As the days go by after Donald Trump’s upset presidential victory, he is managing to keep his options open in terms of his basic strategy for governing — and particularly his relationship with a congressional Republican majority that is ready to rock and roll with a legislative blitzkrieg based on the Ryan budget. Perhaps that is because he never gave serious thought to what he would do if he actually won the election. Maybe he just hasn’t made up his mind. And quite possibly he’s just keeping potential opponents guessing. But so far he has not closed off any of the three very different paths I outlined last week: pursuing a sort of chaos administration resembling his candidacy; becoming the unlikely enabler of the Ryan agenda; or trying to remake the GOP into a populist/nationalist party.
What Democrats should keep in mind, however, is that whichever way he goes he is very likely going to betray his white working-class base — the people who put him into office — sooner or later. The “later” part is the most certain. Donald Trump does not have the power to bring back the Industrial Era economy he has so avidly embraced. He will not be able to reopen the coal mines, rebuild the manufacturing sector, or repeal the international economic trends that would exist with or without NAFTA or TPP. And for that matter, he has little ability to reverse the demographic and cultural trends most of his voters dislike.
But Trump may betray his white working-class followers more immediately if he does indeed sign something like the Ryan budget into law, rewarding every wealthy and powerful GOP constituency, making the tax structure significantly more regressive than it already is, and gutting a social safety net that poorer white folks depend on as much as do poorer minority people. Add in something like a push toward tighter credit and an abandonment of fiscal stimulus — which congressional Republicans will be urging on the new administration with every other breath — and you could see a reactionary administration that has to rely even more powerfully than the Trump campaign on atavistic cultural appeals to the white working class and the alleged magic he can perform as president. As a New York Times analysis of Trump voters in Michigan explains, there will always be an irreducible Trump/GOP vote that is essentially ethnocentric (or even racist) in nature. But some of the voters are persuadable for Democrats going forward.
Overall, it might behoove Democrats to exhibit a bit of patience in devising a strategy to defeat Trumpism until it is clear what Trumpism in the Oval Office will actually entail. But many Democrats are understandably in a hurry to right the wrongs of the 2016 campaign.
Most obviously, the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, convinced (with reason if not any actual evidence) its guy might have succeeded where Hillary Clinton failed, is urging maximum populism onto Democrats as a way to recapture or at least fight for the white working class. Many of the loudest voices calling for this approach have been calling for it in every circumstance for decades, but that does not necessarily mean they are wrong this time.
But that is not the only approach. At Foreign Policy, Lee Drutman argues that Trump has already engineered a realignment that has made him the unassailable champion of the white working class, leaving Democrats the option of unambiguously becoming the champions of “multicultural cosmopolitanism.”
If Democrats define themselves as the party that is opposed to Republicans (as they must), they will soon find themselves as the party of fiscal responsibility (as opposed to the Republicans, who will again run huge deficits), as the party of international responsibility (as opposed to the more isolationist and nationalist Republicans), and as the party of global business (as opposed to the protectionist Republicans). They will continue to be the party of environmentalism (the stakes of this will get even greater soon) and the party of diversity and tolerance.
Drutman, however, is betting that Trump will continue to divide his own party and defy its Washington Establishment. If he is right, then he is also right that many “cosmopolitan” upscale Republicans who held their nose and voted for Trump will be furious and perhaps even ready to defect.
The bottom line is that devising an anti-Trump strategy depends on what Trump does next. He cannot maintain his current ambiguity for much longer, unless he is going to follow a crazy, herky-jerky path all along, in which case he is probably going to disappoint and even betray all of his supporters before too long.