100 days of Trump: The worst of populism and the worst of the establishment

How's it going so far? Well ... not so good.

A president's early days in office are the most consequential.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

After President Trump's first 100 days in office, we have a very good idea of what the rest of the Trump administration will be like: Expect the worst aspects of populism combined with the worst parts of establishmentarianism.

When he became president, Trump was an "unknown quantity" — because of his own erratic psychology, because of his ideological flexibility, because he said everything and its opposite during the campaign, because of his lack of experience in elected office, and because he won the White House riding a populist wave that drowned traditional categories of American politics.

Thankfully, 100 days in, we can at least rule out some of the worst-case scenarios that were floated during the campaign (and that, at the time, looked disturbingly non-crazy). Trump probably isn't going to nuke Belgium in a fit of pique. While Putin's Russia almost certainly worked to help him win the election, evidence of active collusion between Trump and the Kremlin has been lacking, and he hasn't been acting like a Russian Manchurian candidate. (If anything, the fears of this seem to have driven him to a more-hawkish-than-is-prudent posture toward Russia.) Thus far, Congress and the courts have been able to check Trump about as much as they did previous presidents. And we don't seem to be slouching toward fascism at a noticeably faster speed than we were before. What's more, it's clear that Trump lacks the personal discipline or guile to engineer a shadow coup.

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Instead, it looks like the Trump administration, while not endangering the survival of the republic, will instead serve us with a mix of everything that's most horrible about American politics — and especially Republican politics.

To understand why, look back to the one good promise of the Trump campaign. While I opposed Trump on every step of his march to the Oval Office (#NeverTrump!), I also consistently held out that his campaign had at least one positive: It highlighted some key American problems that both parties tended to overlook, namely the slow splitting of America into an underclass and an overclass, between the winners and losers of globalization, technological change, and social liberalism. At the very least, I thought, Trump made it impossible to ignore these pressing issues.

Turns out even that was too optimistic! The thing with populists is that, to quote French left-wing politician Laurent Fabius commenting on France's right-wing National Front, they ask the right questions but give the wrong answers. Populism erupts when something is broken with the elite-driven status quo, and elites are too blinkered to see it or too cowardly to do anything about it (or both). But populist solutions are typically as ham-fisted as their leaders and their electorates.

What the West needs — since the United States, Britain, and Western Europe all face different versions of the same quandary — is a sort of synthesis between populist concerns and elite-driven solutions that address legitimate populist concerns while safeguarding the overall shape of the national order.

President Trump is doing the exact opposite.

On every issue, the Trump administration, which has a handful of populists but is mostly staffed by blinkered establishmentarians, has given us a combination of empty and destructive populist gestures with the same elitist policies that have gotten us into the ditch to begin with. President Trump has given America the worst of populism and the worst of establishmentarianism.

On foreign policy, Trump the populist talks big on NAFTA and rattles sabers against North Korea (U-S-A! U-S-A!), but we still have the same fundamental establishmentarian foreign policy consensus going: The U.S. is going to fan all sides of the Syrian war, ensuring it flames up; the U.S. is going to irritate Russia, ensuring it irritates us; and so on.

On immigration, the best of populism would recognize that the social bargain requires an immigration system that effects border control and implements policy with a view to furthering the national interests of the American people, and the best establishmentarianism would implement that through, for example, some combination of enforcement, conditional amnesty, and a Canada- or Australia-style points system. Instead, we get pointless and probably harmful executive orders and rants about immigrant crime and ... not much else.

On health care, the best of populism would recognize that national solidarity in a country as fantastically wealthy as America requires a baseline of coverage for all Americans, and the best of establishmentarianism would find ways to implement that vision while retaining conservative priorities of consumer choice and a light government footprint. Instead, after a campaign full of promises to "take care of everyone" and even nice words about single-payer, it looks like the GOP is congealing around an attempt at health-care reform that either victimizes or doesn't particularly try to improve the lives of Trump voters or down-class Americans.

On tax reform, the best of populism would recognize that maybe the wealthiest Americans have gotten enough of a break and maybe it's time for working- and middle-class Americans to catch a break, and the best of establishmentarianism would implement a reform that helps out the bottom half of Americans while removing egregious distortions. Instead, all we seem to hear about are vintage establishment Republican ideas such as estate tax cuts and corporate tax cuts and higher income tax cuts — all from a supposedly populist administration.

I wanted a synthesis of populism and establishmentarianism. But not like this. I guess the gods really do punish you by granting you your wishes.

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