President Trump addresses the Republican congressional retreat at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., on Feb. 1. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Opinion writer

President Trump ran as an economic populist and is governing like a plutocrat’s dreamboat, which is one reason that members of the hard right are falling all over themselves. If you believe in things like cutting Medicaid, slashing taxes for the rich and for corporations, and dismembering a functional government — as the hard right does — Trump is your guy. Indeed, when they try to justify supporting him in the face of Trump’s racism, assault on democracy, erratic personality and general unfitness, they brag about such things. They sure did pull a fast one on those “forgotten men and women,” didn’t they?

Pew Research’s latest poll shows how effective a populist message is:

Majorities of Americans say the federal government does not provide enough help for older people (65%), poor people (62%) and the middle class (61%). By contrast, nearly two-thirds (64%) say the government provides too much help for wealthy people. …

There are partisan differences in views of government support for all groups included in the survey. However, the gap is somewhat narrower in views of government help for older people than for other groups. While 73% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say the federal government does not do enough for older people, a smaller majority of Republicans (58%) say the same.

One suspects that this is because the core of Trump’s support was from older voters, who now worry their own financial well-being may be at risk. (In fact, 66 percent of those 50 and older say the government does not do enough for older Americans.)

One can see that the quintessential Trump voter the media goes searching for at a diner in coal country naturally expounds populist notions, but he signed up with a party of many plutocrats. “Nearly half of Republicans with incomes under $40,000 (47%) say that the government does not provide enough assistance for poor people. This is considerably higher than those who make between $40,000 and $75,000 or $75,000 or more; only about three-in-ten in these income brackets say that poor people do not receive enough assistance (32% and 28%, respectively).”

One can imagine the following scenario: The traditional GOP base was so rabidly anti-Hillary Clinton that it would vote for her opponent under any circumstances, and whatever qualms they had about Trump they figured he either couldn’t be serious or could be manipulated. They didn’t much mind that he was throwing “boob bait” to the working class, talking in the language of conspiracies, opposition to globalism and mega corporations, and a great deal of white grievance. Once elected, and once government was staffed literally with a crowd of Goldman Sachs execs, Trump’s own financial self-interest and the donor class’s anti-populist economic vision took hold. That’s how you got a tax plan that is so skewed to the wealthy and corporations. It’s why there is no real energy behind battling the opioid abuse epidemic, why Medicaid was targeted for cuts in the health-care fight and why you get regulations that are hardly tilted toward the common man (e.g. letting restaurants grab employees’ tips, rolling back overtime). The perfect embodiment of Trump is hyping the stock market — which overwhelmingly benefits the rich — as evidence that he has fixed the economy.

Now the question is whether voters who thought Trump cared about their economic woes will see that Trump betrayed his populist promises and will react accordingly at the ballot box. Several factors will come into play.

First, if the economic recovery begun under President Barack Obama picks up, the sting of a populist betrayal may be mitigated, provided that people in middle America are now getting jobs and wage increases. If the gross economic inequality that has characterized the economy continues or (due to the tax cuts) actually worsens, you might see some push-back among working class voters. Second, if the stock market has a pullback, Trump’s talking points get chopped and he is down to bragging about an economy which in actuality is just a little less robust than the economy he inherited.

Second, Trump may be a victim of his own protectionist chatter. By now, his advisers have likely told him that slapping tariffs on Chinese goods, pulling out of the North American Free Trade Agreement and setting off a trade war are going to sap business confidence and trigger a market pullback. (It’s also horrible policy that adversely impacts consumers, but there is no sign that Trump understands or cares about this.) His anti-China, anti-free-trade message has no, pardon the pun, currency because he does not intend to do much of anything. Those genuinely, albeit mistakenly, angry about “China stealing our jobs” or about “millions of jobs lost because of NAFTA” (also not true) might feel cheated.

Finally, voters still tell us that issues such as health care matter most to Americans (a large percentage of whom didn’t and still won’t pay federal income tax). Ironically, if Obamacare goes into a tailspin (e.g. premiums rise, availability goes down), those lower- and middle-class voters are going to be economically stressed. Trump keeps saying any problems on that front will be Obama’s, but after repealing the individual mandate, whatever happens to the Affordable Care Act is on his head.

In sum, Trump’s the least populist president on the economy since the age of the robber barons. He is hoping a generally good economy pacifies voters, causing them to forget about the trade issue and to disregard their health-care costs. That’s a risky bet, and it’s why the economic good fortune of the GOP donor class may not correlate with the 2018 midterm results.

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