As Donald Trump jettisons his “America First” campaign promises at an accelerating pace, the populist nationalist political movement that roared into power with him is beginning to resemble a paper tiger.
Trump’s march to the GOP nomination last spring demonstrated there’s a substantial audience within the party’s rank and file—particularly among older and blue-collar Republicans—for the nationalist movement’s insular themes of resistance to trade, immigration, and foreign alliances, and embrace of government spending that benefits economically strained workers and retirees.
But Trump’s tumultuous first months in office have shown with equal clarity that such an agenda has extremely little institutional support inside the GOP beyond a constellation of sympathetic media outlets (like Breitbart News) and talk-radio and cable-television hosts (such as Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity). Lacking many champions in Congress, think tanks, conservative interest groups, or the business community, many of the movement’s most distinctive ideas—say, confronting China over trade or protecting the mostly white older population from budget cuts—have been rapidly losing ground to more conventional GOP interests and priorities.
“Within the Republican Party, there is not a lot of institutional support for what we understood to be Trumpism during the campaign,” said Peter Wehner, a frequent Trump critic who ran the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives for George W. Bush. “It was so idiosyncratic to him. You didn’t have people running around saying they were Trump Republicans like [there were] a couple of generations ago saying they were Reagan Republicans.”
This broader struggle over the direction of the administration and the party has inevitably been personalized into a tale of personal intrigue between Stephen Bannon, Trump’s rumpled senior strategist and leading proponent of a racially tinged economic nationalism, and Jared Kushner, the president’s silky son-in-law who has emerged as a rallying point for more traditional GOP voices skeptical of that agenda.
Defining this sort of tension as a battle between competing advisers “for the president’s soul” is a familiar Washington construct. During the Ronald Reagan administration, the debate over its direction was often reduced to a conflict between supposed “pragmatists,” led by chief of staff James Baker, and “movement conservatives” revolving around White House counselor Ed Meese. In Bill Clinton’s first years, the White House was seen as divided between “New Democrats,” like policy and political advisers Bruce Reed and Rahm Emanuel, and more traditional liberals aligned with congressional Democrats, like adviser George Stephanopoulos.
But while there often were genuine personal tensions between those competing camps—and the comparable power centers that emerged in other administrations—the larger issue was that each camp reflected elements of the party coalition that the president could not ignore. The waxing and waning of each individual’s influence inside the White House was usually a barometer of which set of party interests the president at any given moment felt it most necessary to accommodate.
In some ways, Trump’s situation is reminiscent of Clinton’s when he took office in 1993, after running as a “new Democrat” who pledged to challenge “brain-dead politics in both parties.” Clinton, to put it mildly, had a much more detailed understanding of policy than Trump does. But he faced a similar political challenge: He had campaigned and won on a new direction for his party that had little support among its existing institutions. There were relatively few Democrats truly attuned to his message that Clinton could appoint to fill the departments and agencies; few members of Congress entirely on board with his agenda; and, apart from the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, few party institutions supporting the elements of his program that most departed from Democratic orthodoxy. (Those elements included passing the North American Free Trade Agreement, shrinking the federal workforce, and reforming welfare to require work.)
The tension between Clinton’s desire to reposition the party and the entrenched preferences of almost all of its other power centers contributed enormously to the turbulence of his first two years. Only after Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994—in a backlash against that chaos—did Clinton feel sufficiently liberated to pursue his new direction over the continuing opposition of much of his party’s infrastructure. That declaration of independence, crystallized in his strategy of “triangulation,” set him on a path toward reelection in 1996.
Trump finds himself in a similar initial position with few potential appointees steeped in his agenda and few other party power centers committed to its most distinctive elements, like the reconsideration of free trade and international alliance. Even more so than Clinton in his first months, Trump, as if through magnetic force, is finding himself pulled by this power imbalance toward the agenda that dominated his party before he arrived.
“To state the obvious, [the institutional imbalance] is going to make it all but impossible for President Trump to march very far down the trail candidate Trump blazed,” said William Galston, former deputy domestic-policy adviser for Clinton and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “That’s the fact of the matter. I have to say that he is yielding to that fact at a pace I can only describe as breathtaking.”
Against that backdrop, the widespread reports that Bannon will either leave the administration or survive only with curtailed responsibility personifies the shift toward the party’s more traditional and internationalist elements over the insurgent nationalist forces that headlined the campaign.
Both GOP wings agree on several fronts, from reducing federal regulation to cutting taxes to advancing conservative social priorities, like expanding gun-owners’ rights. But where the two camps diverge, Trump in recent weeks has consistently tilted away from his nationalist campaign rhetoric and toward more conventional GOP positions on a stunning list of issues. As Wehner put it, Trump in just weeks has hurtled “from Bannon-esque, apocalyptic, racial nationalism to Goldman Sachs, conventional, elite liberalism with nothing in between.”
On trade, this shift includes indications that the administration is seeking much less sweeping change to NAFTA than Trump suggested during the campaign; his embrace of the federal Export-Import Bank after earlier criticism; his suggestion that he will not accuse China of manipulating its currency, as he threatened to do; and his astonishingly open acknowledgement that he will sublimate confrontation with China on trade to cooperation from Beijing in restraining North Korea.
