A Populist-Conservative Melting Pot
Trump was not exactly a model of clarity during the campaign. He was certainly consistent on his core issues—primarily immigration and trade—but he kept everyone guessing as to what his other priorities would be. At last, though, his cabinet and staff selections are giving us some major hints as to what he’ll try to accomplish.
My TAC colleague Daniel Larison has closely monitored Trump’s foreign-policy picks, wondering if Trump’s “bomb the sh** out of ’em” hawkishness or his “stay out of Syria and other countries that hate us” non-interventionism will win out in the end. There’s a similar question on the domestic front: will Trump govern as a populist or a boring old mainstream conservative?
The answer appears to be both. The populists will win on some issues and the conservatives will win on others, creating a fascinating mix of the two approaches that might or might not work on any number of levels. Trump may keep everyone happy at once, or he may stoke feuds within his own administration, alienate the GOP Congress, and fall out with the working-class voters who were so crucial to his election.
Immigration is a good place to start. Certainly, Trump won’t try to enact the literal content of every offhand comment he made about the subject during the campaign—but his attorney-general pick of Sen. Jeff Sessions, a strong restrictionist, suggests he really is an immigration hawk. The true test, though, may come with his choice for the Department of Homeland Security. The squishy Rep. Michael McCaul is in the running, but Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is advising the transition team and has been rumored as a possibility as well. Kobach was an architect of George W. Bush’s attempt to track immigrants from high-risk countries (the so-called “Muslim registry”), and also of Arizona’s law requiring cops to check suspects’ immigration status whenever there’s “reasonable suspicion” they’re in the country illegally.
Trade is another issue on which Trump was so clear during the campaign that he could hardly change direction now. The financier Wilbur Ross, Trump’s future commerce secretary, has said the administration will use “all available means,” including tariffs, to keep manufacturing jobs here. The landing team for the next trade representative, meanwhile, is led by former steel CEO Dan DiMicco and trade attorney Robert Lighthizer; they are, shall we say, not well-liked among the free-trade crowd. (Rep. Charles Boustany, playing up his support for strict trade enforcement—though downplaying his support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership—is reportedly making a bid for that position.)
Infrastructure is another populist win. Trump has chosen Steve Bannon, a strong advocate of the president-elect’s trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, as his chief strategist and senior counselor. And Elaine Chao, Trump’s choice for transportation secretary, has a little-remembered record of supporting rail projects. (Today she’s best known as George W. Bush’s despised-by-unions labor secretary. Incidentally, she’s married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.)
Ideally, boosting infrastructure spending will create construction jobs, stimulate the economy, and facilitate future growth, though some experts have doubts. The plan could merely dole out tax breaks to investors and contractors for projects that would have taken place anyway, or focus on unnecessary new projects without maintaining our current infrastructure, for example.
On other issues, though, Trump takes a stereotypical Republican tack. This is most in tension with his populist image on the subject of tax cuts. I complained numeroustimes in this space that, despite Trump’s protests to the contrary, his campaign’s tax plan was essentially an unpaid-for gift to the rich, according to both liberal and conservative think tanks. His treasury pick: Steve Mnuchin, a second-generation Goldman Sachs vet who similarly insists that Trump and Congress will hammer out tax reforms that don’t benefit the wealthy. Given Republicans’ control of Congress and the substance of Trump’s previous ideas, I’m not optimistic that anyone will force the administration to stick to this claim.
Then there’s health care, where Trump will face the tense reality that while Obamacare is unpopular and unstable, it also provides insurance to lots of people and contains numerous popular provisions. To head the Department of Health and Human Services he has selected Rep. Tom Price, a Republican surgeon who’s actually drafted an Obamacare replacement plan. As Robert Pear, the New York Times’ excellent health-care reporter, spelled out last week, Price’s replacement is considerably more market-oriented—and considerably less generous—than the original law. Price, a surgeon, also has a track record of promoting doctor-friendly legislation; his bill would make it more difficult to win medical-malpractice lawsuits, for instance, an entirely defensible idea that nonetheless gives a whiff of cronyism coming from him.
Also noteworthy: Trump went with Betsy DeVos, a passionate supporter of school vouchers, to head the Department of Education. There isn’t necessarily a “populist” position on education reform, but DeVos most certainly is in agreement with mainstream conservatives on this one.
So how does this add up in the end? Trump seems to be compartmentalizing his issues—rather than trying to strike a populist/conservative balance on each one, he’s going in a specific direction with conviction. The treasury secretary will promote huge tax cuts while free-trade deals are being fed through a shredder, and everyone’s heads will explode at the Wall Street Journal.
At the very center of his administration, though, there may be conflict. As James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute pointed out last week, both economic nationalists like Steve Bannon and traditional conservatives like Mike Pence will be providing Trump advice on the overall direction of his presidency, and their priorities are likely to diverge. A wild bit of speculation: the conservatives will have the upper hand while Republicans control Congress, but the populists will find more common ground with Democrats—who if history is any guide will gain seats in 2018. The executive branch can do a lot on its own, but major policy shifts will require bills from the legislature.
And in 2020, of course, what will matter is whether Trump’s policies have meaningfully improved the lives of the people who elected him. That will depend on how these ideas are implemented, not to mention how they interact with economic conditions, each other, and the Fed’s monetary policy. On that, only time will tell.
Robert VerBruggen is managing editor of The American Conservative. Follow @RAVerBruggen