As we slog through Week Three of the Trump presidency, it’s hard to know what to think. The days since January 20 have been a political whirlwind of haphazard policymaking, nationwide protests, diplomatic tussles, legal battles, and media firestorms unlike anything in recent memory. Along the way, Team Trump appears to have suffered several self-inflicted wounds, including but certainly not limited to: The disastrous rollout of Trump’s promised Muslim ban; the furor over a Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that failed to mention Jews; Sean Spicer’s bald-faced lie that Trump’s inauguration drew the biggest crowd in history (Period!); and Kellyanne Conway’s subsequent defense of Spicer’s so-called “alternative facts.” Between these missteps and the general sense of hysteria that has pervaded Trump’s first days, spectators are left with the impression of grossly inexperienced administration flying by the seat of its pants. Two weeks like this would be an unmitigated disaster for any other president.
But Trump is sui generis, and people are finally learning to treat him as such. Accordingly, some have wondered whether the chaos of the past two weeks actually serves Trump’s (Read: Steve Bannon’s) grand-strategic purposes. Indeed, the Trump administration has welcomed conflict and encouraged outrage, from their inflammatory executive orders, to Sean Spicer scolding the media for their “shameful” coverage of the inauguration, to attacks on the judge who stayed the travel ban, to Steve Bannon’s statement to the New York Times that, “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” The Trump White House does not seem to care much for damage control. Actually, the travel ban suggests the exact opposite: In drafting the order, the White House seemed intent on crafting the most controversial and confusing policy possible. Trump’s inner circle drafted the ban with hardly any input from the departments who would have to implement it, and when the Department of Homeland Security reviewed the order and concluded that it did not apply to green card holders, Steve Bannon overruled them. The result of this slapdash and draconian policy — “Malevolence tempered by incompetence,” as Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes put it — was, predictably, confusion and anger at airports and on television screens across the country.
But if the outrage and protest and negative media attention directed at Trump over the past weeks were all part of the plan, what’s the payoff? A few conspiratorial posts on Medium have suggested that the ban was a “trial balloon for a coup,” or that the resulting uproar gave the White House cover to install Steven Bannon on the National Security Council. But no one was going to stop Trump from appointing Bannon to the NSC, and it seems to me that Trump could amass more power with less risk by slowly subverting democratic norms than by trying for a coup. So what has Trump gained from the ban, the protests, the media showdowns, the combative tweets, and the fights with other Republicans that have characterized his administration’s first weeks?
2020 is a long way off, but Trump — and by Trump I mean Steve Bannon — is still thinking about the one thing that all political operatives think about all the time: maintaining power. And if Trump (Bannon) wants a second term, he needs the support of two groups of people: Trump’s diehard white-populist fanbase, and the oligarchic elites who run the Republican Party. But these groups do not have the same interests. Trump’s most dedicated supporters want ethno-nationalist economic populism: They’re tired of sharing their government benefits with immigrants, refugees, and black people. The mainstream Republican Party, by contrast, is a machine created to redistribute wealth upwards. These two groups don’t like each other much: During the Republican primary, Trump spent as much time attacking the Republican establishment as he did attacking Barack Obama. Yet Trump somehow has to keep them both happy-ish. And the chaos of the past two weeks represents the Trump administration trying to resolve this dilemma.
