Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Has Trump Delivered the Promised Revolution? Not Necessarily.

Supporters who were expecting a more radical agenda may feel betrayed, and that could play into the hands of the Democrats.
trump rally

In its ridiculous dual endorsement of Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, the New York Times Editorial Board divided the Democratic field into those candidates who “view President Trump as an aberration and believe that a return to a more sensible America is possible” and those who “believe that President Trump was the product of political and economic systems so rotten that they must be replaced.”

I’ve already written about how arbitrarily the Board sorted candidates into one group or another, but the dichotomy itself is useful. Recently, I’ve found that it helps to make a parable of it.

Some Democratic candidates think Trump has flipped over the political table. They want to set it back up, dab at the tablecloth, enforce better manners, reheat the entrées, and put a second scoop of ice cream on the pie à la mode. Biden and Bloomberg are currently the frontrunners in this category, but even the supposedly radical Elizabeth Warren, by virtue of her moderating compromises and general palatability to the party elite, deserves (at least in part) the label of table re-setter.

For others, though, Trump never actually flipped the table. Sure, he promised to, but as soon as he sat down and dug into his well-done steak, something changed. Many of his signature dishes never materialized. And although he continued to insist that the kitchen staff were defiling the food, he seemed awfully chummy with the management. The management, for their part, obligingly looked the other way while he belched, used the wrong knife, and generally flouted the edicts of Emily Post. Those at the far end of the table where pickings were slim, many of whom had played a part in elevating Trump to his lofty position, wondered what had gone wrong. Was the table bolted invisibly to the floor? Or had Trump betrayed them? Meanwhile, the food, rotten long before Trump had sat down, continued to attract flies.

Into this category, I would place Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang, and perhaps Tulsi Gabbard, of whom only Bernie remains standing.

Biden thinks he can still salvage dinner; Bernie wants to go full Gordon Ramsay.

To be clear, neither of these is exactly my position. My question is how Trump will respond to the latter. Sure, Biden’s guy’s-guy persona might be enough to take back the Rust Belt and push him over 270. It seems to me, though, that running on little more than people’s fond memories of the Obama administration won’t be enough in de-industrialized, opioid-ravaged Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin (Bernie outperforms Biden in all three, according to current polls). Trump won there by a combined margin of 77,744 votes precisely because of voters who, after eight years of Obama, had nearly lost hope and were hungry for change.

This feeling of being let down by Obama’s messianic promises, what Sarah Palin eloquently called his “hopey-changey thing,” could cut both ways, though. Trump still hasn’t built his wall. Manufacturing jobs have not returned en masse; tariffs on China have squeezed farmers and failed to produce the speedy victory he promised. The wars he promised to end still rage, and we’ve gone to the brink with Iran. Yes, the economy is strong, and conventional wisdom has it that the incumbent only loses if the economy tanks. But Bernie makes a strong case that the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the economy are not the same thing. Six out of 10 Americans feel they’re better off than they were three years ago, but I wonder whether the frustrated Midwesterners who swung the election in 2016 have gotten what they wanted out of Trump. If not, they might be willing to try something new. The distance between left-populism and right-populism is, after all, far shorter than the distance between the center-left and the center-right. If Obama let you down and Trump let you down, why not vote Sanders? You’ve already switched parties once.

Trump shot to the top of the Republican primary polls because he had the energy of a disruptor. The media showered l’enfant terrible with free advertising. Since the impeachment, though, it seems like the press’s white-hot Trump derangement has cooled at precisely the wrong time. These days, it’s Bernie drawing all the outrage, including accusations of Russian stoogery and wild speculation about anarchic brokered conventions.

Slowly, a narrative is solidifying: if you’re ready to say “the hell with it,” vote Sanders; if you want more of the same, vote Trump.

This perception could prove fatal to the incumbent.

Trump will give Bernie both barrels with “you’re a communist” and “how are we supposed to pay for that?” But those might actually work in Bernie’s favor. On the campaign trail, Trump proposed a number of fanciful policies, from punishing post-abortive women to deporting 12 million people to the possibility of nuking Europe, and all it got him was more free media. He never explained how the hell he was going to get Mexico to pay for the wall, but nobody cared. Trump was bold, brash, and unconcerned with breaking rules or offending people. Now Sanders, less crass but equally brash, has usurped that brand positioning. This move could force Trump into the role of a brake-pumping Deng Xiaoping, persecuting the authentic radicals while hollowly insisting that he remains the true custodian of the populist revolution.

Badgering Bernie about his lavish Medicare-for-All plan and his lack of clarity about how to fund it could induce sticker shock in the American electorate, but it could also solidify voters’ perception that Sanders is the dynamic visionary and Trump the static naysayer. Bernie seems to actively cultivate this edgy persona. Why else would he call himself a “democratic socialist” rather than a “social democrat,” a term that more accurately describes his policies and leaves out the scary S-word to boot?

On the debate stage, Bernie will almost certainly castigate Trump for exploiting the anxieties of those coveted 77,744 and delivering on little of what he promised. If Trump counters that he’s been stymied by the Deep State, he loses again. His die-hard supporters will buy it, but at least some voters at the end of their rope will think, “Well, if Trump couldn’t hit hard enough to shatter the ossified bureaucracy, maybe Sanders can. Or maybe he’ll get it rolling in the direction he wants, transforming that bureaucratic mass from an immovable object into an unstoppable force.”

I worry that our politics have entered a downward spiral. Hyperpartisan polarization has ensured that everyone feels precarious all the time, and thanks to the ever-morphing values of liquid modernity, moderate candidates can no longer run fast enough to stay in place. If America is no longer great, it must be made great again by whatever means necessary. If it was never great, it must be radically transformed. As checks, balances, bureaucrats, and practicalities frustrate the sweeping aims of each successive political messiah, they prepare the way for one even more extreme to follow. If this happens enough times, the populists of whichever stripe, thwarted again and again, will finally turn against the institutions of their own society. Enter Thomas Hobbes, stage right or left.

I recognize that, for all but the most milquetoast of centrists, the status quo has plenty of problems. I even admit that my own sympathy to populism has grown since 2016. But the trend I’ve described in American politics is enough to make me sympathize with C.S. Lewis, who grew fed up with an electorate that demanded “such qualities as ‘vision,’ ‘dynamism,’ [and] ‘creativity’” from candidates. Lewis longed for a political leader “who will do a day’s work for a day’s pay, who will refuse bribes, who will not make up his facts, and who has learned his job.” He even sardonically proposed founding “a Stagnation Party—which at General Elections would boast that during its term of office no event of the least importance had taken place.”

It’s enough to make me miss Jeb Bush.

Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. at Georgetown University.