This isn’t a function of poll numbers, or any melodrama of the past months, but something more fundamental: No officeholder in Washington seems to understand President Donald Trump’s populism or have a cogent theory of how to effect it in practice, including the president himself.
House Speaker Paul Ryan isn’t a populist and doesn’t want to be a populist. He has spent his adult life committed to a traditional limited-government agenda. He crafted his own platform during the campaign, the so-called Better Way agenda, to differentiate congressional Republicans from Trump.
Trump, for his part, has lacked the knowledge, focus or interest to translate his populism into legislative form. He’s deferred to others on legislative priorities and strategies, and his abiding passion in the health-care debate was, by all accounts, simply getting to a signing ceremony.
In light of all this, the product of the Ryan-Trump partnership was a health care bill bizarrely at odds with a national election Republicans had just won on the strength of working-class voters. Under the GOP replacement, fewer people would have had coverage, and workers further down the income scale would have been particularly hard hit. Neither of these facts seemed to exercise the White House enough to try to do anything to fix them.
Maybe Ryan doesn’t "get" the new political reality created by Trump’s victory, as the president’s boosters like to say. But what excuse does the president himself have for evidently not getting it, either?
A President Trump acting more in keeping with his free-floating reflex to take care of people, as expressed in speeches and interviews, would have pushed the health bill to the left. But Trump so far hasn’t followed the logic of his own politics.
His path not taken would have been to give an inaugural address with less carnage and more kumbayah. Immediately invite Chuck Schumer to the White House and tell him, "Chuck, you’re not leaving this building until we agree on an infrastructure package."
Take the resulting big-spending proposal and dare the GOP leadership to defy him. Pass it with a bipartisan coalition.
Now that the initial health-care bill has gone down, there’s loose talk from the White House of wooing Democrats, but a lot has transpired the past few months that makes this much harder. Most importantly, the left-wing "resistance" to Trump is fully activated and prepared to exact punishment on any quislings.
If things continue to go badly over this first year, it’s easy to see Trump turning to the New York Democrats in his White House. This would entail less emphasis on trade, immigration and fights with the mainstream media, and more emphasis on a nonideological economic boosterism. The loose antecedent for this scenario is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who swept into office in California as a drain-the-swamp reformer after winning a populist crusade, and then recalibrated to accommodate the system after suffering politically damaging setbacks.
The range of possible outcomes of the Trump presidency is still wide. Unexpectedly, one of them is that his most die-hard populist supporters will eventually be able to say that Trumpism, like socialism, hasn’t failed, it’s just never been tried.