Since November 9, Trump’s broad strategy for keeping both camps happy has been clear: Keep up the post-truth ethnic-nationalist authoritarianism to please the diehards, but drop the economic populism and replace it with classic supply-side voodoo to make sure that Paul Ryan and friends remain pathetically loyal. This great bait-and-switch, as John Cassidy described it, first became apparent in Trump’s appointments. The White House and the Cabinet are full of Islamophobes, immigration hard-liners, and others of a similar ethno-nationalist ilk. There’s Trump’s National Security Advisor, Michael “Fear of Muslims is rational” Flynn, the former Defense Intelligence Agency head who believes, as ISIS does, that the West is engaged in a civilizational clash with radical Islam. There’s Jeff Sessions, Trump’s virulently anti-immigration attorney general who used his powers as a federal prosecutor in Alabama to scare poor black people out of voting. And of course there are the Steves, Miller and Bannon, apparently the driving forces behind the travel ban. At the same time, the people making economic policy in Trump’s White House represent the very global-capitalist forces that Trump vilified during his campaign. It’s almost comical how blatant the bait-and-switch is. Trump won by promising to bring jobs back to distressed Rust Belt factory towns, but his Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, made his $3 billion fortune by buying and restructuring — meaning, downsizing — companies in troubled industries, including the steel industry. Trump frequently attacked Goldman Sachs in his campaign speeches, and portrayed his rivals Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton as Goldman’s stooges, but Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, is a former Goldman banker who could be worth as much as $500 million and who got his big break profiting from the wreckage of the financial crisis (Mnuchin is the kind of guy who forgets to disclose $100 million in assets to the Senate). And when Trump announced his intent to gut the regulatory regime put in place after the crisis, there was Gary Cohn, former Goldman president and current chairman of Trump’s National Economic Council, smiling at his elbow. Cohn received a $285 million severance package from Goldman when he left to join the White House. In addition to Ross, Trump’s Cabinet includes three more billionaires: Linda McMahon, Betsy DeVos, and Todd Ricketts. With a combined net worth well north of $10 billion dollars, Trump’s will be the richest Cabinet in history.
Trump’s hard-core supporters are fiercely loyal. But they still might understand that this cabal of oligarchs (a fair approximation of the mainstream Republican Party) does not have their best interests at heart. Many Trump supporters probably lost their houses or their savings in the financial crisis, but Trump’s assault on Dodd-Frank and the CFPB is the first step toward another meltdown (from which the Steve Mnuchins of the world will undoubtedly profit). Paul Krugman estimates that five million Trump supporters gained health insurance through Obamacare, but Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price (Net worth: $13.6 million), has been pushing for years to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a less generous law that’s better for the young, healthy and rich, but worse for the old, sick and poor (the people who need help getting health insurance). And of course, the one thing that Trump and Paul Ryan have always agreed on is that the rich deserve a big tax cut.
A bunch of billionaires and multimillionaires are not going to save the white working class, and if Trump’s supporters thought about the economic policies that Trump and his Republican allies are about to pursue, they might realize they had been played. So Trump distracts them with ethnically-tinged conflict and chaos. Trump’s hardcore supporters see chaos in Washington as a sign that he is doing what he promised, so when Trump picks fights and breaks norms, he shores up his support among the people he is about to abandon economically. The travel ban exemplifies this tactic. From Washington, it looks like a disaster: A pointless policy that generated major protests, negative news coverage, and condemnation from other Republicans. But in Trump country, it’s a winner. According to one recent poll, the ban has roughly 50% support nationwide, but 88% of Republicans support it, and 80% believe it makes them safer. So when Trump’s supporters, seduced by his fearmongering, see newscasters and protesters criticizing a policy that they think will keep them safe from terrorism, they only become more convinced that Washington and the coastal elite care more about brown people than about “real Americans.” And when they see Trump standing up to these corrupt, politically correct elites, they love him even more.
Trump’s feud with the media is another tactical controversy. Since the November meeting where he excoriated media executives for their accurate coverage of him, Trump has gone out of his way to antagonize the press, tweeting about their “fake news” and whining about them at every opportunity, no matter how inappropriate (In front of the CIA Wall of Honor, for example, or at an event for Black History Month). Recently, he went full Ingsoc and declared on Twitter that, “Any negative polls are fake news.” If his supporters grow tired of the mainstream media’s “fake news,” there are plenty of propaganda sites – InfoWars, Breitbart, and to a lesser degree Fox – that will tell them what they want to hear.
