Trump’s Brilliant Populism Puts Republicans To The Test: Will They Ever Say No?


Donald Trump isn’t conservative – that much is clear.

But he could very well be popular.

That’s because Trumpism is headline-driven, ad hoc policymaking. He responds to the news cycle; in fact, he responds to what he sees on the news. So do most Americans. Some of that will make for good policy. Some of it will make for bad policy. All of it will likely make him more popular.

So if Trump sees a story about Carrier sending jobs to Mexico, he responds by bringing the full force of executive branch intimidation to bear, whether or not that’s economic fascism – and polls show that six in ten Americans like the move.

So if Trump sees a story about flag burning at a college, he responds by tweeting that flag burners should have their citizenship removed. Polls show that Americans don’t agree with that policy, but that a significant plurality of Americans would back a Constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning.

So if Trump sees a story about the Pentagon hiding $125 billion in waste and fraud, Trump responds via Twitter that by saying he’ll cancel a $4 billion contract with Boeing to build the new Air Force One:

Here’s what he said about Air Force One: “The plane is totally out of control. It’s going to be over $4 billion for Air Force One program and I think it’s ridiculous. I think Boeing is doing a little bit of a number. We want Boeing to make a lot of money, but not that much money.”

All of this will make Trump more popular personally. Americans are politically reactive. So is Trump. And if he reacts to the same headlines they see with ad hoc “pragmatism,” he’s likely to boost his popularity ratings.

What happens, though, when Trump’s day-to-day “pragmatism” runs up against the reality that broad policy requires more than headline-grabbing stunts? What happens when it’s time to set consistent baselines?

Congressional Republicans are out of their minds if they think Trump will simply delegate such big questions to Vice President Mike Pence. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan won’t be presenting bills for Trump to sign – not about politically volatile issues like reform of entitlements, for example. And if Congress runs up against Trump on his “pragmatic” approach to economics, which involves massive tariffs and stimulus, Trump will attempt to steamroll them.

And then the question becomes whether Republicans trust in Trump’s continuing ability to navigate the waves of popular opinion – and ride his ship to control – or will they stand by principle, even if it means going up against Trump? And of what purpose is popularity if the policies pursued have nothing to do with conservatism?

This is the same question Democrats faced with Barack Obama: Obama was personally popular and won two sweeping electoral victories at the same time downballot Democrats were wiped out by his broad policy unpopularity. Democrats never had the guts to tell Obama “no,” and so they’ve crippled themselves – Obama’s popularity did not spell either Democratic victory or Democratic popularity beyond Obama. Will Republicans have the guts to tell Trump “no,” even in the face of polls showing how popular his ad hoc approach is?

So far, the answer seems to be no. Republicans have cheered his absolutely anti-conservative Carrier proposal, and they’ve even begun cheering his Obama-esque $1 trillion stimulus proposal on infrastructure. So far, they’ve chosen to follow Trump’s popularity and discard their supposed values. We’ll find out whether that’s permanent or whether it’s merely a temporary setback for conservatism.