Every movement president is soon accused of selling out to the establishment and drowning in Washington’s permanent and deep swamp.
“Let Reagan be Reagan” was an early lamentation of conservatives, fearing their godhead was being watered down by Jim Baker and diluted by George H.W. Bush centrists.
Bill Clinton used to trot Hillary Clinton out to play the flaming campus progressive of old to quiet rumors that an evil pollster Dick Morris—promoting liberal heresies such as school uniforms and “100,000 new policemen”—had snuck in the service entry to the White House to brainwash Clinton back to the center.
Few diehard Obama zealots in summer 2008 ever imagined that by February 2009 there would be party hacks like a Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emanuel.
Usually first-term and formerly ideological presidents are accused of backsliding to the center, to avoid midterm disasters, to ensure reelection, and to get something done in Washington.
Trump is now accused of following the same script.
So is it dangerous for a movement president to recalibrate?
If the economy is growing, the answer is probably not.
After Reagan’s 7% plus GDP growth in 1984, few Reaganites worried about his ideological apostasies.
Once Clinton cut deals with the Republican House, and got the deficits down and GDP up, Democrats enjoyed the momentum far more than how it was obtained.
Trump for now is on a roll. He’s handled well visits from foreign leaders like Egyptian Military Chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. His appointments remain stellar. Neil Gorsuch will be an inspired Supreme Court judge. The economy seems to be reawakening. His one-off strike at WMD depots in Syria mostly won praise. Even Trump’s wild tweets, from his take on Swedish terrorism to “White House” “tapping” reflect cunning as much as laxity, and if not literally accurate in their details, often approximated reality.
But if a president stumbles at home or abroad, his loyal base certainly does matter—most especially for populist presidents who are without institutionally insured support.
In that context, rumors grow that those who got Trump elected—conservative House Republicans who voiced early support, operators like Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon whose electoral geniuses broke the blue wall, and grassroots former Tea-Party activists who got the crowds out—are all losing influence to what used to be referred to by Trump himself as “low energy” mainstream establishment Republicans.
For now, these are mostly overhyped court intrigue of who is “in” and who is “out” this week. Meanwhile, more quietly Trump’s executive orders on immigration, energy development, deregulation, and law enforcement delight his hard-core supporters, as he dismantles eight years of Obama progressivism. Most of his appointments are just what Trump pledged.
With lots of new good jobs, a strong stock market, and an upsurge in business confidence, for now the palace politics hardly matter.
But later on?
If there is any credence to the narrative that Trump is elevating his centrist family members at the expense of his grassroots supporters, or the mainstream Republican congressional establishment or the New York/Wall Street fixtures in favor over his populists, then he will have lots of trouble if the economy stalls, a strike or intervention abroad gets messy, or a scandal erupts.
And all these crises at some point in all presidencies usually will occur.
In truth, Trump has lots of redlines he cannot cross.
He promised a wall and reiterated that “Mexico will pay for it”. For his base to come out in 2018 that means he must build a physical barrier. Where it is nearly impossible due to terrain, he must explain that a few short stretches are policed by videos and drones.
Taxing remittances or leveling tariffs, or at least some symbolic act, is necessary—even as his new advisors whisper in his ear that such a boast “to make Mexico pay” was always hokey and impossible.
Any weakening on job protections, health care reform, and lopping off the tentacles of the politically correct federal octopus will likewise turn off millions who came out on the premise that Trump was not just another Washington politician.
Trump can order a few retaliatory strikes to restore deterrence and cement his unpredictable and Jacksonian image—but not so many as to turn off his base that he is a neoconservative interventionist determined to rebuild the Middle East.
Critical, then, for Trump, the former television reality star, is cultural optics.
In the manner that Trump’s hulking presence—with combed over dyed hair, orange tan, mile-long tie, and baseball cap—incited smirks among elites while delighting his base, so too the often caricatured Conway-Bannon presence reassured the proverbial masses that someone like themselves was resonating the true inner populism of the billionaire Manhattanite Trump.
As in the case of Trump’s own populist contradictions, it did not matter that Conway was a veteran politico or Bannon a former Goldman-Sachs investment banker and current millionaire.
Conway came across as a working mom who was always game to joust with hostile television journalists. She was unafraid to say outrageous things or risk gaffes and howlers. All the while she remained poised, while in wink-and-nod fashion signaling directly to the Trump base something like, “Here we all go again with these arrogant jerks.”
The Washington media sneered at Bannon’s unkempt presence, his flushed cheeks and bloodshot eyes—and thereby only reassured Trump supporters that he too was one of them. Bannon’s brilliant combination of popular culture and Jacksonian politics—playing the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get what you Want” at the end of Trump rallies to cheering crowds who could have just as well come out of a NASCAR race—helped to smash apart the remnant blue wall.
The key to the two’s appeal was threefold: an authenticity that enhanced Trump’s own aura that, whatever he was, he was at least real with deep affection for the muscular classes.
The mainstream media got it wrong that because both Conway and Bannon were affluent and privileged, therefore they could not be populists. Likewise, the privileged and affluent Bernie Sanders, capitalist owner of three homes and an astute tax deductor, squared the circle of winning over would-be socialists unlike himself. The backgrounds of Conway and Bannon were not aristocratic: the more each became successful, the more each seemed to resonate empathy with those just like themselves that had not been so fortunate.
Finally, they radiated a sense of controlled recklessness: both Conway and Bannon were edgy and capable, like Trump, of saying or acting in unpredictable ways (especially in a Lee Atwater fashion of hitting back hard at opponents, in the manner that neither McCain’s nor Romney’s court had been willing or able).
In contrast we live in an age in which nothing is real: late-night talk show hosts are snarky and smirky rather than funny; bold sounding talking heads are in truth more often conniving and careerist; television news readers are blow-dried empty suits skilled at mellifluous nonsense; commercials show us stylish super men and women who seem ready to bench press their own weight as they do brain surgery; and politicians go on camera to talk five minutes while managing to say only the usual “on the one hand/on the other hand” crap.
Team Trump’s appeal was that whatever it was, it was at least not predictably massaged and packaged. What the media hyped as a train wreck, voters tolerated as something like their own everyday disasters.
In sum, President Trump still needs both the message and the messengers that got candidate Trump into the White House.
No one objects to, but indeed welcomes, his inclusion of sober and judicious pros, who know how to run the bureaucracy, the Congress, and the military. And Trump may be winning over mainstream Republican coastal insiders with his reassurances that establishmentarians are working with him and he is dramatic in cutting red tape and restoring American deterrence.
But at some point, Trump must realize what won him the presidency and will keep it for him are the likes of the scruffy Bannon, the supermom Conway, the often weird and bothersome Freedom Caucus, and the true-against the grain believers who are ready for a call for White House duty.
The worst nightmare for a Trump presidency is to slide into a centrist, split-the-difference agenda and team, but presided over by a still uncouth and tweeting Trump.
In the eyes of his voters, that nightmare would mean his base got all the risks of Trump’s mercurial behavior but without any of the upsides of his fiery populist Jacksonian vision.
Imagine a nonstop tweeting and combed-over Jeb Bush or an orange Marco Rubio—and see how that will work out next time in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
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