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Donald J. Trump campaigned on a necessarily radical approach to governing: he would listen to the vast majority of the American people and enact policies that would benefit them. The most important elements for Trump’s agenda were tougher immigration laws; revitalizing the economy and renegotiating bad trade deals; an America-first foreign policy; and repealing Obamacare (the failure of which is a blot on the president’s record thus far). Trump proposed radical departures from the accepted political orthodoxy to each of these issues when he campaigned for president in 2016. His innovative outlook on these issues gave Trump the momentum he needed to overcome the more conventional candidates in both parties while keeping the press in a perpetual state of confusion and outrage.
To achieve these policies, Trump named unorthodox leaders—most of them “economic nationalists”—to advise him throughout the campaign and once he became president. Men such as retired U.S. Army General Mike Flynn, Steve Bannon, and Sebastian Gorka were instrumental to Trump’s success.
And now they’re gone. While Trump’s success is mostly his own, the presence of people like Bannon and Gorka helped to ensure that Trump’s agenda would be implemented effectively. Their departure may herald a fundamental change in course for Trump’s administration.
As a candidate and early on as president, Trump (advised by Flynn, Bannon, and Gorka, among others) was unafraid to call out radical Islamic terrorism by name. That’s changed. In his recent speech announcing the “new strategy” in Afghanistan, the term never appears (as Gorka pointed out in his resignation letter). That’s quite a turn from the president’s speech at the beginning of the year, when he purposely called out radical Islamic extremism as one of the greatest threats facing the nation. (In fact, I’ve argued that the president’s entire Afghanistan policy is a serious deviation from the principles of his campaign.)
Equally striking is Trump’s turnabout on the Iran deal. During the campaign, Trump called the Obama Administration’s executive agreement with Iran on its nuclear program “the worst deal ever negotiated” and “the worst deal I’ve ever seen.” Yet he has now recertified the agreement not once, but twice! He was right in the first instance: it was a bad and dangerous deal that should’ve been abrogated on the president’s first day in office.
Meanwhile, the Trump Administration has taken an increasingly harsh stance on its relationship with Russia—which is a deviation from what both Trump and Flynn outlined in the campaign. While the view often does change from the Oval Office, the fact remains that the view in question did not change until after former campaign aides, like Flynn, were forced out. These changes are not only antithetical to what the president promised us, but they are also dangerous to America’s national security.
Reports are now surfacing that the president is backtracking on his previous stands on immigration. Trump has indicated that he’s open to compromise with Congress on amnesty in exchange the border wall he promised from the outset of his campaign. These reports are mostly unsubstantiated, but given the course reversals we’ve already seen, nothing can be ruled out.
Still, it’s hard to imagine such a breach of faith with the base. Millions of voters embraced Trump for his stance on immigration in general and the wall in particular.
Of course, the news is not all troubling. President Trump embraced Senator Tom Cotton’s (R-Ala.) plan for curbing legal immigration—and his stalwart Attorney General Jeff Sessions has continued cracking down on illegal border crossings. But, this is not enough to sustain the momentum that Trump voters demand. Trump needs to stay strong on immigration, the issue that is most responsible for catapulting him to victory in 2016.
The Economy and Tariffs
While the economy has experienced marked improvement since Inauguration Day, the fact remains that middle class jobs are still on the decline and those unemployed Americans who have abandoned finding gainful employment remains dangerously high also. In order to begin the kind of middle class resurgence that Trump envisions, he is going to need serious tax reform—particularly in the area of corporate taxes. If the president can accomplish this (and craft a budget that reduces government spending at any level), he will get the 3-4 percent growth in gross-domestic product he wanted. This, more than anything, will be what voters consider in 2020.
Also, Trump’s ceaseless cuts to the onerous regulatory state are vital, but these are being done through executive order. They are not permanent. So, Trump needs to move on tax reform, to ensure lasting victory.
For Trump to be successful, he must continue honoring the wishes and needs of the 62 million Americans who voted for him.
Then, there is the issue of protectionism. Despite having removed Steve Bannon from his inner circle, the president apparently argued for tariffs at a recent meeting with Gary Cohn, his chief economic adviser (and one of the biggest opponents of trade protectionism). Trump did manage to overturn the onerous Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, saving the livelihoods of untold thousands of American workers. However, that is but the start of protecting America’s industries. If he cannot enact key pieces of legislation that will protect American workers in the long-run, he will be politically vulnerable. Moreover, the abandonment of TPP occurred early in the administration, when the economic nationalist wing had far greater sway. There needs to be more movement in the direction of protectionism than we’ve had. Given the opposition from both parties (and the Chamber of Commerce) this will be one of Trump’s greatest hurdles. He must stay strong and remain committed to protectionism, and he will need people in the White House who share his vision.
I still very much believe in the president. But, now is the time to recognize that grotesque missteps have been taken the last several months, and the pieces need to be picked up. It is obvious that the economic nationalist wing’s tenure in the White House is over. They will now use their sizable media platform to influence policy from outside the White House. As Bannon himself stated, the presidency we all voted for “is over.”
However, that need not be the end of the discussion. Trump was elected to enact a particular agenda. If he deviates too far, he will lose his critical base of support. Lose too much of that support and the president’s reelection is threatened.
For Trump to be successful, he must continue honoring the wishes and needs of the 62 million Americans who voted for him. He may not always win. In politics victory is not final and defeat is not always fatal. Trump needs to move forward now with intentions of undoing the last several weeks of turmoil. If he can do that, the recent missteps will be undone, and the movement which he leads will continue to batter down the orthodoxies of our self-indulgent political elite. This is how we will make America great again. Trump needs to return to the themes that won him office.
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