The biggest delusion of the Trump era
Pundits get things wrong all the time. But in most cases the errors are about contingencies (like which candidate will win an election) or matters of judgment about complex issues (like whether it's a good idea to go to war). What's unusual about the Trump era is how easy it's been for so many of us — and yes, I include myself in the indictment — to misread the character of the Trump administration at the most basic level.
For most analysts, Trump's victory in the GOP primaries in 2016 and then in the general election later that year represented either a significant break from the past for the Republican Party or at the very least a "fight for the soul of GOP," to deploy one of punditry's favorite clichés. The idea is that Trump was a populist who wanted to transform a party fixated on tax cuts into a "workers party" more oriented toward the suffering of average voters in the American heartland. Forces in the party might want to prevent this shift, and Trump's ignorance of government processes might make him ineffectual at enacting the change and getting it to stick. But the aim was clear and pointed toward an important evolution in the party, now and for the future.
Three years into the Trump administration it is finally possible to say firmly that this is almost complete nonsense. On policy substance there has been a single actual change: the GOP is now far more nativist on immigration than it was from 1980 to 2008. Other than that, the only significant shift has been at the level of style. Trump is a lying, trash-talking BS artist who treats trolling as his preferred form of presidential address. A day during which he manages to "trigger the libs" is a good day for the Trump White House (and the days when he doesn't are exceedingly rare). That is the only meaningful respect in which Trump is a populist: He talks down to and encourages the meanest sensibilities of Republican voters rather than seeking to elevate them and the rest of the country with exalted rhetoric.
That's it. In every other respect, the Trump administration might as well be the third term of George W. Bush.
Think about it: The areas where Trump sounded like he aimed to make a change were immigration, trade, economic and social policy, and foreign policy. He ran for office talking about putting up a border wall and deporting undocumented immigrants, and that is indeed the one area where he's tried to move in a genuinely new direction (while often implementing it with such cruelty and ineptitude that the courts have pushed back at every step).
But on trade? He's blustered a lot, pulled out of some trade agreements, and imposed some tariffs, but so far the results (to NAFTA and with regard to China) have changed very little beyond allowing him to slap a "Trump" brand on slightly adjusted versions of old deals.
On economic and social policy, his single accomplishment is working with a Republican Congress to pass a plutocrat's dream of a corporate tax cut. After talking on the campaign trail about replacing the Affordable Care Act with a new health-care plan that would cover everyone, he worked in office (and failed) to repeal the ACA with nothing in particular — an act that, had it succeeded, would have dealt a horribly painful blow to American workers.
On foreign policy, Trump has certainly been tactically chaotic — threatening North Korea with nuclear "fire and fury" at one moment; exchanging love letters with Kim Jong Un the next — but strategically the watchword had been deep continuity. The president talks and tweets about "ending endless wars," but all he does is move troops around from one theater of battle to another in our myriad wars scattered across the globe while denigrating diplomacy and threatening military conflicts with other countries, from Venezuela to Iran, if they fail to bow to his will.
All of this should sound familiar to anyone old enough to remember the administration of George W. Bush. The imposition of trade tariffs? Check. Draconian tax cuts to benefit the wealthy? Check. A swaggering posture on the world stage backed up with military threats? Check. And then there are the many overt ways in which Trump continues with Bush administration priorities — including the appointment of as many conservative judges as possible, the broad assertion of executive power and privilege, and the shredding of federal regulations.
This continuity has been growing increasingly obvious for quite a while, with more people realizing it all the time. But it's been easy to miss because of the continued prominence of Never Trump Republicans — many of them veterans of the Bush 43 administration — in the media. How could the Trump administration be broadly continuous with the Bush administration when senior members of that administration oppose Trump so loudly and vociferously? The answer, I think, is that these anti-Trump obsessives are intellectuals and moralists who work with words and ideas for a living. They loved when Bush did very similar things because he wrapped them in noble rhetoric about American ideals of liberty.
Trump does no such thing, and it drives the Bill Kristols and Michael Gersons of the world positively batty. Presidents are supposed to proclaim permanent truths, not spout lies (at least not quite so flagrantly). They're supposed to use language to elevate the nation, not bring us all down into the gutter. They're supposed to foster a love of country rooted in high ideals, not talk in tribal terms about the nation's greatness.
The difference is real, but it's window dressing. It matters mainly because it reveals the moral condition of the Republican electorate, which we now know can be much more effectively reached and moved by baser appeals than former presidential speechwriters and professional political operatives prefer and assume. That is the sense — perhaps the only sense — in which Trump is leading a populist movement out to tear down establishment elites: He "gets" the low and dirty way GOP voters talk and think about politics and the country. But he's using that ability to do things in office that are remarkably similar to what Republicans have been trying to do for a long time.
The political analysts who have noticed and highlighted these continuities from the beginning of the Trump administration can mostly be found on the democratic-socialist left. Leading figures of the center left, including Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Michael Bloomberg, share many assumptions with Republicans about political rhetoric, and they have each had reasons to want to play up the discontinuities between Trump and his GOP predecessors. But those on the harder left are stirred by different notions of justice and the common good than conservatives. That has made them less reactive to the glaring rhetorical shift from Bush to Trump and thereby more capable of keeping their eyes on what the administration is actually doing policy-wise.
This doesn't mean that the more leftward candidates are better placed to defeat Trump in November. But it does mean that those of us who make a living trying to understand politics might be better off taking our cues from left-wing critics of the president than from those who oppose him from closer to the center of the spectrum.
Trump doesn't speak and act like previous Republican presidents. But he's using those differences to obfuscate the many continuities with his GOP predecessors. Confusing the rhetoric with the reality is the biggest delusion of the Trump era.