What could Donald Trump have done differently as president to consolidate his political position? How could he have avoided the beleaguered state in which he now finds himself? Such questions emerge as we watch him struggle with the challenges of his office, often adding to his own difficulties with amateurish missteps and outlandish outbursts.
Given that what Trump does is so closely tied to who he is, it may be frivolous to wonder what he could have done differently—or what he could do differently starting now. Most likely he couldn’t have risen to the challenge he created with his electoral triumph because he lacked the political and intellectual attributes to do so. But the hypothetical exercise is worth pursuing because it sheds light on the political opportunity generated by his election.
Trump’s victory signified that nearly half of the electorate had become sick and tired of the political establishment and, more broadly, the meritocratic elite that was taking America down a path of globalism, porous borders, trade policies that were devastating industrial America, growing economic inequality, speech suppression through political correctness, and endless wars conducted with little or no congressional supervision or restraint. Trump was elected as an anti-establishment candidate to subdue the elite and curtail or reverse these policies and actions. That he saw the opportunity, when hardly anyone else in politics even perceived the underlying forces at work, is a testament to his political instincts.
Once elected, he needed to accomplish four political goals to move the country in the new direction desired by his constituency:
- Define his presidency in words and deeds so the American people would have a coherent idea of his vision;
- Surround himself with likeminded officials who shared that vision;
- Identify the elements of his constituency and fashion them into a majority coalition;
- Identify the enemies of his constituency—in polite parlance, his political adversaries—and go after them in an effort to curtail their power.
Trump has not gained mastery in any of these areas.
Defining his presidency: Trump has been erratic and inconsistent in word and deed. In foreign policy, he sometimes has seemed to be an exponent of realism and restraint while at others he’s seemed like just another post-Cold War interventionist in the mold of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Inconsistency produces a muddled message, and a muddled message militates against presidential forward progress.
Beyond that, Trump has made little effort to explain his programs and vision to the broad electorate. He has not held a conversation with the American people, as Franklin Roosevelt did with his fireside chats, as John Kennedy did in speeches and press conferences with his eloquence and wit, and as Ronald Reagan did on national television, including when he reached into his pocket and pulled out a number of coins to illustrate an economic point. Certainly, Trump’s many rallies have stirred his base, but he has done little to expand that base and bring under his banner those who didn’t vote for him.
Further, his rhetoric is slashing and mean-spirited, without any leavening wit or self-awareness. Consider Trump’s assaults on the news media as purveyors of “fake news.” His most fervent supporters love it, but it isn’t helping him recruit new adherents. Compare that to Franklin Roosevelt, who also labored in the face of a hostile press (then the newspapers were largely conservative, whereas today the media are largely liberal—in both instances they were defenders of the status quo). In 1938, Roosevelt good-naturedly said that the press considered him “an ogre, a consorter with Communists, a destroyer of the rich,” and also a man, he added ominously, who “breakfasted every morning on a dish of grilled millionaire.” His large audience laughed appreciatively, but they roared with far greater amusement when he added, “Actually I am an exceedingly mild-mannered person, a practitioner of peace, both domestic and foreign, a believer in the capitalist system, and for breakfast a devotee of scrambled eggs.”
Personnel selection: Here’s where Trump’s failure has been particularly notable. He should have scoured the landscape for likeminded people who understood, as he seemed to, that the status quo was fading and that new thinking was needed. In foreign policy, he should have reached out to such high-stature realist thinkers as Jim Webb, Chas Freeman, Doug Bandow, Daniel McCarthy, Mark Perry, Rand Paul, Andrew Bacevich, Jacob Heilbrunn, and Christopher Preble. These were the intellectuals who perked up during the campaign when Trump issued his severe critique of America’s failed foreign policies of the previous two decades. Some he should have tried to recruit. Others no doubt would have been impossible to bring aboard but Trump still could have received from them sound counsel while signaling that he harbored a strong sense of what kind of foreign policy he wished to pursue.
Instead Trump surrounded himself with establishment figures bent on preserving the status quo that he had railed against during the campaign. Nikki Hailey at the UN, Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo at State, Jim Mattis at Defense, John Bolton as national security advisor—none of them would have been considered by discerning observers as natural followers of Trump’s iconoclastic foreign policy views. The result was that the president’s message got further muddled and the president spent his first two years carrying on an internal struggle just to make the decisions he wanted to make.
