Democrats are getting something they want from Trump, too: an ogre to run against. They believe with good reason that in 2020 they’ll have better luck with an anti-Trump campaign than they’ll have trying to convince Rust Belt voters to go all-in for self-described democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) unwieldy “Green New Deal,” even though her proposed 70 percent marginal income tax rate hike polls pretty well. Despite the affectations of a handful of left-wing politicians, including socialist godfather Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the Gallup approval numbers for socialism vs. capitalism haven’t moved much in a decade. On the other hand, in the most recent Politico-Morning Consult poll, 57 percent of respondents believe Trump is “reckless,” 51 percent say he’s “sexist” and 46 percent say he’s “racist,” the same number who say he’s “thin-skinned.” By contrast, only 35 percent say he’s honest.
Most Democrats have a policy agenda they’ll campaign on, including tax hikes, Medicare-for-all and pro-choice judicial appointments — pretty much what they always want — but they’re going to hunt where the ducks are. The more time Republicans spend explaining that they aren’t racists and sexists, the more often voters hear “Republicans,” “racist” and “sexist” in the same sentence. Democrats learned at least one thing from Ronald Reagan: If you’re explaining, you’re losing.
Big business is getting what it wants from Trump: an enduring (so far) status quo on immigration, the aforementioned tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks, selective tariff protection for politically connected firms and industries such as steel and solar panels, and no reduction in real federal outlays. Sure, a few defense contractors were inconvenienced by the just-suspended government shutdown, but that’s a cost of doing business with the biggest buyer in the world.
China is getting what it wants: As CNBC reports, its 2018 trade surplus with the United States was the largest in a decade. Trump, who confidently tweeted last year that “trade wars are good, and easy to win,” has declared war on Chinese imports, to no effect: U.S. imports from China rose by more than 11 percent last year. Trump’s fixation on trade deficits is wrongheaded, but if we do him the courtesy of judging him by his own criterion, then the indicator is moving in the wrong direction.
Mexico is getting what it wants, too: Not only has Trump backed off from his bluster that its citizens will pay for his wall, the president recently has tried to insist that he never said any such thing. Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has benefited from comparisons with the unsteady administration to his north. And he understands the art of the deal better than Trump: In December, the Trump administration offered to invest $5.8 billion in Mexico’s plan to deal with Central American immigration. That’s right: Mexico is building a wall, of sorts, and Trump is helping the country pay for it.
Trump boasts of being a non-politician. It’s true that he’s not a creature of Washington, and there is some value in challenging the unthinking orthodoxies of our political professionals. But it’s also the case that he spent the first two years of his presidency struggling to achieve such basic goals as staffing his administration and figuring out how to get his own party to advance his legislative priorities. As a result, he put himself in the position of beginning the negotiations for his signature policy — the wall — at precisely the moment he’s at his weakest.
And Trump isn’t getting what he wants. Neither is the nationalist-populist movement that rallied behind him under the banner: He fights!
He doesn’t fight. He tweets. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) fights. McConnell fights (he fights dirty, if he has to). In 2016, Trump served up bold talk about rolling into Washington and knocking heads: “People back down with Trump.” Not really. All that was needed, he said, was to “get tough.” But tough talk and $4.15 will get you a venti latte in Washington. It won’t get you a wall or a reconfiguration of the American economy.
Sure, Democrats have had to endure the appointment of some new Federalist Society-approved judges, which they hate but which would have been the case under practically any Republican administration. They whine about the tax relief that more than a few of their moneyed constituents quietly welcome. But there has been no reduction in federal spending or in the federal workforce, no meaningful overhaul of any entitlement or welfare program, and no major structural changes to the federal government other than changes in the corporate income tax. Of course they don’t want a Republican president. But a Republican president who prefers an ephemeral Twitter culture war to enduring legislative wins in Congress? One sympathizes with the genuine alarm that Trump may inspire in women or Muslim Americans, but the reality is the country isn’t moving socially in a Trumpian direction: Young people are, in fact, moving to the left on many social issues, almost certainly, in some measure, as a reaction to Trump. Trump’s job disapproval number hit 58 percent in The Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week. He isn’t remaking America in his own image.
In 2016, Trump issued a “Contract with the American Voter,” a list of specific promises about the course his administration would take. Even if we treat with charity his insistence that the items on the contract would be accomplished in the first 100 days, the document makes for instructive reading: Big chunks of it have barely been attempted, let alone accomplished, including things that are within the president’s power to act on unilaterally, such as the United States labeling China a currency manipulator. Those who thought there was going to be a radical rebalancing of U.S.-Mexico trade relations won’t find much to celebrate in the updated NAFTA. The promise that “Mexico will be reimbursing the United States for the full cost” of the wall speaks directly to the specific political failures of the Trump administration. “Drain the swamp” is a joke. That $1 trillion in infrastructure investment? Come on. But it’s not as though Trump’s career before the presidency did not give Americans reason to doubt the value of a contract with him. It is received doctrine among con artists that every mark participates in the con — those who have been, and remain, blind to that are willfully blind.
So that’s the score: No wall. No revolution. And a movement with not much of a future, if the polls are to be believed. Some dealmaker. Some deal.