(Richard Drew)
Opinion writer

It is now beyond obvious that the populist economic nationalism that President Trump ran on in 2016 was a big scam — that in office, Trump has embraced conventional GOP plutocracy on most economic matters, while pursuing a nationalism on immigration that at its core is reactionary nativism.

That’s the context in which Trump’s attacks on four nonwhite female lawmakers are now unfolding, and the New York Times has some good new reporting that fleshes this out, demonstrating that these attacks are meant to thrill working-class whites — even as his actual economic agenda is doing little to nothing for them.

I want to highlight a quote from Newt Gingrich in the piece, because it illustrates what’s really going on here with unusual clarity — particularly given that Gingrich is a staunch Trump ally.

The background is a discussion of the type of populist legislation that Trump could theoretically sign to bolster his reelection chances, such as a minimum wage hike or a big infrastructure spending bill:

The president’s allies say that his talent is in scorching the opposition, and he is unlikely to deviate much from that task.

“I think he doesn’t mind if it happens, but it’s not his primary focus,” Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, said of racking up policy accomplishments. “His primary focus is to so thoroughly define Democrats as the party of the radical left. I think that matters much more to him than any particular bill.”

I’m pretty sure Gingrich just basically let it slip that Trump is more interested in attacking Democrats as radical than he is in working on proposals that would lift the fortunes of working-class Americans, including the working-class whites in his base.

In one sense, of course, Gingrich’s observation is just obviously true. Trump isn’t interested in governing, and he plainly derives enjoyment from abusing people, a pleasure that often seems particularly evident when he’s directing that abuse at minorities, particularly minority women.

Beyond this, it’s also obviously true that Trump isn’t interested in signing legislation such as a minimum wage hike or an infrastructure package. The Times piece digs into the deeper reasons for this: Trump is surrounded by conservatives who are exploiting his disinterest in policy to push a hard-right agenda; the “moderates” around him, such as Jared Kushner, are more interested in things like criminal justice reform than in populist economic policies.

Then there’s the fact that the Republican Party opposes such policies. Trump has largely outsourced his economic agenda to the GOP, signing a massive corporate tax cut that lavished enormous benefits on the highest earners. Trump has also gone all in with the GOP’s drives to get rid of environmental regulations and roll back Obamacare’s protections for millions, perhaps out of zeal to destroy his predecessor’s legacy.

In sum, Trump completely abandoned the economic populism that former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon once boasted would create a durable transracial working-class majority. Gingrich is right that Trump isn’t interested in economic populist policy. (Trade is an exception, but this largely appeals to Trump because it allows him to rage at foreign and “globalist” elites and absurdly claim he’s shaking down foreign countries for tariffs.)

But Gingrich’s quote also captures a deeper truth, as well.

Trump is vulnerable in 2020 because both sides of the Trumpist equation — the plutocracy and the reactionary nationalism — are unpopular. Democrats won the House by campaigning against the GOP on health care and taxes, and Trump’s hate-campaign against migrants and his immigration cruelties no doubt helped.

The Trumpist agenda drove away enormous numbers of suburban and college-educated whites and allowed Democrats to make (much smaller) inroads with non-college educated and rural whites. (Remember, in 2018, the bottom fell out for the GOP even in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, the “blue wall” states Trump cracked.)

A saner health-care agenda and legislation pitched at the working class probably would help Trump with both of those constituencies. But they aren’t going to happen. Which leaves another option for Trump to try to win reelection: To “thoroughly define Democrats as the party of the radical left,” as Gingrich puts it.

That, of course, is what the attacks on the four nonwhite lawmakers are really about. They are meant to scare college-educated whites, particularly women, out of voting Democratic (which seems risky, since overt racism and white nationalism could further alienate them), and supercharge Trump’s working-class white base in those blue-wall states, making an electoral college victory possible even if Trump loses the national popular vote by a bigger margin (which actually could work).

Gingrich’s quote, unpacked, basically concedes that Trump would rather spend his time on racist and white nationalist attacks on minority lawmakers than on legislating for that transracial working class Bannon waxed eloquent about — and that for reelection purposes, the former is the substitute for the latter.

Read more:

Nancy Gibbs: The best candidate against Trump will harness hope — and fear

Martin Seligman: Clinton is more optimistic than Trump. But optimism doesn’t predict winners anymore.

Sebastian Mallaby: America has lost its characteristic optimism

Michael Gerson: This is the new GOP: Angry and afraid

Eugene Robinson: Trump has become the voice of insecure white Americans