Yascha Mounk: Trump can easily portray himself as a champion of working people even as he betrays them
Blending populism with orthodoxy is a strategy as ancient as Rome and as modern-day as Putin's Russia, he says
Editor’s Note: Yascha Mounk is a lecturer at Harvard University and a fellow at New America. He is the author of “Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany” and writes a column for Slate. The views expressed in this commentary are his.
Donald Trump’s Cabinet is slowly taking shape, and its members seem to represent an incoherent mix of ideologies. On the one side, there are radical figures like Steve Bannon whose views on race and immigration are far outside the Republican mainstream. On the other side, there are billionaires and CEOs like Rex Tillerson, Andrew Puzder and Steve Mnuchin who will likely implement a supercharged version of Republican economic orthodoxy.
It’s tempting to think these two groups are far too disparate to govern together effectively. Won’t they feud at every turn?
Not necessarily. What looks at first sight like a deep contradiction may in fact suggest a surprisingly coherent strategy: Trump’s Cabinet picks indicate a plan to give his voters what they want on issues of race, identity and immigration – even as he sells out their interests on taxes, health care and entitlements.
It might just work.
To American ears, Trump’s mix between populist policies on social issues and plutocratic policies on economic issues may sound, as others have described, like a breath of fresh air. But it has been a core feature of populism since its very beginning. In the Roman Republic, the patrician populares promised their proletarian base immediate economic benefits; when they were unable to deliver, they held together their disparate coalition by ratcheting up conflicts both at home and abroad.
On the campaign trail, Trump railed against Muslims and Mexicans, promised a harsh stance on Iran and ISIS, and portrayed voter fraud by ethnic minorities as a big problem. So it should not come as a surprise that he picked Steve Bannon, a co-founder of the racist sewer that goes by the name of Breitbart, as chief White House strategist; Mike Flynn, a man who is impatient for global war with Islam, as national security adviser; and Jeff Sessions, a man who tried as Alabama’s attorney general to convict civil rights leaders who were registering black voters on charges of voter fraud (they were acquitted and the presiding judge threw out more than half the charges for lack of evidence).
At the same time, Trump also promised to “drain the swamp,” making the Republican Party the champion of ordinary working people rather than Wall Street or corporate special interests. And yet, his Cabinet is worth an estimated $14 billion, while his pick for secretary of labor opposes a higher minimum wage and has boasted about automating jobs.
Some liberal commentators take solace in these tensions. Given how blatantly Trump is abandoning his promise to serve the interests of working people, they say, his base must surely be about to abandon him.
They are right that it’s not a good look for Trump to appoint senior executives from Goldman Sachs after excoriating Hillary Clinton for holding secret speeches there, or to staff his Cabinet with billionaires after promising to stand up for ordinary people. And yet, they are wrong to conclude that Trump’s supporters are sure to turn on him.
Most voters find economic policy incredibly boring. As a result, presidents can cruise to re-election thanks to an economic boom they did nothing to earn, or lose disastrously thanks to a downturn they valiantly fought with every weapon at their disposal. If Trump enjoys good economic timing — or if he prevails upon the Federal Reserve to induce an artificial boom before the 2020 elections — voters are likely to credit him with great wisdom even if his policies did little to help.
Trump can also seize upon comparatively unimportant issues to portray himself as a champion of working people even as he betrays them on much more important ones. The last weeks have already shown how powerful this playbook is. Trump remains committed to a tax plan that does a lot for billionaires, including his Cabinet picks, and very little for ordinary people. But the biggest economic story since the election has been about his attempts to stop big corporations from cutting jobs. When I walked past a television earlier today, the headline glaring on the screen was not: “UP NEXT: WILL TRUMP’S TAX PLAN SELL OUT WORKING PEOPLE?” It was: “UP NEXT: WILL TRUMP SAVE 3,000 US JOBS?”
That’s not all. Bill Clinton famously won the 1992 election by following his campaign aide’s advice that “it’s the economy, stupid.” In normal times, when passions about race or terrorism run relatively low, this may be a wise piece of advice. But we now live in extraordinary times, when passions are running enormously high, in part because Trump has expertly stoked them. And so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Hillary Clinton lost the election even though she beat the President-elect by a healthy margin among voters whose main concern was the economy.
Views on the Trump Transition
So long as Trump manages to keep the focus on race, identity and immigration, he may prove popular even if the economic fortunes of ordinary people do not improve. The more the media talk about the wall he plans to build on the Mexican border, the more room for maneuver he has on the economic front. And with people like Bannon, Flynn and Sessions a big presence around the Cabinet table, you can be sure there will be a steady stream of stories to keep attention away from the administration’s tax policies.
There is a clear, and increasingly self-assured model for this policy mix: the illiberal international that now rules countries like Russia, Turkey, Hungary and Poland – and is ascendant in much of Western Europe as well. And nowhere has this mix been more obvious than in Russia, where Vladimir Putin has demonstrated how easily populist hypernationalism and plutocratic kleptocracy can coexist in a modern context.
Polls show that Russians are deeply unhappy about the degree of corruption in their country. But so long as Putin keeps their attention on the misdeeds of domestic opponents, or the country’s annexation of sovereign territory abroad, they are willing to forgive it all to celebrate their heroic leader.
This suggests there is a domestic as well as an international dimension to Trump’s evident admiration for Putin. Now that he has nominated Rex Tillerson as secretary of state — a man who was awarded a medal for being a “friend of Russia” by none other than Vladimir Putin — it signals a radical shift in American foreign policy, with disastrous consequences everywhere from Central Europe to the Middle East. But it is also one more sign that Trump intends to emulate a core aspect of Putin’s domestic playbook: Keep the rich loyal by allowing them to enrich themselves with impunity. Keep everyone else in line by playing on their fears.