Donald Trump’s first week in office has seen the usual new-administration wave of appointments, executive orders, and transition controversies as civil servants meet their new political overseers. But it’s also witnessed some very unusual spectacles, including both the president of the United States and his press secretary telling baldfaced lies about crowd size, a senior adviser coining the term “alternative facts,” and an unusually harsh wave of dishy insider leaks.
A New York Times report says “several senior advisers” to the president have had to urge him to “move on and focus on the responsibilities of office,” while an Associated Press report portrays Trump as obsessed with his popular vote loss to the extent that “fixation has been a drag on the momentum of his opening days in office.”
But while it’s surely fair to judge Trump as ignorant on some scores, he has an undeniable grasp of media dynamics and a good enough nose for public opinion that it’s at least worth considering the possibility that what he’s doing makes some sense. Pursuing personal grievances and feuding with media figures rather than scrambling to enact as much of the sweeping conservative policy agenda as he had while the iron is hot is a huge mistake … if you assume Trump is deeply committed to enacting a sweeping conservative policy agenda.
Another view is that Trump is simply trying to thread a difficult needle. He’s caught between a congressional Republican majority whose support he needs to survive in office and a mass public that has very little interest in a GOP plan to roll back the welfare state in order to finance enormous tax cuts for millionaires. The frenetic yet seemingly pointless combativeness could be a strategy in its own right — shiny objects for the base to let him run out the clock and drag the Republican Party toward the center on some key issues.
Trump has moderated some key GOP stances
It is very difficult, mostly with good reason, for alarmed liberals to see Trump this way, but in some respects he was a classic “moderate” nominee of the sort a party might choose after a series of presidential election defeats. Trump ditched longstanding GOP promises to overhaul Social Security and Medicare, downplayed anti-LGBTQ themes, poached the anti-outsourcing theme straight from the Democrats’ playbook, and was sharply critical of the messianism of neoconservative foreign policy.
And yet, as president, Trump is captive in a somewhat unique way to very ideologically orthodox forces inside the GOP.
For starters, there is no real “Trump wing” of the congressional Republican Party. His insurgent primary campaign had no down-ballot coattails, and the entire GOP congressional leadership — plus the supporting apparatus in think tanks and state parties — remains committed to rolling back the welfare state. Democrats, meanwhile, regard him as a completely illegitimate president — a racist and a liar who won thanks to malfeasance by the FBI director and the Russian government. And Trump himself is vulnerable — seemingly hiding something in his tax returns, averse to an independent investigation of Russian activity during the 2016 campaign, and subject to massive and unprecedented financial conflicts of interest.
He gets away with it because congressional Republicans think it’s smart to let him get away with it. And they think it’s smart because they expect Trump to go along with their agenda — up to and including appointing a health and human services secretary who favors drastic cuts to Medicare and Medicaid and a budget director who wants to raise the Social Security retirement age.
But Trump knows that actually doing these things isn’t popular, and while these issues are at the center of Paul Ryan’s emotional and intellectual worldview, they aren’t at the center of Trump’s. Many Republican officials — including ones inside the Trump administration — may be frustrated that his antics are distracting from their core policy agenda. But distraction is an elegant way to thread the needle between doing unpopular things and angering Trump’s congressional allies.
Politics isn’t about policy
Something Trump understands better than most professional politicians is that for most people — and particularly for persuadable voters — politics isn’t primarily about policy.
Trump did very well with white working-class voters in states like Michigan and Ohio that have been plausibly hurt by imported manufacturing goods from Asia. But he also did very well with white working-class voters in places like Staten Island that have almost no exposure to trade. And he dominated with white working-class voters in Iowa, a primarily agricultural state that has benefited enormously from trade with Asia.
He did so by consistently and across the board valorizing manly blue-collar occupations — cops, soldiers, miners, firefighters, factory workers, and farmers. It’s difficult to devise a policy agenda that would simultaneously benefit natural gas drilling and coal mining, or that would help import-competing manufacturing companies without hurting export-oriented farms. But it’s certainly possible to develop an atmospheric identity politics around the idea that these are salt-of-the-earth people being unfairly dissed by cultural elites in New York and California.
Trump took an Obama-era paradigm that elevated app programmers, racial justice advocates, immigrants, and “the future” and subverted it in favor of one that celebrates working with your hands, living in your hometown, and “the good old days.”
A non-transformational president would still do a lot
This identity-driven agenda is not devoid of policy implications, especially on trade, immigration, law enforcement, and spending on the military and veterans causes. But it militates toward a very cautious approach on the tax, spending, and regulatory issues that are the core of Congress’s work.
Trump has, for example, formally committed himself to an enormous federal voucher program that, if implemented, would amount to a huge change in the lives of millions of Americans. His pick for secretary of education is a deeply committed conservative ideologue with a particular passion for this kind of effort to dismantle traditional public education.
The president might want to ask himself why, exactly, he would want to try to do this. As best we can tell, Trump was a Democrat in the 1980s and 1990s, a period during which trade protection was mostly associated with Democrats, immigration wasn’t a partisan issue, and Northern whites’ political views were polarized more along religious attitudes than racial ones.
Times have changed, and Trump has not only become the leader of the Republican Party but has brought millions of xenophobic secular Northern whites into it with him. His best chance of retaining their loyalty is to stay authentic to his own lack of interest in the Reagan-era GOP program of dismantling public sector programs.
None of which means that a Trump administration wouldn’t get anything done. Even a mild, inaction-oriented Trump White House would naturally find itself filling vacancies with conservative judges recommended by conservative Republicans. Its executive agencies would be populated with business-friendly figures who favor a light regulatory touch. The dream ideological conservatives would be abandoning is the dream of wholesale sweeping change, not the dream of pushing the ship of state to the right.
Keep Trump Weird
Liberals worry, with good reason, that some of Trump’s antics may merely be ways to distract the public from potential unpopular elements of his policy agenda.
An even smarter strategy, however, would be to use the very same antics — slamming Meryl Streep, picking a fight with the cast of Hamilton, lambasting the media, lying about crowd sizes — to distract conservatives from his lack of interest in pushing conservative policy ideas. A good polarizing fight with liberal elites, after all, will give Fox News and conservative talk radio plenty to chew over. And if benign economic conditions and lots of grandstanding paired with a deliberate effort to minimize enormous and controversial policy moves make Trump popular, then conservatives will feel like winners.