The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump’s revealed opinion about why he won the 2016 election

President Trump has clearly been willing to take controversial positions that stoke white identity. (AP)

What was the driving force for Donald Trump voters, economic grievances or white identity politics? This has been a running debate in political science and the public sphere for the last year.

In a must read Atlantic essay, Adam Serwer makes the case that the primary cause is racism, and it’s not close: “had racism been toxic to the American electorate, Trump’s candidacy would not have been viable.” There are a few parts of Serwer’s argument that I’d dispute. The economic and cultural components of populist nationalism cannot be separated quite as easily as Serwer suggests. Still, these paragraphs jumped out at me:

Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump has reneged or faltered on many of his biggest campaign promises — on renegotiating NAFTA, punishing China, and replacing the Affordable Care Act with something that preserves all its popular provisions but with none of its drawbacks. But his commitment to endorsing state violence to remake the country into something resembling an idealized past has not wavered.
He made a farce of his populist campaign by putting bankers in charge of the economy and industry insiders at the head of the federal agencies established to regulate their businesses. But other campaign promises have been more faithfully enacted: his ban on travelers from Muslim-majority countries; the unleashing of immigration-enforcement agencies against anyone in the country illegally regardless of whether he poses a danger; an attempt to cut legal immigration in half; and an abdication of the Justice Department’s constitutional responsibility to protect black Americans from corrupt or abusive police, discriminatory financial practices, and voter suppression. In his own stumbling manner, Trump has pursued the race-based agenda promoted during his campaign. As the president continues to pursue a program that places the social and political hegemony of white Christians at its core, his supporters have shown few signs of abandoning him.

I’m not quite as pessimistic as Serwer about the president’s core supporters. Trump’s support is softening, even among his base. But Serwer is right to focus on what Trump has done in his first year in office. Indeed, if anything, he undersells Trump’s revealed beliefs about why he won the election.

There were populist elements of Trump’s campaign. He promised a big infrastructure program during the campaign, for example. But as Axios’s Jonathan Swan reports, that campaign promise has not even come close to being implemented. Why?

Per one source, White House political director Bill Stepien said the group needed to consider the midterm elections when deciding when to finally make their big push. Some in the White House are skeptical that infrastructure will drive Republican voters to the polls.
The White House doesn’t seem any closer to having an infrastructure bill than it was six months ago. When I asked one senior official when infrastructure would happen, he laughed and said: “Good question!”

This is just one example of a slew of economic populism pledges that Trump made on the campaign trail and has failed to push for as president. As numerous observers have noted throughout 2017, Trump’s actual economic policies amount to stale Republican ideology. The Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Henry Olsen is only the latest to make this observation: “Mr. Trump’s attempted populist revolution is so far merely a ruckus, not a revolt. The Washington establishment’s agenda remains unshaken.”

After he won the presidential election in November 2016, Donald Trump sent a Thanksgiving message where he said he wanted to “heal our divisions." (Video: Reuters)

The latest area where Trump has invested his political capital has been overhauling the tax code. Is it populist? No, no it is not. The Financial Times’s Martin Wolf has looked at the GOP tax proposals and is somewhat scathing about its impact:

The tax bills going through Congress demonstrate the party’s primary objectives. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in the House version of the bill, about 45 percent of the tax reductions in 2027 would go to households with incomes above $500,000 (fewer than 1 percent of filers) and 38 percent to households with incomes over $1m (about 0.3 percent of filers). In the more cautious Senate version, households with incomes below $75,000 would be worse off. This simply is reform for plutocrats . . .
In all, then, this is a determined effort to shift resources from the bottom, middle and even upper middle of the US income distribution towards the very top, combined with big increases in economic insecurity for the great majority . . .
If the current tax bills get through, the tensions within the US are almost certain to get worse. Latin American inequality leads to Latin American politics. The US the world once knew is drowning in a tide of unconscionable and apparently unlimited greed. We are all now doomed to live with the unhappy consequences.

No, this does not sound like economic populism at all.

On the other hand, Trump has clearly been willing to take controversial positions that stoke white identity. His statements on Charlottesville made it clear that he would not go after his alt-right base, no matter what the provocation. His pardon of Joe Arpaio sent a similar message. And now Trump has decided to back Roy Moore in his Senate run in Alabama. This reverses Trump’s endorsement of Luther Strange in the GOP primary, the one contrary data point in this narrative. Trump’s backing of Moore comes despite credible claims that Moore is a child molester and not-at-all credible defenses made by Moore’s campaign.

Why did Trump do this? The New York Times’s Jonathan Martin, Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns proffer an explanation:

Mr. Trump’s responses to the Moore revelations have been pronounced but not consistent. He accepted the candidate’s initial denials, and then was shocked at how tepid Mr. Moore appeared when asked during an interview with Sean Hannity whether he still maintained his innocence, according to one person close to the president.
Privately, Mr. Trump has acknowledged that he is making a cold political calculus in the hope that the Republicans will hold on to the seat . . .
Soon after [Trump returned from Asia], the president’s former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, began aggressively urging Mr. Trump not to break with Mr. Moore, arguing that he should not get crosswise with his voter base, although it was not clear if the two men spoke directly. The president is still smarting over his decision to fly into Alabama in September on behalf of Senator Luther Strange, the appointee holding the seat, only to see Mr. Strange lose a runoff by over nine points.

This isn’t rocket science. Trump has decided not to pursue any substantive agenda oriented around economic populism because he does not think his base cares about it. He does, however, seem very willing to court controversy on anything so long as it continues to stoke white identity.

Serwer’s essay is likely to provoke some serious angst, particularly among Trump supporters. But everything Trump has done while in office confirms Serwer’s thesis. For all the talk about how Trump is not like a normal politician, he is like every politician in his desire to be reelected. And in his heart of hearts, Trump seems to know that he won the election in no small part due to his racist appeals.