The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Trump pivot: Make the plutocrats happy. Keep feeding his voters nativism.

President Trump is changing his tune on NATO, China's currency, Syria and many other policies he campaigned on. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)


Everyone in Washington is struggling to make sense of Donald Trump’s reversals on multiple issues. The Post reports that “establishment” Republicans are relieved to see him governing more as one of them, as evidenced by his new support for NATO and the Export-Import Bank. Meanwhile, the rising influence of Goldman Sachs banker Gary Cohn inside the administration has some discerning a more “moderate” and “centrist” Trump on various issues, such as our posture on trade with China, and others seeing the emergence of a “pragmatic” Trump.

But please — let’s not forget two really important storylines that continue to mark the Trump presidency, both of which are damaging the country. First, for all the talk about how Trump is backing off of Stephen K. Bannon’s “economic nationalism,” Trump remains fully committed to the policies that embody the nativist and xenophobic side of his nationalism. Second, for all the chatter about how Trump is suddenly getting more conventional, his serial shredding of our norms on ethics and transparency continues to run rampant.

The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that Trump’s reversal on the value of the Export-Import Bank and on whether to label China a currency manipulator reflect a “growing reliance on former corporate executives in his White House — and business leaders outside of it.” Meanwhile, the Post reports that White House “moderates” aligned with Wall Street, such as Cohn and Jared Kushner, are “racking up successes in a battle over ideology and control” with the Bannon wing. This will be clear in the coming prioritization of tax reform.

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But it has long been obvious that Trump was going to govern in ways that Wall Street aligned GOP elites are perfectly comfortable with. Trump’s agenda has long included elements that conventional conservative Republicans support: deregulation of Wall Street; a rollback of regulations to protect the environment and combat climate change; deep tax cuts for the rich and businesses. All of that has been underway or in the planning stages since the beginning.

Trump’s reversals on trade and Ex-Im should only be surprising if you took his economic populism seriously during the campaign. But there was never any grounds for thinking it amounted to anything concrete at all in policy terms. Trump blustered a lot about trade, but he never detailed an actual agenda on it, let alone one that would help workers. He talked tough about raising taxes for the rich before releasing a tax plan that would slash them dramatically.

Pundits told us for months that Trump’s economic nationalism represented a heterodox combination of hard-line immigration restrictionism and a decisive break with Paul Ryan’s Ayn Randian Republicanism on Keynesian spending and social insurance and the safety net. But the second half of that was always mostly nonsense, and all that’s happening now is that this is getting confirmed.

Bannonite populism supposedly held out the promise of massive infrastructure spending, but it looks more likely we’ll end up with a cronyist tax break and privatization scheme, not a genuine public expenditure. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney declined to say in a recent interview whether Trump would veto a bill that contains Ryanesque Medicare “reforms,” i.e., cuts. In other words, Ryanesque entitlement reform is alive as a real possibility. Meanwhile, on Obamacare, Trump continues to pursue a deal with conservatives on repeal, which means he is moving towards more deregulation, even as he remains fully committed to rolling back health coverage for 24 million people.

But the first half of the equation — the immigration restrictionism — remains fully in force on the level of policy. The administration continues to defend the travel ban in court and remains fully committed to building the Mexican wall. On deportations, the reign of fear is kicking in. Parents are yanking kids from day care out of fear of removal; longtime residents with no other offenses are getting deported; the administration continues to try to strong-arm sanctuary cities into enforcing the federal immigration crackdown. As ABC News reports this morning: “The deportation force looks like it’s coming together – just more quietly than anticipated.”

At the same time, as Matthew Yglesias points out, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is busily implementing a number of xenophobic and draconian policies, even as the Beltway press extols Trump’s “moderation”:

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.

Wall Street and GOP elites may be glad to see Trump reverting to form on the issues that matter to them. But — while these elites would perhaps like to see immigration reform — how much do they really care about the ugly nativist stuff that’s proceeding under the radar? Meanwhile, the trips to Mar-a-Lago (which use the White House to enrich the Trump family) and the refusal to release Trump’s tax returns and show transparency about his finances (which allows untold other conflicts of interest to remain undetected)  doesn’t appear to concern them too much, either. The “economic” nationalism is no longer operative (if it ever was), but the ethno-nationalism and the corruption are running as strong as ever.


