Has Donald Trump become a swamp creature? After repudiating Steve Bannon for having the temerity to criticize his son, the president spent the weekend holed up in the Maryland mountains with none other than Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. The man who was once the vanguard of the supposedly burgeoning populist–nationalist movement came out of his Camp David retreat with a newfound zeal for . . . supporting Republican incumbents in the 2018 midterm elections.
“We need more Republicans. We have to have more Republicans,” Trump told reporters at a press conference. Though Trump added that he would support “anybody else who has my kind of thinking,” when a reporter asked whether he would throw his weight behind the Steve Bannon–backed candidates who are mounting challenges to incumbent Republican senators across the country, he responded: “I don’t see that happening. I think they’ve sort of scattered.”
Trump is a notoriously fickle man, but his embracing the role of cheerleader for incumbent Republicans has crystallized the reality of the moment: Far from remaking the GOP in his image, the president is taking his cues from the party apparatus that existed before he was sworn in.
In 2016, after Trump completed his hostile takeover of the GOP, many expected him to become its guiding light: Out with limited government, fiscal conservatism, and foreign-policy hawkishness; in with “I alone can fix it,” protectionism, and isolationism dressed up as “America First.” But a year into his presidency, Trump hasn’t changed the substantive policy priorities of the GOP so much as he has become a vehicle for their implementation. To be sure, the president has moved the party to the right on immigration. But as Ramesh Ponnuru argues, those who wanted him to “line up with conservatives and sign Republican bills have reason to be pleased with his policy record,” which includes tax reform, the appointment of originalist jurists to the federal bench, across-the-board deregulation, and a major foreign-policy win in the Middle East.
This was not a preordained outcome. The worm once seemed destined to turn. From the populist glossolalia of their campaign, Trump and Bannon were poised to fashion substantive policies and upend the decades-old consensus within the Republican party. At least for the time being, that project appears to have ended. Reportedly, Trump wants to take action on the infrastructure and trade fronts in 2018, which could cause some consternation among party leadership. But, putting aside concerns about his corrosion of civil society and fitness for office, Trump has mostly governed as a standard Republican on matters of policy. And he now looks poised to throw his weight behind Republican incumbents rather than the populists who want to replace them.
On the margin, this is good news for the GOP’s prospects of electoral success in 2018. The “insurgents” with whom Bannon promised to wage war on the party establishment were bad candidates who stood little chance of winning general elections. If Trump sides with safer choices in the Nevada, Arizona, and Tennessee senatorial primaries, Republicans are more likely to maintain their narrow advantage in the upper chamber.
Still, a Democratic wave in the House elections will be hard to stave off for a party and president that remain unpopular. And over the long term, what might be a small victory for the party establishment may prove to have perverse consequences. Months ago, Henry Olsen warned in City Journal that since Trump took office Republicans had shown a “blindness to the things that got them elected.” Unless party leaders came to see Trump’s victory as “a popular embrace of the heterodox positions that he championed during the election,” Olsen argued, they would be in for “a potentially rude awakening in 2018.” Though its officials have become more fluent in the language of populism and more willing to defend Trump’s outlandish forays into the culture war, the Republican party has not taken Olsen’s advice. Now it seems that Trump himself has forgotten it.
There are several reasons to see Trump’s establishmentarian turn as a positive development. It looks to be a stabilizing force for a presidency that needed one, it has brought about conservative victories in the policy arena and on the federal bench, and it could help the party in 2018. But for those who accept the argument that the GOP should reorient its policies to serve the interests of lower-income Americans, it might be a squandered opportunity.
Trump’s Whirlwind Year