In foreign policy, Trump has sent cruise missiles into Syria after loudly declaring his intention to steer clear of Middle Eastern entanglements; declared that he no longer considers NATO “obsolete”; and, more broadly, has seen his key advisers denounce Russia and Vladimir Putin, even though nationalists like Bannon had long portrayed him as a potential ally in what they view as a civilizational struggle against Islamic terrorists.
In domestic policy, Trump has blurred his campaign pledge to protect entitlement programs for the predominantly white older population by embracing the House Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act, which would have significantly reduced coverage and raised costs for older working adults. After candidate Trump repeatedly rejected changes to Medicare, Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s Office of Management and Budget director, this week sent a very different signal, by telling John Harwood of CNBC that the administration would be willing to discuss House Speaker Paul Ryan’s long-standing goal of converting the program into a premium-support or voucher system.
Trump’s shift on all of these subjects underscores the enormous power imbalance within the GOP coalition. Apart from favorable media outlets, there are few institutions promoting the nationalist direction he promised. There’s no leading conservative think tank, for instance, stocked with experts fleshing out an “America First” economic or diplomatic strategy—or providing a roster of potential appointees to advance those ideas through the grinding policymaking process. The congressional Republican who might have led the charge on Capitol Hill for the nationalist agenda, former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, surrendered his seat to become Trump’s attorney general.
On the other side is a phalanx of established Republican interests—from the business community to leading conservative think tanks to most members of Congress—committed to pre-Trump approaches. Those include openness to trade and international alliances, skepticism of Putin, and a determination to shrink almost all domestic government spending, including on the retirement programs that Trump promised to protect. While those forces failed to constrain Trump during the campaign, their influence is clearly weighing more heavily in governing.
The exception that proves this rule is immigration. On that issue, Trump has sustained his campaign-era rhetoric and agenda far more resolutely than on trade or diplomatic affairs. One reason may be that immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, don’t have nearly as many institutional defenders inside the GOP coalition as open trade does, for example. (Few House or Senate Republicans represent large immigrant populations.) Still, it’s an unsettled question whether Trump will pursue his campaign pledge to also seek reductions in legal immigration—which would face more resistance from Republican interests.
As Galston noted, on all these fronts Trump has many fewer reinforcements than Reagan did when he imposed his imprint on the GOP after 1980. “Reagan inserted himself at the head of a conservative movement that had been swelling for 16 years [since the Barry Goldwater campaign in 1964],” Galston said. “So they had the invaluable possession of a blueprint for government reform and policy reform about which a substantial amount of intellectual infrastructure had been created over a full generation. And the Republican Party by the time Reagan showed up … had some practice negotiating its internal differences. Just the reverse is true this time. It’s as though Trump parachuted in from the moon and in effect won the presidency as an independent candidate running as a Republican. Movement conservatives don’t think of him as a real conservative, or as much of a real Republican.”
Facing this institutional asymmetry, advocates of Trump’s populist nationalism are increasingly pinning their hopes on what amounts to a political pincer movement: They hope Trump can change the party from above by connecting with an evolving party grassroots.
Trump’s success in last year’s GOP primaries undeniably showed his insular nationalist promises had appeal within the party, particularly among the growing ranks of non-college-educated Republicans who keyed his nomination. Exit polls, for instance, showed that while primary participants who supported deporting most undocumented immigrants represented a minority of GOP voters in all but two states, those voters preferred Trump by such large margins that they provided a majority of his votes almost everywhere. A survey last fall by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that non-college-educated Republicans were more skeptical than their college-educated counterparts about free trade, globalization, and the value of NATO. And Ryan’s plan to convert Medicare into a premium-support system has long faced preponderant opposition in polls from the blue-collar and older whites who still express the most support for Trump.
The flip side is that Trump’s agenda, rhetoric, and style inspire more resistance from white-collar whites than Republicans usually confront—a dynamic that was evident from the primaries through the general election, and through his first weeks in office.
The key to party change will be Trump’s success in mobilizing the grassroots elements of the GOP coalition open to a nationalist message, argued J. Hogan Gidley, a longtime GOP communications strategist. Gidley advised the presidential campaigns of both Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, who pioneered many of the blue-collar conservative themes that Trump championed. He also advised the pro-Trump political action committee founded by Robert and Rebekah Mercer, the conservative megadonors close to Bannon.
Gidley acknowledged there is little institutional backing inside the GOP for the views all of those figures have touted. Asked where the Trump administration’s nationalists could turn for support beyond supportive media voices like Hannity, Ingraham, or Ann Coulter, Gidley said: “I don’t know that they have anywhere to turn.”
But, he argued, Trump can topple that power structure. “That’s what he was elected to do, to shake things up,” Gidley said. “I think he is going to make deals with Republicans, with the [House] Freedom Caucus, with Democrats when he has to. Donald Trump, because he commands the bully pulpit of the White House, can reshape much of the Republican Party.”
But many others question whether Trump has the skill, tenacity, or even the interest to engage in the sort of sustained struggle to redirect his party that Bill Clinton undertook. Wehner cautioned that even Trump’s turn back to more conventional conservative thinking in recent weeks probably isn’t the last bend in the road.
“What he will end up doing is what he thinks will be in the best interest of Donald Trump,” Wehner said. “During the campaign, he believed the best interest of Donald Trump was to inflame some of the darker impulses of America and say things that are outrageous and fan conspiracy theories. Now I suspect he is seeing the Bannon approach isn’t working and will lead to a failed presidency, and he’s thinking about jettisoning that. I really think he’s ideologically rootless and could end up anywhere.”