Magazine | May 29, 2017, Issue

Populism’s False Start

The Trump administration should become more responsive to voters’ concerns

The early Trump administration has been many things, but “populist” hasn’t truly been one of them.

When you discount the tweets, the all-consuming media controversies, the drama over personnel, and the Russia investigation — granted, that’s a lot of discounting — it has been a fairly conventional Republican administration on policy.

The major legislation on the agenda so far — the health-care and tax bills — is shaping up about how you’d expect in any Republican administration. Action on trade has been underwhelming. Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but Ted Cruz, too, said he opposed the deal. (So did Hillary Clinton, for that matter.) Measures being taken against imports of Canadian timber and Chinese steel, both longtime sore spots, are well within the bounds of the policy of past administrations. Trump puts more emphasis on immigration enforcement than his primary-campaign rivals would, but the three positions that made him so distinctive on immigration — the Wall, a Muslim ban, and mass deportation — are proving more difficult to implement than he thought or were left along the wayside during the general election.

In short, the Trump administration hasn’t created a new populist departure in American politics; it hasn’t even — as some of us hoped — nudged Republican policymaking in a more populist direction to better account for the interests of working-class voters. The early months of the Trump administration have proven to be populism’s false start.

Why is this?

There is no Trumpist wing of Congress. The most pro-Trump faction in Congress during the election was the Freedom Caucus, which shared Trump’s disdain for the Republican establishment. But the Freedom Caucus is made up of ideological conservatives concerned with limiting government, not Trumpian populists focused on the interests of the working class. When the Freedom Caucus helped bring down the initial version of the House health-care bill, Trump briefly went after it.

Even in the White House itself, it turns out that Trumpists are only one faction. This is, in part, because there was no populist staff-in-waiting in Washington to draw on. The people in Congress with the greatest affinity for Trump-style populism were Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Representative Dave Brat of Virginia, who beat Eric Cantor in a primary in an immigration-focused insurgency. Sessions, an early Trump endorser, has former staff scattered through the administration, most importantly Stephen Miller, the policy director in the White House. Otherwise there was no well of populist talent to draw on, except a few refugees from Breitbart.

They haven’t had the oomph or the numbers to prevail over the establishment, “globalist,” or Trump-family elements in the White House. They haven’t decisively lost to these other factions — Steve Bannon hasn’t been ousted — but they have been more embattled than anyone would have thought a few months ago.

On top of this, the intellectual spadework hadn’t been done prior to the ascent of Trumpism. There is no populist think tank on the right. The institution that is closest to Trump is the Heritage Foundation, but — as with the Freedom Caucus — this is an ideological mismatch. Heritage is perhaps the conservative think tank most devoted to policies rooted in the 1980s, making it a strange partner for a president who ran a campaign trashing the old Reaganite pieties.

The signature piece of Trumpian journalism in the campaign was Mike Anton’s “Flight 93” essay, which was essentially a highly emotional case that electing Hillary Clinton would be a catastrophe. And Anton is now in the administration, which would make it impossible for him to flesh out a Trumpian populism even if he were so inclined. Talk radio is pro-Trump, but not overwhelmingly concerned with policy. Breitbart is a collection of, in Lionel Trilling’s phrase, irritable mental gestures. The Trumpian journal American Affairs is playing catch-up, out with its inaugural issue about a month ago. It may be that by the time it establishes itself, assuming it does, Trump will have wound up in a different place.

And this may be the biggest problem for Trumpism: The president himself, who recently called himself a globalist and a nationalist, isn’t a reliable Trumpist.

Some of the core themes of his campaign could, it’s true, be combined into a reasonably coherent view of government policy. A Trumpist philosophy would feature skepticism of trade, immigration, and foreign intervention, a moderate social conservatism, and support for government activism to benefit the working class. Think of it as Buchananism with less zeal for small government and less religious traditionalism.

But Trump himself shows no signs of having thought about his program in this way, or of having thought much about a program of action he would undertake as president at all. Neither he nor any of his aides put any effort into rethinking a broad range of policies to fit with his new approach. On many issues, then, he simply defaulted to the conventional Republican position. He certainly didn’t build a new consensus in his party — or even among his own aides — for new positions.

If Trump were a different kind of political leader, his longstanding preoccupation with foreign trade might have moved him to develop strong convictions about the flaws of NAFTA and how to address them, or about whether designating China a currency manipulator would advance his objectives. Perhaps that kind of political leader would not have had the visceral appeal that Trump in fact had to many people. But if he had won office, there would have been more follow-through. Trump is instead up for grabs on these issues. He has already flip-flopped on the currency question, and nobody knows whether he will really press for major changes to NAFTA.

Many Republicans, especially on the Hill, have felt only relief on seeing the party domesticate Trump. And some relief is justified. It’s good that Trump isn’t going to wreck NATO and that the likelihood of a trade war has declined. But Trump’s failure to build a sensible conservative version of populism comes at a price: Much of the party’s agenda remains defective in the very ways that contributed to Trump’s rise in the first place. It is too geared toward the interests of rich people and big business, and insufficiently relevant to the challenges of today’s economy.

How might Republicans — whatever their attitude toward the president himself — adapt their program to make it more responsive to contemporary concerns? They could scale back their tax cuts for the highest earners in order to provide more middle-class tax relief. They could alter their health-care bill so that it shifts more Medicaid recipients into the private insurance market and deprives fewer of them of coverage altogether. They could reduce low-skilled legal immigration in addition to ratcheting up enforcement of the laws against illegal immigration. And they could make a major push to expand educational options beyond the traditional four-year college, notably including apprenticeships (an idea whose potential appeal to this president should not require elaboration).

This is a sketch, to be sure. Yet it still represents more thought on the question of how to match the Republican agenda to the moment than we have seen from the White House or the Congress. Republicans may be so powerful right now that they see no need for any recalibration. But their hold on power is threatened by the perception that their agenda would harm, or at least not help, most Americans. The working-class voters who supported both Obama and Trump, meanwhile, could produce more surprises. Perhaps Trump’s most dedicated followers will be disillusioned and go looking for a new charismatic leader. Or perhaps Trump will find that his alliance with conservatives is lowering his public standing and end it.

Victory in November 2016 surprised most Republicans and gave them an opportunity to build a new governing majority. So far they are squandering it.

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