Donald Trump’s long, improbable journey to political power has been marked by a nearly endless procession of fallacious media conceits. The latest of these posits that the apparent downfall of chief strategist Steve Bannon, driven by personality clashes with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump and substantive policy disagreements with National Economic Council chief Gary Cohn, mark the dawn of a new, more “moderate” or “centrist” version of Trumpism.
The truth is closer to the opposite. Bannon himself was no prize pig, and the country is in many ways better off with his influence diminished. But the emerging Trumpism 2.0 is in most respects more extreme than what it’s left behind.
You can see this in the recent actions and seemingly undiminished stature of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a man deemed too racist for a federal judgeship in the mid-1980s but kosher to serve as the nation’s top cop 30 years later.
Over the course of the past few weeks, Sessions has indicated a desire to roll back civil rights oversight of abusive police departments, stampeded over states’ objections to immigration enforcement raids at courthouses, dropped efforts to improve forensic science, directed federal prosecutors to dedicate a larger share of their resources to deporting immigrants, launched a new crackdown on high-tech guest worker visas, and indicated a desire to bring back old-school “war on drugs” policies, including a stepped-up federal crackdown on marijuana use.
These notions are congruent with Bannon-style politics. But across his long career in the Senate, Sessions never fused them into the kind of idiosyncratic populist mélange that Trump offered during the campaign. Instead, his harsh authoritarianism simply sat alongside hard-right policies on everything else under the sun. And with Bannon’s star falling, that appears to be the true synthesis Trump is moving toward.
Gary Cohn won’t moderate Trump
Much misunderstanding about the practical trajectory of the Trumpian pivot stems from the fact that Cohn is a registered Democrat. Bannon tried to exploit that fact during his clashes with Cohn, raising the specter of a clutch of “New York Democrats” undermining Trumpism from within.
But Cohn’s actual policy commitments seem much simpler than that. As a top executive at Goldman Sachs, he traditionally donated money to politicians from the New York City area, mostly Democrats. But as Zack Carter writes at The Huffington Post , after the Obama administration enacted the Dodd-Frank financial regulation overhaul, Cohn “flipped on a dime in 2009 and exclusively supported Republicans.”
This is in line with former colleagues’ characterization of Cohn as not someone who had an enormous apparent interest in politics beyond the specific policy needs of Goldman Sachs. In arguments with Bannon, Cohn — allied with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster — has pushed for Trump to downplay his protectionist campaign promises and move toward a more traditional GOP stance on free trade. And after the intervention in Syria, Trump has also seemingly ditched Bannon’s pro-Russian and quasi-isolationist views in favor of a move toward a more traditional GOP stance of foreign policy hawkishness.
Trump is getting more orthodox, not more moderate
Down the line, Trump’s current policies now point toward orthodox conservatism:
- From the get-go, Trump has seemed to favor a return to the days of light-touch regulation on Wall Street.
- Betsy DeVos appears to be safely ensconced at the Education Department, pursuing an agenda of K-12 school choice and reducing protections for student loan borrowers.
- Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency is about to unwind as much of Obama’s regulatory activism on climate change as he can.
- Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney tells CNBC’s John Harwood that he is “working on” convincing Trump that he needs to tackle entitlement reform.
- Loose campaign talk about busting up media and telecommunications conglomerates has been supplanted by a standard Republican business-friendly Federal Communications Commission.
This is, it should be said, a genuine change of direction from how Trump portrayed himself and was seen during the campaign. Candidate Trump, in part under Bannon’s influence, folded a Sessions-esque approach to immigration and civil rights into a multifaceted populist approach.
His attacks on trade deals and outsourcing echoed rhetoric from most congressional Democrats and lines that Barack Obama used in his two campaigns. His isolationist-ish foreign policy rhetoric carried, at times, whiffs of John Kerry’s old line about how we shouldn’t be opening firehouses in Baghdad while closing them in Boston.
It was never clear exactly what this Trumpian populism was supposed to amount to, but it sincerely discomfited America’s CEO class and drove the unusual dynamics of the 2016 general election — with Hillary Clinton largely choosing to accept Trump’s characterization of himself as something fresh and new. She simply argued that it was fresh and new and dangerous, rather than primarily casting Trump as a fraud who would pursue an agenda of enriching his fellow rich businessmen.
The new Trump is a lot safer — for some people
Some of Trump’s departures from conservative orthodoxy were probably good ideas on the merits. Opening up the United States to trade with China really did prove to be a tougher adjustment than proponents said. And there’s a strong case to be made for Bannon-esque skepticism of concentration in the financial services and telecommunications industries. More broadly, the sense that the economic policies of the American conservative movement were not well serving the concrete interests of the large working-class segment of its voting base was correct.
On the other hand, while the election results show pretty clearly that most voters don’t care about this, candidate Trump’s apparent willingness to throw overboard an intricate series of alliances constructed and cemented over a period of decades was genuinely alarming.
A more ideologically orthodox Trump is, in many ways, a more reassuring figure on the world stage, one who may be somewhat more likely than an alt-right Trump to get the United States involved in a small war, but who is also dramatically less likely to permanently upend the global order in a potentially cataclysmic way.
For most Americans, it has now ended up looking like they will get roughly the same policy mix we had under George W. Bush.
But Sessions at the Justice Department is a critical exception to that trend. Before Trump, one major trajectory of the 21st-century Republican Party was a series of fitful efforts to expand the party’s outreach to people of color. Bush pushed for a comprehensive immigration reform measure, and many of the party’s most prominent leaders on Capitol Hill did the same during the Obama administration. Marco Rubio spoke compassionately about the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, and there was a bipartisan push for criminal justice reform.
Vox’s Dara Lind warned last November that liberal panic about Trump worst-case scenarios could end up backfiring by, in effect, serving to normalize an assault on America’s marginalized populations. By winning plaudits for this month’s pivot, Trump has brought those fears to fruition.