Central to Trump’s campaign was his vilification of illegal immigrants and promises to deport millions and force Mexico to build the wall. It turns out those ideas are very unpopular. Besides, Mexico isn’t paying for the wall and Trump’s executive order accesses only a minuscule amount of leftover Department of Homeland Security funding. Congress is unlikely to fund the boondoggle while slashing areas of the budget that actually do provide protection. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) blasted the idea in a floor speech on Wednesday: “When it comes to keeping us safe, President Trump should not pay for the wall by cutting security at our nation’s airports, train stations and ports. President Trump’s incompetence would be laughable, except it’s dangerous. Every expert says the wall will do nothing to make us more secure, but the potential cuts at our nation’s ports would be dangerous.” Republicans are saying the idea is “nonsensical” (or “makes no sense“). Twenty Democrats and three Republicans penned a letter deploring the proposed cuts. Trading real security for a useless wall seems to epitomize Trump’s irrational budget choices designed to please his ill-informed base rather than protect the country.
Likewise on deportations, an overwhelming number of Americans do not want mass deportations. In fact, support for a path to citizenship is running high (63 percent in a recent Quinnipiac poll). Mayors and governors are up in arms about his plan to punish cities that don’t do the feds’ work for them in helping to deport nonviolent immigrants. Republicans and Democrats are determined to protect the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals kids. (Oh, and Trump doesn’t have the nerve to reverse the DACA executive order despite promises to do so.)
Trump’s original Muslim ban crashed and burned, had to be revised, and galvanized liberals, business groups, defenders of a robust approach to fighting the Islamic State and ordinary Americans (who flocked to airports in protest). The revised ban, a shadow of its former self, is now under legal challenge. At any rate, the notion that this is keeping us safer (when lone wolves, domestic plots and radicalized Westerners pose a much greater danger) seems patently absurd, especially because Trump’s ban targets refugees, who are the most heavily vetted immigrants.
Trump also promised to “get along” with Russian President Vladimir Putin. That has proved impossible since Putin is seeking to undermine European elections (as he tried in the United States) and still occupies parts of Ukraine and Georgia. Neither party embraces accommodation in lieu of deterrence when it comes to Russia. Polls show a plurality of Americans fear Trump is too friendly toward Russia. In short, this is a political and policy bust. All he has done is make the once-strong-on-defense GOP more feckless on Russia.
Then there was the promise to repeal Obamacare and replace it with “something terrific.” Trump had no such plan but embraced the House Republican plan that would cover fewer people, roll back Medicaid and raise expenses for many Americans, especially the elderly. The plan is decidedly anti-populist insofar as the rich get significant tax cuts while Medicaid gets slashed. With all Democrats, most outside conservative groups, both hard-liners and moderates in the GOP Senate caucus, the American Medical Association, AARP and hospitals against it, the American Health Care Act seems destined to die — maybe before it gets out of the House. Trump, in other words, embraced something worse than Obamacare. A growing number of Americans now like Obamacare.
What about trade? Trump vowed to rip up NAFTA and slap tariffs on China. His trade “guru” Peter Navarro’s work has been debunked. Republicans are aghast at the idea, and given the lack of staffing and direction in the White House, there is no sign that we will alter major trade deals and risk trade wars with countries such as Mexico and China. In the short term the most likely deal is a free trade agreement with Britain.
Finally, there is tax reform. Trump was going to cut everyone’s taxes without blowing a hole in the budget. He has proposed nothing and House Republicans are fighting among themselves as to how to pay for it. The “solution” — a border adjustment tax — has drawn ferocious criticism from Democrats, Republicans and business groups.
In sum, Trump’s emotion-laden campaign promises turn to dust when he actually tries to implement them. In the real world, populism has few concrete, viable solutions to offer the United States. Not surprisingly, when Americans see how it works in practice, they recoil against the mean-spirited anti-immigrant measures, an alliance with anti-democratic kleptocrats and the reverse Robin Hood schemes that widen the inequality gap. Bannon’s mumbo-jumbo about “deconstruction of the administrative state” apparently means a healthcare scheme which keeps much of Obamacare’s architecture (but favors rich people), enhanced police powers to go after hard-working immigrants and refusal to touch Medicare and Social Security. Populism hence becomes Robber Baron-ism.
Perhaps it took Trump to discredit the whole grab bag of ideas and remind us that putting “America first” means maintaining leadership in the world, keeping markets open and staying true to our values.