He’s done a bang-up job with judicial appointments, which, if you recall, was basically the beginning, middle, and end of the argument to Never Trumpers in 2016 to get onboard. It worked. And he delivered.
And if you’re the sort of mercantilist fool who believes that a long trade war with lots of retaliatory foreign tariffs will do more to help Americans than to hurt them, congratulations. He’s delivered for you too.
The rest of his agenda, though? All but vanished, says … Fox News’s 8 p.m. guy(!). But it’s okay, because it turns out with the benefit of hindsight that Trump wasn’t really elected to do traditional presidential things like sign bills into law or diligently champion policy reforms or behave in a reasonably dignified manner. He’s not a legislator, he’s a conversation-starter.
Honestly, I think he’s sort of right — from the perspective of Trump fans.
His chief promises were that he would build the wall, de-fund planned parenthood, and repeal Obamacare, and he hasn’t done any of those things. There are a lot of reasons for that, but since I finished writing the book, I’ve come to believe that Trump’s role is not as a conventional president who promises to get certain things achieved to the Congress and then does. I don’t think he’s capable. I don’t think he’s capable of sustained focus. I don’t think he understands the system. I don’t think the Congress is on his side. I don’t think his own agencies support him. He’s not going to do that.
I think Trump’s role is to begin the conversation about what actually matters. We were not having any conversation about immigration before Trump arrived in Washington. People were bothered about it in different places in the country. It’s a huge country, but that was not a staple of political debate at all. Trump asked basic questions like’ “Why don’t our borders work?” “Why should we sign a trade agreement and let the other side cheat?” Or my favorite of all, “What’s the point of NATO?” The point of NATO was to keep the Soviets from invading western Europe but they haven’t existed in 27 years, so what is the point? These are obvious questions that no one could answer.
We haven’t yet reached the second anniversary of Trump’s inauguration and his presidency is already effectively over in terms of major policy-making, even if he wins a second term. Pelosi will have veto power over his agenda until 2021; Democratic turnout will be sky high in 2020 in hopes of defeating him, making the new blue House majority difficult to dislodge; and the president’s party rarely does well in midterms, as we were recently reminded, which bodes ill for 2022. It’s not a joke to say that, from a policy standpoint, Trump would be better off with Congress under complete Democratic control than he is with the Senate in Republican hands. If he were negotiating with Schumer and Pelosi, particularly as a lame duck in 2021 or later, he’d be free to reorient as the centrist he is and make some grand bargains on priorities that nationalists share. Infrastructure is perpetually ripe for compromise. Having to thread the needle between Pelosi and McConnell makes grand bargains nearly impossible, even with Trump exerting heavy influence over McConnell’s caucus. If he hasn’t built the wall, defunded Planned Parenthood, or repealed ObamaCare by now, he never will. His presidency will necessarily have to swing towards foreign policy and doing what he can on immigration with executive orders.
And as that reality sets in, I think both MAGA Nation will come around to the idea that his legacy has less to do with crafting policy than with moving the Overton window towards nationalist concerns. (And with radically shifting the norms of presidential behavior, of course.) To some extent that’s cynical and self-serving. What do you do if you like Trump and don’t want to admit that he’s already lost his chance to achieve much of anything domestically? You reframe the question: He’s doing something more important than reshaping domestic policy, he’s changing the menu of policy options available to Americans. He’s created political space for populist concerns that neither party wanted to talk about before. That’s a much more pleasant thought to a Trumper than “he failed.” But there’s also truth to it. It’s not an accident that centrist conservative Marco Rubio is awkwardly trying to repackage his political principles as “nationalism,” just as it’s not an accident that Tom Cotton is going to war with small-government righties like Mike Lee over criminal justice reform. Younger Republicans see a demand for various elements of the nationalist program and are trying to meet it in different ways. They’ve accepted that the “constitutional conservative” dogma of the tea-party era that swept them to power was mostly window-dressing to the voters who elected them. The GOP base sees politics as a cultural struggle with the left, first and foremost, and secondarily as a battle with core Democratic constituencies for economic power. Trump succeeded because he recognized that. Republicans who follow him in leadership will have to reckon with it. Tucker is playing the nationalist long game here, believing that it’ll fall to future GOP presidents who understand the legislative process better to turn Trump’s program into law.
It’s foolproof. Unless, of course, the backlash to Trump personally and politically is so ferocious that it ends up sweeping Democrats to power in 2020 and the country tilts more dramatically towards socialism. Tucker himself allows in the same interview quoted above that a robust socialist movement is “the future.” Presumably he thinks nationalism will defeat it, though; otherwise I can’t understand why he’d celebrate Trump changing the conversation, as that conversation will end up benefiting the right’s enemy. What if Trump ends up being the catalyst for a Democratic takeover of government rather than a bulwark against it?
In lieu of an exit question, read this piece at FiveThirtyEight sizing up his record on immigration to date. There’s more to the issue than the wall. It’s not like he’s neglected it.
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