The American public longs for liberalism — by any other name. Since the advent of opinion polling, a majority of voters has consistently espoused left-of-center views on economic policy, readily endorsing proposals for more government intervention in the economy to advance the general welfare and progressively redistribute resources. This was true during the halcyon days of Great Society liberalism, and remained so, even after Ronald Reagan brought “morning” to America.
And yet, throughout all those decades, a majority of Americans also refused to self-identify as liberals, while a large plurality chose to call themselves “conservative.”
Which makes sense.
After all, in the United States, “small government” conservatism is, fundamentally, a philosophy of upward redistribution. Its advocates might frame their case for slashing taxes on the rich — and reducing workers’ bargaining power over their bosses — in utilitarian terms. But democratic majorities have never bought the idea that giving wealthy people more money is a better way to raise wages than, say, passing a law that raises the minimum wage. Conservative intellectuals may bristle at the hubris of bureaucrats who believe they know how to distribute resources better than the omniscient price signal. But the median voter has never heard of Friedrich Hayek; and when someone asks her whether the government should directly create jobs for all the unemployed, or guarantee all citizens basic medical care, or force corporations to give workers representation on their boards, she finds “collectivism” to be common sense.
And yet, if ordinary human beings have no natural affinity for trickle-down economics, many do have a psychological predisposition toward respecting authority, revering tradition, and resenting challenges to the social order — especially if their “race,” gender, or religion affords them a (relatively) privileged status within said order. Taking from the poor to give the rich has never been popular. But punching a hippie to defend the flag, outlawing abortion to honor inherited moral intuitions (and protect the patriarchal family), stigmatizing gay people to reinforce traditional gender roles, and getting tough on “illegals” or “inner-city thugs” to sustain white supremacy have, at various times in our history, been quite popular indeed.
Donald Trump is not the political savant many believe him to be. But his comprehensive ignorance of the conservative intellectual tradition has enabled him to grasp, consciously or otherwise, that the Republican base wants its government handouts and (soft-core) white nationalism, too. Throughout the 2016 primary, Trump ran as moderate Democrat on fiscal policy (endorsing, at various times, a $1 trillion investment in public infrastructure, universal health care, higher taxes on hedge-fund managers, and price controls on pharmaceuticals) and a moderate fascist on immigration, law enforcement, and freedom of dissent.
Trump’s heretical “Herrenvolk liberalism” faded after he secured the Republican nomination (and thus, the backing of some Establishment Republican donors). And once in office, Trump outsourced his legislative agenda to the GOP’s congressional leadership, who promptly attempted throw millions of people off of Medicaid to maximize fiscal space for slashing taxes on business owners and corporate shareholders.
But just because Trump isn’t interested in actually implementing liberal economic policies doesn’t mean he’s done pretending to support them. In fact, if his State of the Union address is any guide, the president plans to campaign in 2020 as an operational liberal and symbolic reactionary.
On Tuesday night, Trump called for government intervention in the marketplace to “lower the cost of health care and prescription drugs — and to protect patients with preexisting conditions.” He demanded Congress appropriate funds for “new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting-edge industries of the future.” He lamented that America had spent “more than $7 trillion in the Middle East,” and called for the orderly termination of the nation’s “endless wars.” He announced his pride in being “first president to include in my budget a plan for nationwide paid family leave.” And, as always, he discussed trade policy in a manner that affirmed the premise that the government has a responsibility to prioritize full employment and wage growth over maximizing capital mobility or market “freedom.”
There remain hard limits to Trump’s economic blasphemy. The president still sung paeans to tax cuts and deregulation. But crucially, he did not mention the budget deficit, national debt, or necessity of cutting government spending once. In so doing, he signaled that his support for “a massive tax cut for working families” did not imply an opposition to expanding the welfare state.
At the same time, the president interspersed his endorsement of liberal policy with condemnations of the Democrats’ radical values. He promised to resist the left’s push to “abolish our heroes from ICE,” establish “open borders,” and bring “socialism” to America — an ideology he defined as the worship of “government coercion, domination, and control.”
In other words, the president promised conservative values and liberal measures.
If Donald Trump were a more competent politician — and the GOP a less plutocratic political party — this pitch would pose a real threat to the Democratic Party. Especially when combined with the light-touch triangulation on issues of women’s empowerment and criminal justice that Trump flirted with Tuesday night.
Fortunately, the president is a senescent narcissist with poor impulse control, who takes most of his political advice from far-right media. Trump has never been able to stick to a message (or avoid gratuitously offending potentially sympathetic constituencies) before, and there’s no reason to think he’ll be able to do so in 2020. Meanwhile, the Koch Network has a hammerlock on the Republican Party’s agenda, and Trump’s first two years in office appear to have made that more apparent to some marginal voters who expected the anti-Establishment billionaire to defy conservative orthodoxy. The president can pretend to support popular policies in 2020. But that gambit is bound to be less effective than it was before he spent his first term calling for the passage of historically unpopular policies. And as of this writing, multiple polls show a majority of Americans believe they will “definitely not” vote for Trump’s reelection.
In fact, Trump’s unpopularity is now so deep and profound, his attacks on “socialism,” “open borders,” and the abolition of ICE might do more to push his (heretofore “moderate”) detractors toward an embrace of left-wing social values than to pull white moderates in his own direction. Last year, the percentage of Americans who self-identified as liberal hit an all-time high, while that of Americans who call themselves conservative dipped to an all-time low.