The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Populism is no way to govern, and Trump is proving it

President Trump at the White House on Jan. 7. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

President Trump’s ability to ride a global wave of right-wing populism — xenophobic, authoritarian, protectionist and (white) nationalistic — into office was a fluke. As we’ve learned from Michael Wolff’s and others’ accounts, even in Trump’s own mind, he wasn’t supposed to win. It was a gambit, a play for attention and fame, another Trump marketing ploy. But it is not a governing philosophy — and it’s a problem that, in large part, is dragging Trump and his fellow Republicans under.

The entire “America First” strategy has proven largely unworkable. Rather than heightening respect for America, Trump has driven America’s standing in the world into the gutter. Gallup reports: “Median approval of U.S. leadership across 134 countries and areas stands at a new low of 30%. . . . [That] is down 18 percentage points from the 48% approval rating in the last year of President Barack Obama’s administration, and is four points lower than the previous low of 34% in the last year of President George W. Bush’s administration.”

Pulling out of the Paris climate accord, insulting European leaders and decertifying the Iran nuclear deal (also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) haven’t gotten Trump anywhere. In fact, he had to cancel a trip to London (with a nonsense excuse about the embassy). On a larger scale, he’s gotten no support from the Europeans on his JCPOA lark — or for citing Iran’s repression of demonstrators. We lack a coherent plan for Syria (and hence, for Iran), have backed ourselves into a corner on North Korea, and have diminished our influence in the Middle East.

At the same time, in writing the National Defense Strategy, his top advisers crafted language that bears little resemblance to “America First” — or to Trump’s bluster. The strategy amounts to a plea to defend globalization and post-World War II international architecture: “Failure to meet our defense objectives will result in decreasing U.S. global influence, eroding cohesion among allies and partners, and reduced access to markets that will contribute to a decline in our prosperity and standard of living. . . . Although this system has evolved since the end of the Cold War, our network of alliances and partnerships remain the backbone of global security.”

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On the domestic front, Trump’s one big “success” was a tax cuts bill tilted heavily toward corporations and the rich. His attempts to cut Medicaid and repeal Obamacare (with no better alternative) flopped. His anti-regulatory jag often amounts to very anti-populist ends (e.g. allowing employers to take food servers’ tips, protecting big banks from regulations).

When he has turned to populist issues, he has largely failed to get traction. His own advisers have, for now, steered him away from pulling out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. His border wall is hugely unpopular, while protections for “dreamers” are exceptionally popular. In lieu of populist results, he spews anti-immigrant rhetoric — which drives his own approval down. When he’s tried to throw a bone to white nationalists (e.g. Charlottesville) the backlash has been fierce.

His support for a measure to slash legal immigration in half has gone nowhere, and has raised the ire of the business community, which knows all too well that immigration is, according to Neel Kashkari, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, “as close to a free lunch as there is for America.”

Kashkari, in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, wrote:

“Our welcoming culture provides us an unfair competitive advantage most countries would love to have. . . . If Congress and the administration can deliver reforms that boost legal immigration by one million people a year and tailor the policy to prioritize workers who meet the needs of our economy, the Minneapolis Fed estimates growth would increase by at least 0.5 percentage point a year under the most conservative assumptions, with no corresponding increase in the deficit.”

In sum, populism (or at least in Trump’s incarnation) has not worked. He’s either run from it or, when pursued, has found its implementation would have grave negative effects. And populism is not popular, to boot. The president’s own approval ratings are historically low. Consider this, from an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll: “Fifty-seven percent disapprove of Trump’s job, including a majority of respondents — 51 percent — who now say they strongly disapprove, which is a record high for Trump in the survey. That’s compared with 26 percent of Americans who strongly approve of the president’s job.”

The Republican-controlled Congress is faring no better. The latest Pew poll found that, if the House elections were held now, 53 percent of registered voters would either vote for the Democratic candidate or lean Democratic. Only 39 percent would favor or lean toward the Republican candidate. That’s in line with other surveys as well.

Populism’s unworkability shouldn’t come as a surprise, especially in a diverse country with a globalized economy. If we were to reverse or undo those realities — it is doubtful it could even be accomplished — we would only hurt ourselves. That doesn’t mean an agenda aimed at the working and middle classes isn’t possible. On the contrary, a centrist plan that focused on infrastructure, worker training and research and development, along with an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, an expansion of trade while protecting displaced workers, and reform of the student loan system could pay handsome dividends. It behooves Democrats, and any practical Republicans that remain untainted by Trumpism, to craft such an approach. These and other policy initiatives might actually address wage stagnation and income inequality, which have driven much of the populist anger.

In the meantime, Trump has done a fine job of discrediting right-wing populism as a governing approach for a dynamic, diverse and prosperous country such as ours.