* GEORGIA VOTERS MAY ‘STICK IT’ TO TRUMP: Republicans are scrambling in the special election for the former seat of HHS Secretary Tom Price in the Atlanta suburbs, and the Los Angeles Times talks to voters who are set to vote for Democrat Jon Osoff:

Jeffrey Chou, a 25-year-old graduate student voting for the first time who came to support Ossoff … was joined in line by a 60-year-old nurse who voted for Price in the past, but said all the “insanity” at the White House has driven her to vote Democrat this time. Arriving soon after was a 38-year-old patent agent trainee who hadn’t volunteered for a political campaign since college, but said Trump’s behavior drove her to canvass for Ossoff. A physician in his 60s who said he had worked with Price professionally and voted for him declared he would cast a ballot for Ossoff to “stick it in the eyes of Trump.”

Note that some of these are voters that Democrats are bringing into the process. A big question is whether a large influx new voters could help overcome the district’s GOP lean.

* TRUMP’S TWEETS STOKE TENSIONS WITH NORTH KOREA: Trump has been tweeting that the U.S. will “properly deal with” North Korea, and today, North Korea reacted:

North Korea hit out at President Trump Friday, accusing him “making trouble” with his “aggressive” tweets, amid concerns that tensions between the two countries could escalate into military action … North Korea’s vice foreign minister said that Trump was “becoming more vicious and more aggressive” than previous presidents, which was only making matters worse.

As you may recall, this blog reported some time ago that nuclear experts worry Trump’s tweets could cause a major escalation, particularly if they are vaguely menacing, which they have been.

* DEMS HOPE TO DEMORALIZE TRUMP’S BASE: CNN reports that Democratic strategists are hoping to focus attention on the many ways Trump has sold out on his “populist” promises, in hopes of depressing his voters’ turnout in 2018:

The goal is not necessarily to turn Trump voters into Democrats, since that isn’t likely to happen. But by demoralizing Trump’s base of supporters, Democrats are hopeful they can capitalize on excitement in their base to sweep many Republicans out of power in the House and Senate.

Who knows how well this will work, but Democrats have been given plenty of material to make this case, even as Dem voters are hugely energized.

* TRUMP’S LATEST THREAT COULD DO DAMAGE: Reed Abelson have a useful explanation of the ins and outs over the battle over Trump’s threat to stop paying the “cost-sharing reductions,” which subsidize insurance with lower out-of-pocket costs. That would melt down the exchanges:

Killing the cost-sharing subsidies would be a huge and immediate hit to insurance companies offering Obamacare plans … A decision to do away with the subsidies would also send a key signal to the insurance companies that the Trump administration and Congress have decided not to stabilize the market, which has been particularly shaky in some areas. Without the subsidies, insurance could get very expensive in some places in the country. In other areas, no insurance options might be available.

But as I argued yesterday, this outcome is actually not as bad as the outcome that Trump is asking Dems to cooperate with him on bringing about, which makes this threat meaningless.

* TRUMP’S LATEST THREAT IS ALSO PRETTY STUPID: Paul Krugman explains one of the obvious problems with it:

What is he offering by way of a deal? Obamacare increased coverage two ways, via Medicaid expansion and subsidized private insurance. Mr. Trump might be able to undermine the private markets, but Medicaid wouldn’t be affected. Why would Democrats ever agree to Republican plans, which would basically kill both? Then there’s the political reality that by sabotaging Obamacare, the Trump administration would be handing Democrats a huge electoral gift.

Or, to put this another way, Trump is basically saying, “give me the money, or I’ll kill only one of the hostages, rather than both of them, and I’ll leave only my fingerprints on the murder weapon.”

* A NEW ONLINE TOOL ABOUT MAR-A-LAGO: The Center for American Progress has created a new web page that answers three questions at any given time: Is Trump at Mar-a-Lago? How much in total have taxpayers shelled out to support these trips? And what government programs (school lunches; Medicaid; Pell Grants) could that money cover?

Something tells us that those sums are going to climb to truly astonishing heights before this is all over.