Saturday, May 27, 2017

Why Trump campaigned like a populist and governs like a sellout


Although Donald Trump campaigned as a populist during the 2016 campaign, he has not governed like one. Instead, in domestic policy he has taken positions that are largely consistent with a very conservative business-oriented Republican who wants to lower taxes on the wealthy, slash entitlements, and lift regulatory scrutiny from business.  His working class supporters have gotten little economic help from his policies, and are unlikely to receive it in the future.

Trump's health care bill, far from protecting everyone (as he promised), will cause 23 million Americans to become uninsured. It will raise premiums for the oldest and sickest Americans, which include many of his most fervent working-class supporters. Although Trump promised during the campaign that he would not touch Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, his proposed budget cuts both Social Security and Medicaid. Although he promised to help people who are out of work find jobs, he proposed budget slashes job training programs, and so on and so on.  Who do his policies benefit most? Not the working class. The great beneficiary of the health care bill, it turns out, is the wealthiest Americans, because the AHCA is actually a 800 billion dollar tax cut disguised as health care policy. Trump's tax proposals also feature tax reductions for the very wealthy (including Trump himself). Trump has slow-walked his promises on trade policy as well.  Although Trump may actually make some changes here, they are unlikely to be bring back jobs in the way that he promised; there is very little chance that his trade policies will actually help working-class Americans, as opposed to people like Trump himself. The one area where Trump has remained populist is immigration; his controversial travel ban was blocked by the federal courts. Yet even here, Trump ultimately backed away from insisting on Congressional appropriations for his famous wall.

Although pundits and supporters alike imagined that Trump would move the Republican Party toward a genuine economic populism, that is not what has happened.

What explains this turn around? The explanation is simple if we make one very important assumption. The assumption is that when it comes to ideology, Trump doesn't really have many positions that he strongly believes in. On the other hand, he does have a few fixed goals that he really cares about. He likes dominance and winning, he wants to stay in power, and he wants to make money for himself and for his family.

This makes Trump like any number of autocrats in history. Such autocrats often present themselves as populists before gaining power. They promise to eliminate corruption and take care of the masses. Once in power, they discard many of the allies who helped them gain power. They shamelessly enrich themselves and members of their family. Above all, they work to stay in power by paying off a smaller circle of cronies and supporters who help them stay in power.

The United States is not a dictatorship or an autocracy. It is a republic with broad political participation. Therefore Trump's playbook is a bit different than that of the standard autocrat, but the basic strategy is the same.  Trump can best achieve his actual goals by aligning himself with the policy views of the Republican donor class, who, in turn, support Congressional Republicans. If Trump follows this path, there are fewer people to pay off, and their support is far more important to his political survival. If that means throwing his working class supporters under the bus, so be it. He wants power and wealth, not good policy.

Suppose for a moment that Trump truly believed what he said during the 2016 campaign and attempted to put it into practice. A truly populist economic program would cost a lot of money and it would require cooperation from Republicans who want very different policies because they are funded by donors who want very different policies. In theory, Trump could try to ally with Democrats to create a populist politics, and he made some feints in that direction early on. But he soon realized that the vast majority of Democrats don't want to work with him. Memories of the 2016 election are still quite raw. Most Democrats despise him and they want to get rid of him. In addition, very strong political polarization in the United States means that Democrats are in a position similar to Republicans in 2009: They are much better off doing everything they can to hinder and oppose Trump than to work with him and give him some wins. Trump wants to stay in power and become wealthy. The Democrats want him to do neither. Therefore he is unlikely to ally with them.

To stay in power and enrich himself with impunity, Trump has a choice of two potential sources of support. He could defy his party and attempt to benefit a broad base of working class Americans who it would be very expensive to take care of. Or he could ingratiate himself with a small group of Republican donors who are mostly interested in tax cuts, deregulation, and entitlement reform, and who don't care very much if Trump gets rich in the process of serving as President. If Trump tried to benefit a broad base of working class voters, he would meet strong resistance from Congressional Republicans and their donors who control Congress, and he might get only lukewarm support from Democrats, who are eager to deny him any victories. But if he worked to benefit the far smaller class of wealthy donors, he would also get the support of almost all Congressional Republicans, who rely on these donors to keep themselves in power. These donors, in turn, will look the other way if Trump enriches himself, because he is taking care of them as well as himself.

