“I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves,” said Donald Trump in the acceptance speech at his nominating convention. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” None of those claims have turned out to be true. First, helping the powerful beat up on the defenseless has turned out to be the overriding thematic goal of his agenda. Second (and mitigating the first), everybody knows the system better than Trump — at least everybody in politics. And he has proven so unable to fix it he is already shifting his message toward assigning the blame elsewhere.
Trump is encountering the classic populist dilemma. Populists define political problems as very simple, denying the existence of complex tradeoffs. They envision the political system as pitting a unified people (or, in certain herrenvolk varieties of populism, as a unified racial subset of the people) against a nefarious elite. The dilemma is that the promise of easy solutions can help win an election, but it does not translate into governing. Populists generally either radically depart from their platform, resort to authoritarianism to consolidate their power, or fail. Trump is heading for door no. 3.
The failure to repeal and replace was a party-wide populist dilemma years in the making. Republicans in Congress promised to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something that would give everybody access to coverage, at less cost, while lowering taxes. When Trump promised, “You’re going to have such great health care, at a tiny fraction of the cost, and it’s going to be so easy,” he was merely echoing Republican rhetoric. Any Republican president was bound either to pass a plan that deprived millions of Americans of their access to medical care, or else failed to achieve the stated goal of repealing Obamacare.
Trump’s distinct contribution to the dilemma is his response to the failure. He could work with Democrats to tweak the law, bringing down premiums, call the tweaks “repeal and replace,” and reap the credit for improvements in insurance markets. Alternatively, he could stick with his tactic of following the Republican line, which in this case means moving past health care to focus on taxes. Instead, Trump has followed a novel strategy of lashing out at his own legislative partners, repeatedly reopening the wound of the repeal failure.
Trump inexplicably believes he can save his own political standing by detaching himself from the majority party in Congress. One White House adviser tells the Washington Post that, if Republicans lose control of the House, Trump will be able to say, “See, I told you these guys wouldn’t get anything done. I’ve been saying this for months. They’re not following my agenda.”
It might make sense for Trump to chart an independent course if he were forging partnerships with Democrats. But cutting himself off from his party as a blame-shifting exercise is utter political madness. It simply encourages a vicious cycle in which Republicans in Congress have less reason to take unpopular votes on behalf of Trump’s agenda, Trump lashes out at them more, and Republican voters act on his dismay by refusing to come out to vote for their congressional races.
To the (very limited) extent Trump had a successful positive message in 2016 — and did not merely rely on tarnishing his opponent — he appealed to low-information voters as a deal-making virtuoso. They didn’t understand the complexity of passing legislation through a fragmented system with multiple veto points, and believed Trump was some close approximation of the character he played on The Apprentice, who could overpower the mysterious gridlock in Washington. Trump boasted over and over that he was a dealmaker, deals are what he does, and his negotiating prowess would overcome any barrier. He may well have believed this himself.
It was a potent appeal, the first time. Now the illusion has been shattered, and Trump wants to sustain the illusion by changing his pitch. The promise of easy victories and making deals is now a list of excuses for why the members of Congress Trump was supposed to make deals with have all let him down. Every long con artist knows how to handle this problem — how to tell your mark that the land you sold them in Florida failed to appreciate as expected due to some unforeseeable events.
But con artists have a model based on exploiting their customers once. Trump has to run for reelection.