There are many ways to evaluate the Trump presidency at the six-month mark. What I am struck by is the path not taken, the lost opportunity. During the campaign, it was clear that Donald Trump had many flaws, but he tapped into a real set of problems facing the United States and a deep frustration with the political system. Additionally, he embraced and expressed — somewhat inconsistently — a populism that went beyond the traditional left-right divide. What would things look like at this point if President Trump had governed in the manner of a pragmatic, jobs-oriented reformer relentlessly focused on the “forgotten” Americans of whom he often speaks?
We have an interesting template to assist our imagination. After Trump’s election, a small group of pro-Trump intellectuals, from both left and right, banded together to launch a journal, American Affairs, that promised “the discussion of new policies that are outside of the conventional dogmas.” It’s the best forum for the articulation of the ideology behind Trump’s rise, and there has been so much interest in the journal’s views on various subjects that the editors opened the second issue with a brief summary of their editorial stance.
On trade, immigration and foreign policy, the editors endorse modest changes to standard U.S. policies, some of which the administration is pursuing. But on the central questions of domestic economic policy, American Affairs seems markedly different and genuinely populist. Taking on the subject at the center of Republican ideology, taxes, the editors profess to be “quite skeptical of the conservative orthodoxy that reflexively prescribes tax cuts as the cure-all for every ill.” Although corporate tax reform is warranted, the editors say, “reducing upper-income tax rates is unlikely to address core economic challenges in any significant way.” Instead, they recommend eliminating mechanisms by which the rich evade taxation. In addition, the journal denounces financial deregulation and calls for higher taxes on hedge-fund and private-equity managers. It embraces large and direct government expenditures on infrastructure, warning against relying heavily on the private sector. On health care, the editors come out openly in favor of universal coverage and suggest two options, a single-payer system or a version of the Swiss system, which is basically Obamacare with a real mandate.
Needless to say, this has not been the Trump agenda. But reading these intelligent ideas raises the interesting question, why not? All of the policies proposed above would have helped the “forgotten” people whose cause Trump champions.
There have been two cardinal features of the Trump presidency so far. The first is that, far from being a populist breakout, it has followed a fairly traditional Republican agenda — repeal Obamacare, weaken Dodd-Frank, cut taxes, deregulate industry. Trump’s anemic infrastructure plan is little more than tax credits for private investors. The only real break with Republican tradition has been on foreign policy, where Trump is pursuing a truly bizarre and mercurial agenda that seems to be inspired by his own personal passions and peeves — instituting the travel ban, demanding payment from allies, embracing autocrats who flatter him and his family.
The second defining feature of the Trump administration has been incompetence. As many have pointed out, had Trump chosen to begin his presidency with a large infrastructure bill, he would have put the Democrats in a terrible bind. They would have had to support him, even though this would have enraged the party’s base. Instead, Trump chose health care, a complicated, difficult issue sure to unite his opposition and divide Republicans. Consequently, very little has actually been done. Obamacare has not been repealed, no money has been appropriated for the border wall, NAFTA is still standing, and there is no tax reform bill, nor an agreement to raise the debt ceiling. Even in deregulation, an area of broad presidential authority, little of substance has been accomplished. Many of Trump’s executive actions have been to “review” various measures. An environmental activist told me that he has tried to cheer up his staff by pointing out that the Trump administration’s words have rarely been followed by successful deeds.
Trump could have quickly begun reshaping American politics. He discerned voices that others didn’t, understood what those people wanted to hear and articulated much of it. But when it came time to deliver, it turned out that he had no serious idea or policies, nor even the desire to search for them. He just wanted to be president, meeting world leaders, having Oval Office photo ops and flying on Air Force One, while delegating the actual public policy to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) or Vice President Pence. So far, Trump has turned out to be something far less revolutionary than expected — a standard-issue, big-business Republican, albeit an incompetent one, wrapped in populist clothing.
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