Both parties understand this, and it’s reflected in their rhetoric and the political challenges they face. Republicans tend to talk about broad principles, while Democrats tend to talk about specific programs. Republicans struggle to justify their actual plans (if they have them) for things such as Medicare or environmental protection, while Democrats struggle to craft appealing overarching messages.
If you’re a Republican president, the most advantageous place to be is one in which you preach the small-government gospel and praise Americans for their can-do spirit and rugged individualism, while not actually threatening the government programs they rely on. Yet Trump is doing just the opposite.
During the 2016 campaign, he made a lot of conservatives uneasy by saying that he wasn’t going to touch the programs Americans love, such as Social Security and Medicare. But he also made far more ambitious promises about government — not just that he’d do specific things such as build up infrastructure, but that if we gave him the presidency he’d solve every problem anyone faces. Despite some occasional criticism of regulation, Trump didn’t use the traditional Republican rhetoric about “empowering” people by getting government out of their way. He didn’t characterize Americans as a force waiting to be unleashed; in his telling, the only active force was Trump himself, and once he had government power at his disposal he’d bring us so much winning we’d get tired of winning.
So what you had in 2016 was two candidates advocating for a strong government actively working to improve Americans’ lives. But now, Trump is in many ways governing like an ordinary Republican: gutting the EPA, hoping to remove regulations on Wall Street, and targeting the social safety net. The controversies around these moves have the effect of drawing public attention toward the popular things government does.
The effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act is a perfect example. For years, “Obamacare” was unpopular in the abstract, despite the fact that almost all the law’s provisions garnered extraordinary support. Millions of people would say they opposed this thing called “Obamacare” that they only vaguely understood, yet also say that they loved the fact that you can’t be denied coverage because of a preexisting condition, Medicaid was expanded, young people can stay on their parents’ insurance plans, and so on. As long as Republicans were just criticizing the law in the abstract, they were fine. But once they tried to repeal it, news coverage focused on the particular things they were trying to take away, and the result was that the popularity of the law soared, and their replacement plan crashed.
This is likely to be a problem Trump faces repeatedly. He’ll be pursuing a typical Republican agenda, but he won’t have the ideological ballast to make the case for it — and he’ll have to be the primary salesman for every policy change Republicans attempt. We saw it in health care, where occasionally he’d blurt out things such as “We’re going to have insurance for everybody” when they most certainly wouldn’t, a mistake that an ideologue like Paul Ryan would never make. That only had the effect of establishing a promise he would quickly break, discrediting the whole effort. He can pretend that letting energy companies dump coal ash in streams will bring back all the mining jobs, but that’s a scam that can work for only so long before people realize that the jobs haven’t come back.
So Trump has encouraged voters to believe that government’s job is to solve their problems, but when it doesn’t, he won’t have arguments about liberty and the free market to fall back on. If you change people’s expectations, you’d better be able to deliver on them.