President Trump's disorienting populist-plutocrat split
What if this bizarre amalgam is the future of American politics?
Admit it — whether you love him or hate him, President Trump has you feeling disoriented.
It's not just the president's choppy, imprecise, self-obsessed, defensive, openly hostile way of speaking in public and addressing the press. Or his incessant flood of whiplash-inducing falsehoods. Or that he's diverged dramatically from the rhetoric we've come to associate with the Republican Party — talking much less about freedom and liberty and far more about jobs and borders and tariffs and "America first."
It's all of that, yes. But it's also the way all of those things are combined with a series of policy proposals that come straight off the standard-issue GOP wish list: massive tax cuts for the wealthy; a hiring freeze for federal workers; promises of draconian cuts to regulations; and plans to gut the Affordable Care Act.
That's a big reason why so many Americans feel disoriented: The new president talks and acts like a convention-smashing populist, a nationalist who ruthlessly stomps all over decorum and norms. But in other respects, he talks and acts like a plutocratic 1 percenter who cares only for the rich, or a libertarian ready to drown government in the bathtub. In that sense, President Trump appears to have one foot placed in a new reality and another firmly planted in the old. When he advances the Keystone Pipeline or sends his top aide to negotiate with Paul Ryan over a substantial upper-income tax cut, old-line Republicans swoon. But when he withdraws from the Trans-Pacific Partnership or browbeats big business about shipping jobs overseas, he receives understandable praise and support from lifelong socialist Bernie Sanders.
A milder version of this same tension has long been a feature of the post-Reagan Republican Party. A populist rhetoric that portrays the GOP as defenders of the American people against Washington, the federal government, the universities, the media, and other elite institutions coexists rather uncomfortably with policies that explicitly empower big business and (further) enrich the wealthy. You might argue that Trump has simply heightened this contradiction, amping up the populist proclamations while also doubling down on the same old supply-side gospel.
In that case, Trump will likely end up as a president who (like Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter) presides over the final collapse of a spent ideological configuration while proving incapable of fully giving birth to a new one. The populist defenses of the working class, the protectionism, the openness to industrial policy — all of these unorthodox elements of Trumpian Republicanism will be embraced and championed by some future president, most likely on the left, who's more capable of embedding it in a coherent governing ideology that includes single-payer health care, free tuition at public universities, and other democratic-socialist policies.
That is certainly one possibility. But here's another: That the seeming contradiction Trump has embraced ends up working politically, even if it seems nonsensical at the level of ideas.
Lots of smart people once thought this way about the three-legged stool of Reaganism: economic libertarianism, moral and religious traditionalism, and a foreign policy of hawkish internationalism. A slew of sophisticated commentators during the 1970s and '80s, from Daniel Bell to Michael Harrington, dismissed Reaganism as hopelessly contradictory. Yet it gained power and transformed the boundaries of political possibility for the past 36 years, with even Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama hemmed in by the limits it placed on policy debate.
What if Trump's syncretic position — its combination of supply-side tax cuts and arm-twisting of corporate big wigs over outsourcing, its promises to gut regulations while also making "every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs" with an eye to what benefits "American workers and American families" — actually catches fire among voters?
Democrats have dismissed the possibility because it's very much in their interest to do so — and because many of them genuinely believe that the economic and political consequences of that populist-plutocratic amalgam will be transparently disastrous. Trump's most thoughtful critics on the right, meanwhile, tend to assume both that a combination of different libertarian and nationalist policies would be preferable to the ones that Trump has emphasized, and that Trump is personally so unstable and flagrantly unsuited to the office he now holds that his whole presidency is likely to spiral very quickly into dysfunction and even chaos. Others emphasize that, however appealing Trump's pitch might be to a certain segment of voters, he is just one man — and one who (unlike Reagan) has failed to inspire a movement of ideological compatriots to press his agenda in Congress.
I agree with elements of each critique and have assumed up until now that one way or the other the Trump administration would skirt serious danger and end up an incontestable failure. I still think that's the most likely scenario. But one event from these opening days of the Trump presidency has shaken my confidence.
That was the meeting he held on his first Monday in office with the leadership of several hard-hat unions. Most of the unions continued their longstanding support for Democratic candidates by endorsing Hillary Clinton in the recent election. Yet there they were, invited to a Republican White House right from the start, sitting down with the president of the United States (and several senior White House officials), who promised to "get them working again." In response, the union leaders offered praise for the new president, while noting that during the eight years of the Obama presidency they had never been invited to a similar meeting.
Could Trump decisively flip the unions and their voters to the GOP? He already won far more of their votes in 2016 than Mitt Romney did four years earlier. If that trend continues and accelerates, the rust-belt states that gave Trump his microscopically narrow win this time around could end up firmly in the Republican column, forming an imposing new electoral Red Wall in the upper Midwest. If that begins to happen, Paul Ryan and other Reaganite holdouts may yet become latter-day converts to the Trumpian populist cause.
It probably won't happen. The mania for cutting government programs is going to cause a lot of pain, and that is unlikely to prove politically beneficial to the president. Trump's pursuit of protectionist policies may well coincide with an economic downturn that discredits it. His personal instability and innumerable conflicts of interest could topple his presidency at almost any time.
No, Trumpism probably won't be a political success in the coming years. But it might. And if it does, the disorientation of the present will give way to a very different sensation — that of accommodation to a whole new ideological creation.