Trump has done all this even though his populist economic rhetoric probably helped him win the presidency. Most Americans, including most Republicans, want to raise the minimum wage. Most want the government to spend more on infrastructure. Most want the government to reduce the cost of prescription drugs and require health insurers to cover preexisting conditions. As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias has pointed out, one of Trump’s selling points to working-class whites was that, in contrast to Mitt Romney, he “was a culture warrior instead of a plutocrat.” Trump’s pro-safety net rhetoric was likely one reason that Americans in 2016 deemed him more moderate than any other Republican nominee since 1972.
His reversals, by contrast, have cost him. The congressional GOP’s push to repeal Obamacare, which Trump backed, was wildly unpopular and helped Democrats regain the House of Representatives in 2018. Most Americans opposed Trump’s tax cut. And his plutocratic agenda may help explain why, despite a strong economy, barely over one-third of Americans, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center poll, believed Trump “cares about people like me.”
Why hasn’t Trump followed Law and Justice’s formula for success? One answer is that he finds the welfare state boring. While Trump talked about Medicare, Social Security, and the minimum wage in 2016, they weren’t near the heart of his campaign. What roused his crowds was racial and cultural resentment. And again and again during his short political career, Trump has prioritized subjects that command media attention and excite his base over subjects that might help him expand it. He’s happy to talk about trade, an economic issue that allows him to demonize foreigners. But a topic such as expanding the child tax credit may be unbearably dull to someone whose attention span is as short as Trump’s and whose grasp of public policy is as thin.
Trump also lacks the political skill to overcome the Republican Party’s deep-seated antagonism to redistributing wealth. In Europe, the far right has found it easier to embrace the welfare state because European moderate conservatives were already less hostile to it. The same ideological gap that exists between Trump and Boris Johnson existed between Romney and David Cameron. Shifting the Republican Party’s approach to the welfare state, therefore, would have required prolonged skirmishes with a phalanx of lobbyists and politicians determined to preserve the privileges enjoyed by corporations and the very rich. Trump has few experienced, influential Beltway Republicans to help in such an effort. Just as there aren’t many prominent, credentialed, GOP foreign-policy advisers who want to withdraw American troops from Asia and the Middle East, there aren’t many prominent GOP domestic-policy advisers who want to expand the welfare state. And Trump doesn’t appear to have looked very hard. So he’s ended up with a domestic policy quarterbacked by Mick Mulvaney, the budget director and acting chief of staff, who lets Trump tweet his heart out while pursuing a right-wing economic agenda that has little public support beyond Wall Street and K Street.