The Trump Revolution

Column: How Donald Trump brought populism to Washington

Donald Trump
Photo via Paul Ryan's Facebook Live
November 11, 2016

Donald Trump's election as the forty-fifth president of the United States is the most significant political event to happen in my lifetime. In some respects Trump's victory is more remarkable than Ronald Reagan's in 1980, eight months before I was born. Reagan, also a former Democrat, was a two-term governor of California who had been active in public life since traveling the country for General Electric in the 1950s. Trump has never held office, never been in the military, and if anything faced more resistance than Reagan did from Hollywood, D.C., New York, and academia. None of that stopped Trump from winning more Electoral College votes than any Republican since George H.W. Bush in 1988. Moreover, for at least two years Trump will have something Reagan never did—a Republican Congress.

The temptation to evade the reality of Trump's victory by ascribing it to racism, sexism, celebrity, the considerable weaknesses of his opponent, or just plain luck is real, especially for liberals and Never Trump conservatives. As always, though, it's a mistake to give into temptation. Trump had many of the qualities of a successful presidential candidate: charisma, a strong message, future-oriented policies, a call for peace through strength, and a core base of support. They are what brought him to office, and Republicans to a national position the party has not enjoyed since the 1920s.

Odd, you may say, to claim that the most unpopular president-elect since the advent of polling is charismatic. Personal approval ratings, however, are just one metric of charisma. Magnetism, as judged by the amount of debate, discussion, and attention a candidate receives, is another. It's been clear for a while, for example, that the 2016 election would be decided on just one question: Donald Trump's appropriateness for the office of president of the United States.

Many, many people believe him inappropriate for that position. But none of us can deny that Trump, like a whirlwind, sucked in all of the political energies in the country. He was unavoidable, immovable, polarizing, occasionally sickening. He took on the larger-than-life persona we associate with presidents. His opponent was diminished. At times it seemed more like President Obama was campaigning for a third term than Hillary Clinton was for a first.

Key to Trump's success was his message. We learned from John Podesta's hacked emails that Hillary Clinton's chief pollster was struggling with Clinton's reason for running. Trump never had this problem. "Make America Great Again" was clear, direct, and appealing to voters who believed the country in which they grew up, and for a time prospered, was transforming into something they did not understand, did not condone, and had no agency within. The most important word in that slogan is "Again." It conjures up feelings of nostalgia that all human beings possess, while reminding the public that greatness is possible.

The message was complemented by future-oriented policy speeches that did not always break through the noise of controversy and scandal but will establish the ground of a Trump domestic agenda. Clinton often bragged about the dozens of policy papers her campaign had issued. Most of her high profile speeches, however, were devoted not to policy but to Trump—why he was awful, why he was a risk, why he couldn't be trusted. What else did she have to offer but maintenance of the status quo? The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes that "the businessman likely didn't win on his program, to the extent he has one." This sentiment could not be more wrong. It was precisely his program that led to his success.

Building the wall, negotiating trade deals that benefit workers rather than corporations, bringing law and order to communities ravaged by drugs and gangs, replacing Obamacare, reversing anti-coal and anti-carbon-energy regulations, aid to veterans, replacing Antonin Scalia with a conservative judge, boosting wages through tax reform and tight labor markets, and avoiding another war were ingredients of the policy mix that brought Trump victory in states Republican presidential candidates have not won in decades. Trump called forth the Reagan Democrats who clearly had not been motivated by the pro-business, internationalist, religiously tinged conservatism of the Bushes, Dole, McCain, and Romney, and united the solid South with the Great Lakes states.

