President Trump ran as a Republican, but he did not win as a Republican. He won as a populist. If he is to be a successful president and win re-election, he needs to make a fateful choice: will he govern as a populist or as a Republican? If he chooses the latter, he will fail.
Unfortunately, the president seems to be leaning more and more towards governing as a Republican. The tax reform proposal he recently offered is classic Republican: it may benefit the middle class indirectly by creating more jobs, but its direct beneficiaries are high-income people. One simple change would transform it into a populist measure: a high tax rate, say 75%, on earned incomes over $1,000,000 annually (indexed for inflation). The people who elected Mr. Trump would cheer.
On the vexing problem of health insurance, the president’s latest action, cutting government subsidies to insurance companies to subsidize low income people, may hurt Trump voters. Many of his supporters have modest incomes. They are not Republicans with money to burn. The populist answer to health care is Medicare for all, with Medicare’s ability to control prices. The origin of the health care affordability problem is grossly excessive prices for anything labelled “medical”. Any policy that does not deal with those prices is a band-aid.
In foreign and defense policy, Trump voters do not want more unnecessary wars halfway around the world that kill our kids and waste our money. That is the populist position: America first. If we are attacked, we fight, but why should young Americans die in the centuries-old war between Sunni and Shiite Islamics? Here again, President Trump seems to be governing as a Republican, not a populist. Continuing the futile war in Afghanistan, re-involving ourselves on the ground in Iraq, putting “advisors” in Syria, spooling up the long-standing and strategically meaningless war of words with North Korea—none of this is populist. It all comes from the playbook of Republicans such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who cannot stand the thought that there is a quarrel somewhere in the world in which the U.S. is not involved.
I suspect President Trump knows the Republicans have taken over his administration and pushed the populism that elected him to the side. Unfortunately, he seems not to know what to do about it. There are sources of ideas and people from which he could assemble a different, populist-conservative agenda and set of advisors. I write for one of them, The American Conservative magazine.
What the Republicans in and around the White House do not understand, in addition to the bankruptcy of the Republican “we serve the rich” agenda, is that populism is the wave of the future, both here and in Europe and on the Left as well as the Right. Establishment Republicans and Democrats alike fear populism. But to a president elected because he was seen as a populist, the populist wave of the future is one he should seek to ride. If not President Trump then someone else will combine the Trump and Sanders voters into a new, enduring political majority that will shape America’s future agenda. In the end, it is not President Trump or Senator Sanders who is important. It is the people who voted for both.