The various daily outrages of Trump’s presidency — his attacks on a federal judge; his refusal to resolve his conflicts of interest; the gag orders on federal agencies — play into this dynamic as well: Trump does something egregious; the media, Democrats, and a few principled Republicans object; and Trump’s supporters become more and more convinced that Trump is the only one on their side. Meanwhile, Trump’s spineless abettors on Capitol Hill, happy with Trump’s oligarchic tendencies and terrified of the wrath of his base, look the other way. When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Paul Ryan in November whether Ryan believed Steve Bannon should be in the White House, Ryan responded, “I don’t know Steve Bannon, so I have no concerns. I trust Donald’s judgment.” Asked on 60 Minutes whether he believed Trump’s false claim that “millions” of illegal votes had been cast, Ryan responded, “I don’t know. I’m not really focused on these things.” With regard to Trump’s conflicts of interest, Ryan told CNBC, “This is not what I’m concerned about in Congress.”
This is the political bargain behind the Trump presidency: The Breitbart wing of Bannon, Miller et al. gets to whip up outrage to keep Trump’s base happy, but the Republican oligarchs make economic policy. Both sides need each other; neither has the power to govern on its own. But the exact terms of this alliance are still being hammered out, and over the past two weeks, Bannon and his friends have overplayed a weak hand by generating more controversy than Trump’s Republican allies can stomach. Trump cannot maintain power through outrage alone: The base that rushes to his side at every incitement is significant, but not nearly an electoral majority. He needs mainstream Republican officials, donors and voters on his side if he wants to assemble an effective coalition. But to keep them in his camp without alienating his base, he needs to balance controversy with some respect for political norms: No attacks on federal judges, no “alternative facts,” no ban on green card holders. Right now, Trump’s proportion of outrage to normalcy is off: His approval rating is in the low 40s, historically bad for a president early in his first term, and while his hardcore supporters are still with him, he is putting mainstream Republicans in an awkward spot. Accordingly, Trump appears ready to back off the confrontational, bomb-throwing approach that characterized his first two weeks. Reince Priebus, seen as the establishment-Republican rival to Steve Bannon, has apparently told Trump and Bannon that the administration needs a new approach to communications, and has drafted a 10-point checklist to follow when announcing any new initiative. Trump has also apparently told Priebus to make sure that future executive orders cross Trump’s desk during the drafting process, as is traditional, and not just when they are ready to be signed (It says a lot that he even had to demand this).
It remains to be seen whether Trump can strike a workable balance between ethno-nationalist populism and cynical Republican oligarchy, but don’t bet against it. Republican leaders in Congress have shown that they are largely happy to let Trump subvert democracy as long as they get their tax cuts. Lindsey Graham and John McCain criticized the travel ban, which is not a national security measure but a xenophobic signal to Trump’s base, but Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell were circumspect. “President Trump is right to make sure we are doing everything possible to know exactly who is entering our country,” Ryan said a statement. Ryan sank even lower when he refused to criticize Trump’s attacks on the federal judge who stayed the travel ban. “He’s not the first President to get frustrated with a ruling from a court,” Ryan told the press. Marco Rubio, who could have derailed Rex Tillerson’s nomination for Secretary of State, instead caved and voted to confirm him, further rewarding Russia for their interference in our election. The catalogue of Republicans debasing themselves before Trump goes on, but suffice to say, we should not count on them to restrain the destructive instincts we have seen over the past two weeks. Rather, the marriage of ethno-nationalism with oligarchy could prove durable. Dividing the poor along ethnic or religious lines while the rich run the show is the oldest trick in the proverbial book.
What does this mean for Democrats? First, protest can work, by driving a wedge between mainstream Republicans and Trumpists. If mainstream Republicans can be convinced to break with Trump’s most outrageous proposals, he can be dragged towards the center. Second, some Trump supporters might become vulnerable to Democratic overtures, seeing as Trump will likely do little to improve their lot. If Trump disappoints the Obama voters who flipped this year, Democrats could win them back (although it might be tough). One way or another, I hope the Democrats find an effective way to resist Trump soon, before the looming ethno-nationalist oligarchy he represents becomes entrenched.