Trump's populist perfidy
Remember when President Trump was supposed to be a populist?
Of course, plenty of people have long been skeptical that this plutocrat could ever be a true populist. But there was at least one line of thinking in which Donald Trump would be different kind of Republican. Instead of hostility to public investment, Trump would push $1 trillion in infrastructure spending to revitalize the economy. He grandly promised insurance coverage for everyone, and at a lower cost, seeming to embrace the progressive goal of universal health care. During the campaign, he railed against drugmakers for "getting away with murder." He even talked about empowering Medicare to directly negotiate drug prices with the pharmaceutical industry. Ditching the GOP's traditional support for a globalized economy, Trump also said he would remake American trade policy to protect domestic jobs and wages.
So much for all that.
Last week, the White House admitted that its plans to reduce drug prices will not include Medicare using its massive leverage to bargain down costs. As Jonathan Cohn reported, Trump's plans will default to the standard GOP line that bad regulations are the main culprit. Hilariously, the White House even wants to pressure foreign countries to relax their own price controls. There will be no direct challenge to the power of the big drug business on Trump's watch.
Meanwhile, while Trump and his party may have failed to overturn ObamaCare in its entirety, it's worth remembering that they wanted to essentially shrink coverage and raise costs, and did manage to kill the individual mandate, which will raise premiums further.
As for infrastructure, Trump never even proposed a genuine plan for $1 trillion of direct government spending. Instead, his team floated a half-baked scheme to use about $200 billion, much of it corporate tax breaks, to get private firms and state governments to pony up the rest. It was a pretty typical "tax cuts for rich people can solve everything" Republican scheme. And it was never going to do much for jobs, investment, or the state of American infrastructure.
Even that mediocre dream is now dead: "I don't know that there will be [an infrastructure bill] by the end of the year," White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently admitted.
On trade, Trump hasn't backtracked so much as proven wildly ineffectual. He's been able to impose — or at least threaten to impose — some new tariffs on steel and aluminum and imports from China. And that's certainly given Republicans and centrist liberals heartburn. But when it comes to closing the trade deficit, or revitalizing domestic jobs, these sorts of tariffs are extremely unpredictable and unfocused. (A much better strategy would be comprehensively adjusting the value of U.S. currency vis-a-vis other major currencies, either through negotiations or new policy tools.) Meanwhile, barring a complete alteration of the conditions in Congress, Trump's attempts to renegotiate NAFTA are predestined to fall flat.
As Jonathan Chait points out, Trump has also betrayed his supposed populism by breaking a number of "drain the swamp" promises. Trump has run a White House that openly and gratuitously flouts these pledges, operating instead with brazen corruption and conflicts of interest.
That leaves immigration. Changing policy, especially on something as complicated as mass population movements across the southern border, is hard. And precisely because Trump's goals are extravagantly cruel, implementing them is proving incredibly difficult. Trump will still succeed in ruining a lot of lives and destroying a lot of families. But he's not going to have any meaningful effect on American wages or labor markets — which was ostensibly half the point of his immigration stance.
Add it all up, and a massive tax cut for corporations and the wealthy is the one accomplishment Trump and the GOP can boast as we head into the 2018 midterms. But its tax breaks for working- and middle-class Americans have thus far been so meager that most people haven't even noticed them.
Trump's approval rating has been quite low for his entire presidency. Democrats enjoy a comfortable six-percentage-point spread over the GOP in generic ballot polling. But the one silver lining for Trump is his approval on the economy specifically. In truth, this is more about good timing than anything. The recovery from 2008 has been underway for a decade, powered by conditions and policies put in place long before Trump arrived. Given how the economy has been damaged by decades of bad policy, it's also an open question whether low unemployment will translate into serious material gains for many voters.
In other words, if the GOP holds onto its majorities this November, or if Trump gets re-elected in 2020, it won't be because they delivered on populist promises. And it certainly won't be because Trump proved to be a "different kind of Republican."
It will be because they got lucky.