Politics & Policy

Was It for This?

(Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
The Trump presidency has yet to deliver on its populist promise.

Was this what you bargained for?

Donald Trump is softening on NAFTA. His advisers are trying to talk him down from any substantial trade conflict with China. He agrees, absentmindedly, with Dianne Feinstein on immigration legislation, betraying that he has no clue what his own policy might be, or a legislative strategy to achieve it. At best, he is trying to “make deals” in the way of a real-estate developer, getting a “yes” from any number of relevant players before springing the entire plan on them after they are invested. The problem is that he doesn’t have the blueprints. Congress will draw them up for him, having long since figured out that Trump will just be a salesman for whatever they deliver.

Where’s the Trumpian revision of foreign affairs? American policy in the Middle East still seems to have a “made in Riyadh” label underneath it. Our troops are in Syria without legal mandate, and without the enemy, ISIS, being routed there. Same old wars. The only new thing is the depth of incompetence in the diplomatic corps, who insult our allies.

Instead of an industrial policy, and a national medical system that takes care of “everyone” as he promised, Trump has delivered an enormous corporate tax cut.

I was told that Trump’s unique character deficiencies, his verbal crudity, were the price of entry for injecting a few nationalist and populist ideas into a moribund conservative governing philosophy. The only way to get beyond jabbering to ourselves about free trade, and humanitarian intervention absent any concern for the life of the nation itself, was this man whose popularity finally exploded our elite consensus.

But the returns are in for the populists, and I have to ask, are you really putting up with all the embarrassments of the Trump presidency for a “mirror tax” in Canadian lumber?

Trump’s governing style makes Mitt Romney seem like the real populist firebrand. It was Romney who advocated self-deportation for those who could not legally work in America. It was Romney who seemed determined to confront China over state policies that harm the American worker. 

On foreign policy, Trump spent about half a minute telling NATO allies he wanted them to ante up. But other than that, the U.S. has maintained the frostiness of its relations with Moscow, it has deepened the moral stain of its assistance to the Saudis in Yemen, and has continued putting troops in Islamic nations without giving them a mission to accomplish.

The effect of the Trump presidency so far has been almost the opposite of the one intended. Instead of finally smashing all the orthodoxies of post–Cold War politics in the West, it has further entrenched them. Trump’s election was supposed to shatter our certainties about ever-free movement of goods, people, and capital. Instead it has revealed the basic outline of American domestic and foreign policy is almost entirely immune to change, even change from democratically elected presidents.

No one should pretend that all was well in America or the Republican party before Trump. But we should soon determine to get over the idea that Trump’s presidency is proving the fragility of the post–Cold War consensus between center-left and center-right. That consensus endures and is carrying on with an almost amused indifference. Trump can tweet what he likes about transgendered persons serving in the military. The government proceeds incorporating them. He can say he is making sure planes land safely and improving our trade deals. The world moves on, making him an object lesson in the powerlessness of his most fervent supporters.


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