Identify his constituency and craft a majority coalition: Trump seems to identify his natural constituency as those who approve of his presidential performance, as measured in surveys. These are the people who show up at his rallies and to whom he addresses his message. Unfortunately, they make up only 41 percent to 43 percent of the electorate (as suggested by the latest composite numbers calculated by FiveThirtyEight and Real Clear Politics). Although remarkably consistent, these numbers almost certainly aren’t enough to get Trump reelected.
Again, the FDR example is instructive. He pulled organized labor towards the Democratic Party with legislation that established its standing in collective bargaining. The result was that FDR’s party in turn greatly enhanced its own political power. It was a potent and brilliant part of the New Deal realignment that Roosevelt brought about. Another part was the northern black vote, which had lingered in the Republican coalition since Lincoln. FDR’s New Deal brought blacks and many more who were migrating in growing numbers to the industrial north into the Democratic Party.
Similarly, Ronald Reagan in the 1980s pulled under the Republican standard an entirely new constituency known as “Reagan Democrats”—mostly working-class Americans alienated from the increasingly liberal Democrats. Had Reagan confined his message merely to traditional Republicans and conservatives, he never could have brought them into his coalition—and never would have won reelection in a landslide.
As president, Trump hasn’t lured any new constituency to his party. Meanwhile, the Democrats are lurching to the left (as they did just prior to Reagan’s 1980 election), embracing identity politics and fashioning themselves as elites. What an opportunity! History tells us that in America, when a party identifies itself as of the elites, as the Democrats did in the years leading up to 2016, that makes it vulnerable to a revolt by the masses. That’s what happened with Trump’s election, though on a scale barely sufficient to put the anti-elitist candidate in the White House. One of Trump’s jobs as leader of his party is to expand upon that. He hasn’t done so.
Identify political adversaries and go after them: I must once again turn to FDR, who was, after all, probably the greatest coalition builder in American political history. In a 1936 speech during his reelection campaign, Roosevelt identified the people who were against him: “the old enemies of peace: business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.”
Consider a few of these power centers as they might be seen in today’s high-voltage politics:
Business and financial monopoly: This is a growing problem crying out for governmental scrutiny. Where is Trump on the rise of the tech giants and their unprecedented, and often abusive, market power?
Reckless banking: Wall Street and the big banks were abundantly complicit in fostering the real estate bubble that gave us the financial crisis of 2008. After that, they applied political muscle to coax the federal government and the Federal Reserve into providing bailouts, stimulus packages, and other financial props—all in the name of helping mortgage holders when in fact they were the real beneficiaries. The banks benefited further from the Fed’s near-zero interest rate policies over nearly a decade. Investment counselor and author David Smick has suggested that this may represent “the greatest transfer of middle-class and elderly wealth to elite financial interests in the history of mankind.” This cries out for some discourse on whether, and how, the banks should be busted up. Consider that $1 of every $12 of GDP goes to the financial sector today; in the 1950s, it was $1 of every $40 dollars. This financialization of the U.S. economy reflects that massive transfer of wealth that Smick was talking about. Where is Trump on this?
War profiteering: That’s a loaded word from the past that perhaps shouldn’t be tossed about today. But the military-industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned against is more powerful than ever, contributing mightily to America’s perpetual military interventions and meddlesomeness in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. This has devastated the U.S. treasury, destabilized important regions of the world, increased the chances of war, and introduced tensions into our politics—all to little effect in terms of American power.
Perhaps Trump’s decisions to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and cut in half the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan will signify a presidential resolve to pull back on American military adventurism and take on the military-industrial complex. If so, great. But he has lost valuable time on this project.
Class antagonism: By this, FDR meant the business and industrial elites who, he implied, looked down on the little guy. At that time, those business and industrial elites were firmly embedded in the Republican Party. But today, the party of the elites is the Democratic Party—big finance, big government, the tech sector, the big nonprofits and foundations, the national news media, Hollywood, and public employee unions. Many within these sectors have manifested a class antagonism toward Americans who don’t see the world as they do on such issues as immigration, trade, gender questions, political correctness, and more. This antagonism can be seen in Hillary Clinton’s famous “basket of deplorables” statement, uttered before a large Hollywood crowd that reacted with great affinity.
Trump has not ignored this antagonism and has tossed back much animosity of his own. But he has not effectively framed the issue of the elites and their alienation from the sensibilities of traditional American society—the ordinary folks who once thrived in the Democratic Party. Another missed opportunity.
Other presidents who have sputtered in their first two years have gone on to correct their course and become two-term executives. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama come to mind. It isn’t too late for Trump to do that, but only if he develops political skills not yet seen.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.