The Corner

Remembering Trump’s Anti-Elitist Brand

So a fair number of people are asking me how I stand on President Trump.

Well, he’s our president. And our country will benefit if he succeeds.

Before the election, I flatter myself that I was on the cutting edge of those who urged Republicans to learn from the insurgency of Trump and Sanders.

The lesson: Both parties were the hollow project of complacent elitists. And so they were both ripe for takeover. Sanders, of course, fell short, but only because he couldn’t figure how to make headway among African-American and Latino voters in time. Trump won the Republican nomination very easily, even though the donor class of his party wanted anyone but him. One thing we learned from both Donald and Bernie: Political success is much less dependent on big money than we supposed. The Koch brothers, for example, had budgeted about a billion dollars to spend on the election, and ended up with no one to spend it on. And they remain, last time I looked, a huge but seemingly rather impotent center of resistance to the agenda of our president.

I was, to say the least, not alone in thinking Trump couldn’t win in November. Not only was his personal fitness a huge question, how could his amateurish and somewhat impoverished campaign prevail against every respectable elite in the country? Another thing we learned: It turns out the system wasn’t rigged. Sure, some think it was rigged by the Russians. But that’s not really true either.

Now, I didn’t vote for Trump, and I’m still spooked by much of his administration on the fronts of both competence and ideology. On the competence level, I certainly appreciate the willingness of Generals McMaster and Mattis to serve, and I hope they can win the confidence of our commander-in-chief. There’s a lot to worry about if those relationships don’t develop. Still, we can also see that “America first” begins as a national-security message. Trump is right to emphasize the need for our country to achieve energy self-sufficiency, to restore morale to our armed forces, and to arm up by technologically upgrading weapons systems and cybersecurity to make our nation less vulnerable. As Walter Russell Mead points out, those can hardly be construed as policies favorable to Russia or China — our leading rival nations.

On the ideological front, I would urge Republicans to remember that Trump was an opponent of the elitists of both parties — as well as of the bipartisan interlocking directorate of elites in undisclosed locations symbolized by Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

It’s easy to see the hostility between Trumpism and the Democrats’ “politically correct” and progressive experts.

But there’s also the hostility between Trumpism and the Republicans’ oligarchic libertarians.

Thinking along those lines even allows us to remember that just as Sanders ran to the left of Clinton and her identity politics, Trump ran to the left of the Republicans who think of American citizens as nothing but productive individuals.

So it would be, to say the least, inauthentic for Trump to suddenly become just another conventional Republican all about nothing but getting rid of Obamacare, cutting taxes, deregulating everything, and trimming entitlements. This “liberty agenda,” after all, has served some Americans much better than others. Let me remind Republicans:

First, the inconvenient truth is that Obamacare is more popular than ever. And what working-class Trump voters heard their candidate saying was: I’m going to replace Obamacare with a better deal. That is, precisely, “repeal and replace,” but replace with something that helps out the ordinary guy at least as well.

Second, Trump did tout his pro-growth tax policy, but in this way: The growth will be so huge that it will be easy to pay for the entitlements on which Americans depend. That, of course, probably won’t happen. But he has to try. Meanwhile, the entitlements — Medicare, Social Security, and so forth — stay in place for now in hope.

Third, we hear from Mr. Bannon that Trump is out to deconstruct the “administrative state.” It’s hard to know what that means. It might mean, in part, take out all those “crony capitalist” monopolistic regulations that keep the ordinary guy from accessing the marketplace and the professions. Well, it should. It might also mean returning political decisions to civic deliberation and not administrative fiat. Again, it should. But Trump has no mandate to deconstruct the welfare state.

Well, let me say one more ambiguously leftist thing: Trump has no mandate to go to war against unions as such. He was elected, in large part, because he convinced union families — with the help of Bernie, of course — that he is more about having their backs than was the Goldman Sachs toady Clinton.

The theme of Trump’s campaign was “civic equality” as opposed to elitist manipulation. I don’t deny for a moment that this theme was deformed by xenophobic tribalism and racist nativism. But surely we can all agree that what G. K. Chesterton called “the romance of the citizen” is a key antidote to the inevitable vast disparities of wealth and status.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...


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