The effect is reciprocal.  By aligning himself with the Republican donor class, Trump also makes it very difficult for Congressional Republicans to abandon him.  Many commentators have noticed that Republicans seem unable or unwilling to criticize Trump, even though evidence mounts that he is incompetent and corrupt, and that he has attempted to cover up illegal activity and possibly engaged in obstruction of justice. Donors want a unified Republican Party to pass legislation they support. Hobbling Trump prevents that from happening.

Congressional Republicans, like most politicians, want to stay in power and be reelected. Therefore they will usually do what their donors want them to do, and that means supporting Trump as long as he can plausibly assist them in passing legislation. Indeed, the more under attack Trump becomes, the more desperately most Congressional Republicans must cling to him, lest the Democrats gain an advantage and undermine the Republican legislative program.

Note that during the election, Trump combined populist economic policies with traditional Republican views on the federal judiciary: he promised to appoint very conservative judges, to protect religious freedom, and so on. Because this promise is attractive to a broad swath of the Republican Party, elite donors and working class whites alike, Trump has had no reason to renege on it. It is no accident that Trump's nomination of Gorsuch to the Supreme Court has been one of his most popular and successful moves. It pleases everyone in his coalition, both the elite donors he seeks to satisfy and the working-class whites whose interests he is otherwise abandoning.

Now consider Trump's chances at staying in power.  Impeachment and removal is very unlikely although possible. The more important questions for Trump are whether he will face a primary challenge and whether he will be reelected in 2020. Incumbents who face a serious primary challenge are far more likely to lose the general election (for example, consider the effect of Teddy Kennedy's challenge to Jimmy Carter in 1980, or Pat Buchanan's challenge to George H.W. Bush in 1992), so Trump wants to avoid this at all costs.

If Trump adopts tax, fiscal, and deregulatory policies that Republican donors like, he is less likely to face any primary challenge, much less a successful primary challenge. If he aligns himself with populist policies contrary to Republican orthodoxy, he is more likely to face a primary challenge, and he increases the (admittedly small) chance that he would be displaced on the 2020 ticket.

Finally, consider the effects of Trump's scandals. Trump's enemies would like to get rid of him, either by impeachment and removal, or by forcing his resignation. The chances of either are small, but they are growing. If Trump sticks with very conservative Republican tax, fiscal, and deregulatory policies, he can count on loyal Republican support in the face of scandal for far longer than if he adopts egalitarian or populist economic policies.

Hence, we can predict that the worse things get for Trump in terms of scandal, the more *strongly* he will hew to policies of lower taxes for the rich, deregulation for businesses, and entitlement cuts to pay for tax cuts. That is, the worse things get for Trump, the more he will adopt the policy views of very conservative Congressional Republicans and their donors. The worse things get for Trump, in other words, they more he will abandon any pretense of populist policies.

Note that I am talking about actual *policies*, not *rhetoric*. The two are quite different. By now it should be obvious that what Trump says and what Trump does are two different things. This difference is also crucial to staying in power.

Because Trump wants to stay in power, he will continue engaging in the same populist rhetoric he has always engaged in. And he will continue to demonize liberals, political correctness, and the media.

Why is this? Above all, he wants to maintain polarization and whip up the Republican base into a frenzy of anger against their opponents. The more he succeeds in demonizing Democrats and liberals, the less likely that working class Republican voters will abandon him, even if he is not giving them policies that help them. That is because they are convinced that the Democrats are even worse! Trump may be a disappointment to working-class voters in some respects, but at least they feel that he is on their side. Unlike liberals and Democrats, he is not looking down his nose at them, and he is not giving out handouts to "undeserving" people in the Democratic coalition.

To be sure, demonizing opponents will encourage them to demonize you in return. But being hated by his opponents is not such a bad thing for Trump, if the consequence is to cause his supporters rally around him. The very fact that liberal elites despise Trump so much is evidence that he really is looking out for the working class.

Similarly, the more Trump demonizes the mainstream media, the more he encourages his supporters to believe that the media can't be trusted, especially if they feature stories that criticize Trump.

Thus, if Trump doesn't care about policy, but he does care about staying in power and enriching himself, he has an optimal strategy on policy and an optimal strategy on rhetoric. The optimal strategy on policy is to become ever more like a conservative Republican who favors the interests of the wealthiest Americans. The optimal strategy on rhetoric is to encourage ever greater polarization, to demonize the opposition (so that they will demonize him in turn, thereby exacerbating polarization), and to continue to attack the media as untrustworthy.

And that is precisely what we see happening.

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