Back in 2013, two years before Donald Trump rolled down the escalator at Trump Tower to launch his presidential campaign, a group of political operatives met at a conservative conference in Palm Beach, Fla. Standing at the fringes of Republican politics, they aimed to thrust a populist insurgency into the mainstream.
Those in attendance included Steve Bannon, the eccentric billionaire Robert Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor Lee Hanley, and the Democratic pollster and former Jimmy Carter adviser Patrick Caddell. They were particularly interested in polling data that Caddell had collected, which showed that voters felt a growing dissatisfaction with immigration policy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the failure of Republicans to counter President Obama’s progressivism.
The data raised questions about the future and failures of the GOP establishment, convincing the group that there was an opening for a candidate whose platform would starkly deviate from the recommendations of the “autopsy” commissioned by the RNC in the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss. All that was needed was the right outsider for the job.
At its onset, the logistics of Trump’s campaign were orchestrated by a handful of well-connected and deep-pocketed but furtive power brokers including those who had met in Palm Beach. Bannon would come to be one of the few among them with a high-profile, public role in Trump’s orbit. After serving as the Trump campaign’s CEO, he took a job as the president’s chief strategist, and for the seven months that he remained in the White House, the administration possessed an ideological rudder.
Since Bannon was ousted in the wake of Roy Moore’s disastrous Alabama Senate campaign and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., the Trump administration has slowly lost sight of its original animating intention to “drain the swamp” of the establishment figures loathed by the president’s base. For populists, Jared Kushner represents the administration’s capture by political elitism. Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, does not possess the same monastic, intellectual drive as Bannon, spending lavishly on fast cars and mansions even as the presidents chances of reelection dim. And secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin, who worked at Goldman Sachs for 17 years, spearheaded a $500 billion fund to bail out large corporations in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
In short, the Trump administration may well be becoming another faction in the “swamp,” captured by the very same GOP establishment that served as the foil against which the president originally campaigned. It is almost as if Trump is reenacting Obama’s political evolution in reverse: Whereas Obama ran as a moderate but drifted toward left by the end of his tenure, Trump ran as a populist and has gradually surrounded himself with establishment advisers.
As we’ve seen recently, unpredictable events have a habit of turning the political conversation on its head. After a disastrous indoor Tulsa rally and an incoherent stage performance, Trump won a small victory in his excellent July 3 speech at the base of Mount Rushmore. No recent polling indicates an uptick in his approval ratings. But the speech was the clearest sign yet that he’s starting to zero in on a culture-war message that could resonate with voters: For all my foibles, he seemed to say, I will defend the American way of life. Though the New York Times condemned the speech as “dark and divisive,” it came across as a projection of unity in the face of those progressives and radicals now stoking a war against a common American heritage.
Key questions remain. Will Trump’s base be disappointed in his initial response to the cascade of statue toppling, when he spent more time tweeting “LAW AND ORDER!” than taking action? Will they nitpick his indecision on immigration? Or will this shape up to be an election regarding two diametrically opposed visions: Trump’s defense of the American way of life versus Biden’s bumbling, complacent enabling of its assault?
If the election becomes a referendum on the American way, then Trump could be off the hook for his failures. But whether his policies have actually improved the lives of his base and the working class in, say, Portsmouth, N.H., the site of his next rally, remains an open — and, notwithstanding the culture war, electorally important — question.