt cousins in Trump (last night, and normally). He’s all over the map. Inasmuch as that impulse to pluck a little from here, a little from there, is genuine Trump — and I think it more or less is — last night’s speech was instructive about where the country is, and might be headed.

In contrast to conservatives, who tend to view government with instinctive suspicion, and liberals, who tend to do the opposite, Donald Trump seems to view the government as a large but neutral apparatus to be wielded on behalf of certain groups. Trump, for reasons true and false and sincere and politically convenient, thinks that the white working class has been largely forgotten by policymakers, so his federal government will be a weapon wielded on their behalf. The policies that follow are whatever policies will contribute to their stability. There is no indication whatsoever that Donald Trump has any principled opposition to the Affordable Care Act; just last year he declared himself in favor of the individual mandate. But Obamacare is part of the complex of burdens crushing this particular group, so he’s for repealing it. If circumstances were different, and there were good reasons to believe that a health-care mandate would on average help the same people, I suspect Trump would be for it.

Conservatives will lament that this subordinates, or neglects entirely, questions of principle — about how much of a burden can be put on the rights of individuals, for example. They will also point to the general disregard for any notion that economic and political liberty go hand-in-hand. These are strong critiques, and I think persuasive ones. But they are also not how most voters think about government. Increasingly, the task of government in the economic realm is understood to be not simply to create the conditions for prosperity — which citizens can then take advantage of or not, according to their own wishes — but to supply that prosperity itself. Americans aren’t greedy — no one is demanding Bugattis for the masses — but they feel (rightly or wrongly) that they pay a lot into “the system,” and they want more and more out of it: not just Social Security benefits when the time comes, but some bang-for-the-buck right now.

Trump is far more a ‘pragmatist’ than Barack Obama ever was.

To my mind, this misunderstands the nature of government, especially republican government. The relationship between citizen and state is different from the relationship between consumer and producer. But a whole lot of people think in terms of the latter, and Trump’s success is in no small part because he was able to sell himself as a successful businessman who would make the federal government a more effective provider of services to frustrated customers.

Toward that end, Trump is far more a “pragmatist” than Barack Obama ever was. There is a large swath of Americans — take as an indication that four in ten voters identify as “independent” — who are not particularly concerned with the fate of either party, or the survival of their philosophical programs. They have no strong beliefs about the role of government. They just want it to work for them. Donald Trump’s campaign — chock-full of ideological heterodoxy — appealed to exactly this way of thinking.

Barack Obama’s election was interpreted to suggest a new political realignment. That thesis was overstated. But Trump’s electoral success was propelled by a combination of Republicans and working-class Democrats who are generally uninterested in the philosophical commitments of Left or Right. If Trump manages to deliver on a few of his promises, the result could well be, for better or worse, a broad and durable centrist coalition.

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