The Unpopulist

Two trial balloons floated across the mediascape yesterday: (1) Pres. Trump’s Twitter “announcement” of a ban on transgender people serving in the military, sprung with even less warning than the so-called “travel ban” regarding certain Middle Eastern nations; and (2) White House adviser Steve Bannon’s idea for tax reform to include a new 44% top marginal tax rate on people making over $5 million annually.

The juxtaposing of these two items reminded me that I had yet to ask here: is Trump ever going to get around to proposing something broadly popular?

To be sure, Trump got his administration off to a good start with Republicans, signing the sorts of executive orders you would expect from a GOPer.  There has been some regulatory rollback.  And there was of course Justice Gorsuch (aside: Hugh Hewitt complained again yesterday about the pace of judicial nominations and confirmations).  All to the good, for Republicans.

Conversely, Bannon’s tax idea might appeal to Democrats, but would be anathema to Republicans, which is probably why one senior administration official told the Weekly Standard that the White House was “beyond that” the last time this balloon was floated a few weeks ago.

Although I disagree with Bannon’s proposal, both as policy and politics (Trump is already doing enough to split his nominal party), it does at least have the notion of trying to do something populist going for it.  That it is unlikely to go anywhere underscores what Rush Limbaugh noted last week — that the GOP is not really so much a nationalist or populist party as it is the anti-Democrat party.

And this is a missed opportunity — or might have been, for a slightly smarter version of Trump.  Of course, true populism would have been a gamble for a man who ran an essentially cultural campaign that virtually guaranteed the Democratic Party’s activist base would intimidate its officials into rigid opposition.  OTOH, there are plenty of Dem officials who know the activists aren’t the entire base and that they may need an agenda beyond attacking Trump (depending on the economy and so forth).

So one wonders (as I’ve heard Michael B. Dougherty and John Podhoretz do on the National Review Editors’ podcast and the Commentary podcast, respectively) what might have happened if Trump had led with infrastructure.  Again, it wouldn’t have been my cup of tea, but I could’ve seen him getting away with it and putting pressure on Dems in the process.

I also tend to think back to the Contract With America, which contained a bunch of arguably populist items and intentionally excluded ambitious tax reform and hot-button social issues.  The effort that went into crafting it — polls, focus groups, surveys of candidates and interest groups — was probably something worth duplicating, either by the Trump admin or the GOP Congress.

Instead, Trump’s first six months have been marked by a steady diet of polarizing base politics.  That’s much easier to get away with if you’re Barack Obama and just won handily with a large Congressional margin.  But Trump squeaked out an Electoral College victory and has much less of a Congressional majority.

Trump’s situation is much closer to that of George W. Bush, who by temperament and political calculation was inclined to pass a bipartisan education bill and an expansion of Medicare.  As it turned out, even in the first post-9/11 presidential contest, Bush probably needed the goodwill generated by his more big-government impulses to win re-election.

Trump, despite being far less conservative by nature than Dubya, seems to have missed the lesson.  Perhaps it’s because he ran against the Bush dynasty.  Perhaps it’s because he’s convinced himself that he’s more popular than Obama.

Whatever the reason, Trump may have missed the window to govern as a populist and will be left to govern as an anti-Democrat.  Not exactly the ideal position for a man who needs to expand his support instead of contracting it.

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