“From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”
At his inauguration, Donald Trump made this pledge to the American people. Despite leading the first unified Republican government in a decade, Trump failed to deliver on this pledge in his first 100 days in office.
The brand of populism that helped Trump’s rise to power has been squeezed out by the longstanding division within the Republican Party between the GOP establishment and the conservative movement. Over the past 100 days, a conventional Republican presidency wedded to conservative orthodoxy has emerged, albeit with Trump’s distinctive character flaws.
A Trumpian populist policy agenda has also been hampered by the dynamics within the White House. After the failed travel-ban orders and his demotion from the National Security Council, Steve Bannon saw the influence of his populist faction wane. Major infighting with Jared Kushner’s centrist faction further undermined Bannon’s standing and endangered his position in the administration. This chaotic environment ultimately allowed Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus to persuade Trump to favor orthodox conservatives’ priorities.
A Conventional Republican Presidency
No episode demonstrated this better than the Obamacare-repeal debacle. Trump and Ryan launched the Republican legislative agenda with a deeply unpopular and regressive health-care reform bill, the American Health Care Act. It would have kicked 24 million Americans off insurance by 2026, including many of Trump’s blue-collar supporters. Only 17 percent of the public supported the AHCA. The principle that the federal government should ensure universal health-care coverage is now widely accepted by the American public, and was accepted by Trump during the campaign. Any Republican health-care plan that violates this principle is doomed to fail.
Another unpopular legislative initiative was Trump’s budget blueprint, which arrived stillborn as Democrats and moderate Republicans denounced cuts to popular programs such as Meals on Wheels (which actually was affected indirectly, through the elimination of Community Development Block Grants). The proposed cuts would undermine a federal safety net that holds as many as 6.2 million white working-class Americans, Trump’s key demographic, out of poverty. It is not a surprise that the proposed cuts came straight out of orthodox conservatism’s playbook, courtesy of the Heritage Foundation. And in another significant budget row, Trump blinked during negotiations with Democrats last week by withdrawing his request for border wall funding in order to avoid a government shutdown.
Trump has fallen into the same trap with his broader economic policy. After much speculation, the administration unveiled its tax-reform blueprint last week. In another surrender to orthodox conservative thinking, the blueprint is largely made up of unfunded tax cuts for corporate America. There is no mention of a border-adjustment tax, or any other kind of tax on imports. Infrastructure spending appears to have been kicked down the road. Despite this shift away from populism, Trump’s tax-reform plan will still divide the Republican Party as dramatically as Obamacare repeal has. By failing to pursue a bold program of economic reform for Middle America, Trump is letting down the blue-collar base that elevated him to power and is key to the GOP’s future electoral fortunes.
On foreign policy, orthodox conservative thinking has also triumphed over Trump’s America First pledge. After promising to focus U.S. efforts on defeating ISIS, Trump authorized a missile strike against one of President Assad’s airbases in the wake of last month’s sarin attack. The administration is now saber-rattling over North Korea. War hawks in the GOP, such as John McCain and Marco Rubio, are praising these moves as they push for a unilateralist and interventionist foreign policy. There has been no criticism of how the Pentagon, with less oversight from the White House, is intensifying U.S. military involvement in the Middle East. The result has been a rising civilian death toll in Iraq and Syria, and the “mother of all bombs” being deployed in Afghanistan. Trump and the Republicans are failing to deliver a much-needed course correction in U.S. foreign policy.
Building a New Republican Party
Despite the various setbacks of the first 100 days, Trump has already started to change the nature of the Republican Party. The Obama-era divide between the Tea Party and the establishment is starting to break down. Once lauded as heroes by the base, the Tea Party became the villain after their refusal to support the AHCA. In a sign of things to come, Karen Handel, the GOP candidate for June’s runoff election in Georgia’s sixth district, distanced herself from both the Tea Party and Trump. Handel emphasized her credentials as a pragmatic and experienced politician, arguing that “Republican voters are expecting that we get down to business and deliver and do the job.” Despite the failure to advance Trumpism, Trump is still having a disruptive effect on the ideological dividing lines within the GOP.
Regardless of whether Trumpism is ultimately a success or a failure, the GOP needs an ideological realignment. By rigidly endorsing orthodox conservative thinking and frustrating Trumpian populism, Republicans risk a major electoral backlash. For the moment, only 2 percent of Trump supporters regret their decision, but Trump’s approval ratings are at historic lows. If Trump continues in his failure to lead a populist revolution, then the Republican Party has to change and incorporate the desirable elements of Trumpism. This could be achieved through a return to the finest traditions of the Republican Party.
From Abraham Lincoln to Ike Eisenhower, the GOP often used the power of the state to defend Main Street from Wall Street, fight for the rights of African-Americans, and protect America’s vital interests in the world. Rather than being a doctrinaire exponent of “anti-government conservatism”, the Republican Party was a pragmatic force for “good-government conservatism.” It is a rich history for Republicans to draw upon and help create a moderate and patriotic populism that appeals to working-class Americans of all colors.
Republicans need to revive this tradition so they can forge a middle way between the globalist consensus and the nationalist insurgency. This can be accomplished only by rejecting orthodox conservatism’s commitment to Wall Street, atomistic individualism, and Wilsonian foreign policy. Trump has proven to be incapable of accomplishing this feat. It is now up to the GOP to fulfil Trump’s pledge to make America great again.
David A. Cowan is a freelance writer and conservative activist who graduated from the University of Cambridge with an M.Phil. in political thought and intellectual history.