He did so by repudiating the legacy of his immediate predecessors. On the one hand, Trump emphasized his opposition to the Iraq war launched by Bush in 2003, while on the other opposing the Libya war launched by Obama in 2011, as well as the nuclear agreement with Iran reached in 2015. The breadth and ferocity of his criticism of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment drove away many national security professionals from his column. His call for a foreign policy that put American interests above all, rather than in the service of maintaining a liberal world order or pursuing humanitarian ideals, might not have been received kindly in Washington and other capitals. But it was cheered on in rural areas in the Rust Belt and more pacific regions of the country like Iowa where Trump won by 10 points. Wilson in '16, Roosevelt in '40, Eisenhower in '52, Nixon in '68, Bush in '2000, Obama in '08—the peace candidate tends to win even if he does not bring peace in the end.

Winning candidates also have core base of support that sticks with them throughout their presidencies. Reagan had the conservative movement, Bill Clinton had soccer moms, George W. Bush had the religious right, Barack Obama had African-American voters, and president-elect Trump has the white working class. The degree of support he enjoys from this group is extraordinary. Whereas Mitt Romney won white voters without college degrees by 26 points, Trump won them by 41. "Mr. Obama had carried rural Monroe County, in Ohio's coal belt, by 8 points in 2012," writes Laura Meckler of the Wall Street Journal. "Mr. Trump won it this year by 47. Pennsylvania's blue-collar Luzerne County, home to Wilkes-Barre, had backed Mr. Obama by 5 points. On Tuesday Mr. Trump won it by 19."

So convinced were Democrats and liberals that changing demographics guaranteed them victory in presidential elections that they ignored or undermined or provoked the very white working-class voters that made Trump president. President Obama's final years in office have accelerated the realignment among white voters toward the Republican Party that has left the Democratic Party a smoking ruin. Democrats had 60 senators during Obama's first year in office. Next year they will have 48. Democrats had 233 House seats during Obama's first year. Next year they will have 192. "Where Democrats held 29 governorships when Obama was inaugurated, they can count only 15 in the wake of Tuesday's election," write Karen Tumulty, John Wagner, and Tom Hamburger of the Washington Post. "In 2017, Republicans could tie the record for controlling governorships, which is 34, set in 1922 when Warren Harding was president." State legislatures are in worse shape.

Clearly the platform of social liberalism, globalization, and appeals to race and ethnicity and sex is not as popular as we have been led to believe. In retrospect, it appears as though Barack Obama distorted our politics, and thus our political analysis, not only in the things he did but also in the nature of his appeal. Obama is and always has been special: suave, eloquent, cool, popular, with it, his likability was impervious to the furor over and opposition to his policies. When Democrats have campaigned on the Obama agenda without Obama as a candidate, they have failed.

Trump has remade the Republican Party as well. Just as Barry Goldwater was the precursor to Ronald Reagan bringing conservatism to Washington, Sarah Palin and the Tea Party were the precursors to Donald Trump bringing populism to Washington. Reagan oversaw an administration comprised of conservatives and establishment Republicans, and Trump will oversee an administration comprised of populists and establishment Republicans. The difference is the establishment is more conservative than it was 30 years ago.

And it will have to adapt. Trump, said Peter Thiel in an October speech at the National Press Club, "points to a new Republican Party beyond the dogmas of Reaganism. He points even beyond the remaking of one party to a new American politics that overcomes denial, rejects bubble thinking, and reckons with reality." The relationship between the movement conservatives and Bush-Baker Republicans was often rocky during the Reagan presidency. So will the relationship between populists and Romney-Ryan Republicans during the Trump presidency.

In the end, of course, Reagan is considered a successful president because he stuck to his program of reviving America's economy, military, and morale. Trump, too, will be judged on his program: four years from now, will America, in particular the Trump coalition, be able to say that greatness is within reach? There will be scandals galore and plenty of criticism from Democrats, the media, and even some Republicans. Government spending is about to go up, up, up. But if the wall is built, and factories return to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and elsewhere, and taxes are reduced and simplified, and Obamacare is replaced, none of that will matter. What this campaign result teaches is that the noise does not matter. More than 20 men and women ran for the presidency of the United States in 2016. Only Donald Trump remains.