Remember when President Trump's surprise victory was going to herald a big change in the GOP? Gone were the days of a party focused on an agenda favored by big business and wealthy donors. Instead, Trump was a populist who would make it a "workers party," focused on the struggles of average Americans, who'd been slighted in recent decades by the economic policies and priorities of both parties. In foreign policy, meanwhile, he would put "America first," which meant ending endless wars around the globe and reorienting our actions to advance American interests, narrowly construed.
Nearly three-and-a-half years into the Trump era, it's possible to take stock of the populist revolution Trump promised to lead, and the fact is that it has been a full-spectrum failure. The 45th president has been an immigration hardliner and he started a series of trade wars that have accomplished little beyond raising prices for imported goods. But beyond that, what do we have? Flagrant corruption, conflicts of interest, nepotism, inconstancy, incompetence, and a complete incapacity to speak and act as head of state — combined with harsher and dumber versions of the same policies any Republican elected in 2016 would have pursued.
Now, I'll grant that this harsh judgment doesn't apply to everyone on the right. Both parties in Congress responded to the economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic by passing the CARES ACT, the largest economic aid package in history (though some Republican senators insisted on including provisions designed to discourage workers from intentionally getting laid off so they could collect generous unemployment benefits instead of working). When it comes to pushing the GOP in a more populist direction, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley likes to give speeches and hold hearings that resonate with economically populist themes (while loyally voting more than three quarters of the time for the president's anti-populist agenda). Florida Sen. Marco Rubio does much the same. And there's unquestionably a lot of ferment taking place among conservative writers and policy intellectuals, with the newly launched American Compass website and think tank the latest entry in a crowded field.
It's possible that all of this conversation and debate could yield a shift in the party's priorities after Trump has left the scene. But for now, populist reform of the Republican Party is dead in the water.
Consider what we've seen in economic policy during the Trump administration: A huge corporate tax cut; efforts across the executive branch to gut regulations on business; a push to reverse the Affordable Care Act that has never ceased, even in the face of a pandemic and mass unemployment that threatens to leave millions uninsured; and hostility to food stamps and a refusal to consider expanding the program, despite the severest economic downturn since the 1930s. This is a "workers party"? Only if you think workers benefit from government doing everything possible to maximize profits for big business while doing nothing to steer business decisions — and also that government must go out of its way to ensure that the safety net doesn't encourage those workers to become the parasitic layabouts they'd otherwise be predisposed to be.
So much for populism.
On the foreign policy front, things may be even worse. Trump promised to end the interminable wars that began in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and to make a fundamental change in our dealings with the world. The idea was that unlike neoconservatives and liberal internationalists who often favor military interventionism around the world, Trump would put "America first," by which he appeared to mean placing American interests at the center of policymaking. This would mark a shift from administrations of both parties taking their cues from supposed moral and geopolitical imperatives to use American military might to topple dictators and "spread democracy" — goals that had frequently ended up spreading chaos instead, and getting American soldiers bogged down in indecisive conflicts from North Africa to South Asia over the past two decades.
And what have we actually gotten from the Trump administration in foreign policy? Nothing that could conceivably be described as good. As on the domestic side, new foreign policy think tanks have broadened debate inside the beltway. But policymaking itself has been an incoherent and ineffective mess.
The president likes to talk about ending wars, but our troops remain in Afghanistan. And Syria. And Iraq. Trump's gambit to reach a deal with North Korea's Kim Jong Un has yielded nothing. Trump and members of his party like to talk tough about China, but that mainly appears motivated by domestic political considerations, including the need for a coronavirus scapegoat. Diplomacy around the world is barely functional because Trump's two atrocious secretaries of state (first Rex Tillerson and now Mike Pompeo) have hollowed out the diplomatic corps — and because Trump himself regularly and gratuitously insults allies while praising dictators in return for nothing at all.
Perhaps most bizarrely of all, the Trump administration has gone out of its way to align the United States more one-sidedly than ever before with Israel and Saudi Arabia. This began with the president expanding American involvement in the Saudi war in Yemen and his decision to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal and impose fresh rounds of sanctions on Tehran. The latter, in particular, has accomplished less than nothing, with bilateral relations between the U.S. and Iran at something close to an all-time low. How any of this dithering and drift advances American interests is anyone's guess.
So much for America first.
Of course there is no guarantee that Trump will go down to defeat in November. Polarization and negative partisanship can accomplish an enormous amount. But if we had a more functional political system in which incumbents were judged honestly by their records, Trump would lose in a historic landslide. In addition to presiding over a pandemic that looks likely to leave more than 100,000 Americans dead and an economic downturn severe enough to send unemployment to heights not seen since the Great Depression, Trump has sold his party a bill of goods.
That Republican voters appear not to care doesn't make it any less true.