It only took 80 days for Trumpism to die. A lethal dose of incompetence did it in.
Now, on the one hand, that’s giving President Trump’s a bit too much credit for his populism, suggesting he meant everything he said when he clearly didn’t. Indeed, he’s even admitted as much in those moments when he can’t keep himself from breaking the fourth wall. “Funny how that term [Drain The Swamp] caught on,” he told rally-goers back in December, given that he had originally thought it was “hokey” and “terrible” and had only made himself “start saying it like I mean it” after he saw how much the crowds “went crazy” for it. Which, in a surprise to exactly zero Trump University students, is why he’s now filling the proverbial swamp with all the lobbyists he said he’d get rid of.
But, on the other hand, Trump really did run on an anti-establishment agenda that had the potential to permanently remake the electoral map. It was a nationalism deeply skeptical of the world we had made since 1945: the military alliances, the economic institutions, and our role as the leader of it all. In its place, Trump wanted to get back to supposedly putting “America First” by taking care of our own at home, pulling back from our commitments abroad, keeping out Muslims and Mexicans, and ripping up trade deals that were allegedly ripping us off. It was a nostalgia for a time when men were men and Americans were white—a nostalgia that Trump hasn’t been able to translate into action.
He could have, though. While it isn’t much more than an alternative fact now, it isn’t hard to imagine a much different Trump presidency. It would have started with infrastructure. Before he’d burned every bridge with Democrats, Trump might have been able to convince them to build $1 trillion worth of them if he’d offered to have the government spend the money itself. Why would Republicans have gone along with this? Because Trump could have told them they had to if they wanted him to support their tax cuts. That would have kept him from being beholden to the far-right and let him play them off against the center-left as our dealmaker-in-chief. From there, he could have actually kept his promise to provide “insurance for everybody” by expanding Medicaid even more on a bipartisan basis. And then, and only then, could he have passed a big, beautiful tax cut for the middle class, the rich, and corporations.
Trump wouldn’t have even needed Congress for the rest of his agenda. On Day One, he could have pulled out of NAFTA and labelled China a currency manipulator (even though it’s stopped). After that, he could have dialed down our involvement in the Middle East and tried to come to terms on the kind of rapprochement with Russia that he’d almost reflexively talked about during the campaign. (And, in the one part of this that isn’t just Ann Coulter fan fiction, he could have stepped up border patrols and deportations like he is in fact trying to do.)
But it’s not just that Trump hasn’t done these things (save for his hardline approach to the border). It’s that he’s done the opposite of them. He’s not going to make big changes to NAFTA; he’s declined to officially call China a currency manipulator; he’s increased airstrikes in Syria; he’s decided that NATO isn’t “obsolete” after all; he’s come out in support of a healthcare plan that would take insurance away from 24 million people; and he doesn’t seem to have much of an idea what he’s going to do with taxes or infrastructure. This isn’t a new nationalism. It’s just the same old conservatism rebooted for reality TV.
What’s going on? Well, Trump’s populists don’t know enough about how Washington works, and Trump’s populism isn’t real enough for him to care.
Take White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. The former Breitbart impresario was supposed to be Trump’s ideological consigliere, the one who could channel the president’s inchoate nationalist impulses into concrete nationalist policies. And, to be fair, he did have some idea of what that would look like. “It will be as exciting as the 1930s,” Bannon said, with the way they’d take advantage of “negative interest rates throughout the world” to “rebuild everything” from “shipyards” to “ironworks” and “get them all jacked up.”
The only problem is Bannon didn’t actually know how to do that. He was the media executive of a website that included a “Black Crime” section, not someone who knew anything about getting a bill through Congress. He didn’t realize that you can’t alienate Democrats with, say, a Muslim travel ban if you want them to vote for anything else. Or that putting infrastructure off until an election year, like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan convinced Trump to do by taking on healthcare first, is basically putting it off until forever. Or, most importantly, that it takes a lot more than the presidency to make policy. You need experts to give input, outside interest groups to organize, and members of Congress to make compromises. Bannon, though, seemed to think that all he needed to do was throw around a few multisyllabic words and issue a few ultimatums to get his way. It hasn’t worked. They’ve gotten one-party gridlock instead.
But Trump isn’t as upset that his populist agenda has stalled out as he is he hasn’t been able to make much progress on any agenda. Just look at healthcare. Trump knew so little about policy that he got talked into supporting a bill that broke every promise he’d made. And he cared so little about it that he didn’t let this stop him. He even went as far as to tell recalcitrant Republicans that they should “forget about the little shit” they were arguing over—aka, whether insurance companies would have to cover sick people—and just pass the bill so that he’d have a legislative accomplishment.
Winning, in other words, is Trump’s real ideology. Which is to say that his populism was never about the ideas themselves, but about what he thought they projected: strength. He wasn’t opposed to free trade, for example, because he had reservations about the logic of comparative advantage. He was opposed to it, because he thought other countries were bending the rules to take advantage of us. It was about being tough. There’s nothing less tough, though, than having your plans blocked by Congress. In that case, populism becomes the very weakness it was supposed to get rid of—so Trump gets rid of it instead. And then he turns to anyone who seems like they can get things done, which, in his administration, are the generals and the Goldman guys. That’s how the people you ran your campaign against end up in charge, just like they have been in every Republican government going back to time immemorial.