So Much for Trump's Populism

Obamacare repeal reveals the new Republican Party, selling House Speaker Paul Ryan's conservative agenda with Trump's bombastic style.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

The merger is complete. As recently as 10 months ago, the Republican Party seemed an uneasy coalition between Paul Ryan conservatives and Donald Trump populists. The conservatives demanded Obamacare repeal, upper-bracket tax cuts, entitlement reform, budget restraint, and a outward-looking American foreign policy. The Trumpists were identified instead with immigration restriction, trade protection, infrastructure investment, an inward-looking foreign policy, and the protection of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. These differences once seemed real, enduring, and momentous. Not any more.

Since the election, House Speaker Paul Ryan has made his peace with trade protection in the form of a border adjustment tax, and immigration restriction in the form of a border wall. Today, he collected his reward: a House vote to repeal Obamacare followed by a rally in the White House Rose Garden hosted by President Trump. Onward now to a giant tax cut for upper-income earners! It’s a united party again, with Donald Trump setting its style and tone—but Ryan’s conservatives reasserting their sway over economic decision-making.

Which is not to say that Ryan conservatives will get all their own way. A more cautious Senate will restrain them, if only for self-protection: Senators worry more about losing elections than do gerrymander-protected representatives. But the notion of a distinctive Trump economic agenda, more attentive to middle-class concerns than that of House Republicans? That notion has dissolved. Except for periodic growling against existing trade deals—and the ban on negotiating new ones like the Trans-Pacific Partnership—the Trump economic agenda has merged with Ryan’s.

Trump’s Republican Party may attract white working-class votes with its cultural messaging, but the excited promise of 2016 of a “working-class party” can be disregarded. The working class will be stripped of its Medicaid coverage. It will again be exposed to the worst practices of the pre-2010 healthcare status quo. The coming tax cut that will absorb the resources shifted away from healthcare subsidies looks likely to be tilted even more radically to the wealthiest in society than those of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush.

Meanwhile, the House’s next priority after Obamacare repeal and the tax cut will not be the roads and bridges that Trump promised his voters, but amendments to the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill to allow big banks to engage in riskier transactions.

The Trump administration and the Trump White House will never be “normal.” The personality and character of the president precludes that. But its domestic economic policy looks increasingly conventional. Any hope or promise that Donald Trump might augur some departure from the dead-end plutocracy of the post-2010 Republican Party has been quashed. Candidate Trump declared at the Republican convention in Cleveland: “I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” Now he’s cheerleading a bill that restores the ability of insurance companies to price people with pre-existing conditions out of the marketplace.

Paul Ryan and the House Republicans had to swallow a lot of toads to reach this day. They will surely have to swallow more toads in the days ahead. They may never actually achieve their hopes for a giant tax cut financed by healthcare cuts. But if they fail, they will fail because of the self-preservation of the Senate, not because of the principles of the president. Trump may sometimes talk like FDR. But his words do not connect with his actions or with each other. He’s original only in his disdain for ethics and democratic norms. When it comes time to decide who gets what—he’s as reactionary as any mink-coated Republican who ever hissed Roosevelt at the Trans-Lux.

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