Which side are you on? Are you with Donald Trump, or with the Washington insiders who want to undo his election? Do you favor the legitimate president of the United States, or an unelected “deep state” – bureaucrats, judges, former FBI directors, the media – that’s determined not to let him govern? Are you going to let a counterrevolution by elites bring down a man who was elevated to the White House precisely because the country knows that its elite is no longer fit to govern?
This is how the debate over Donald Trump’s mounting difficulties is being framed by some of my fellow conservatives, from Sean Hannity to more serious pundits and intellectuals.
The problem is that the framing doesn’t really fit the facts. Yes, there are real elites in American politics: There is a Republican establishment (well, of sorts), a media-industrial complex, and a bipartisan consensus around certain areas of social and economic and foreign policy. Yes, many of these elites have made terrible mistakes over the last 15 years without seeming to learn anything. Yes, Trump won in part because, unlike Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, he promised a new synthesis, a populist alternative, on domestic issues and foreign affairs alike.
But Trump is not actually governing as a populist or revolutionary, and the rolling crises of his first four months are not really about resistance to an “America First” or “drain the swamp” agenda, no matter what his fundraising emails insist.
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In fact, the various outsider groups that cast their lot with him – from working-class ex-Democrats to anti-war conservatives to free-trade skeptics to build-the-wall immigration hawks to religious conservatives fearful for their liberties – have seen him pick very few difficult fights on their behalf.
To working-class voters he promised a big infrastructure bill and better health insurance than Obamacare. But his legislative agenda has been standard establishment-Republican fare – spending cuts to pay for upper-bracket tax cuts, rinse, repeat.
To critics of U.S. military adventurism he promised an end to Libya and Iraq-style interventions, a rebalancing toward Moscow, perhaps even a shake-up of NATO’s architecture. But he’s mostly handed foreign policy over to his military advisers (a pretty deep-state group, as such things go), which means that so far it resembles Obama’s except with more cruise missiles and saber-rattling.
Religious conservatives got Neil Gorsuch because he was a pedigreed insider. But they aren’t getting anything but symbolism on religious liberty, because Trump doesn’t want to pick a fight with the elite consensus on gay and transgender rights. And then go down the longer list and the establishment keeps winning: Planned Parenthood was funded in the budget deal and the border wall was not, the promised NAFTA rollback looks more likely to be a toothless renegotiation, Trump’s occasional talk about breaking up the big banks is clearly just talk, we haven’t torn up the Iran deal or ditched the Paris climate accords, and more.
Trump might still like to do some of the things he talked about on the campaign trail (his pining for a détente with Russia remains, um, palpable) and a few of them might actually still happen (some sort of wall-like structure will eventually go up, I assume).
But on most issues Trump’s promised war with the establishment has been fizzling almost from day one.
So in his escalating clashes with Beltway institutions, what we’re watching is not the “deep state” trying to reassert control over policy and bring a tribune of the people low. If so I would be more often on Trump’s side (as I welcomed Brexit and entertained the case for Marine Le Pen), because populism needs a seat at the table of power in the West, and the people who voted for our president do deserve a tribune.
But Trump is not that figure. As a populist he’s a paper tiger, too lazy to figure out what policies he should champion and too incompetent and self-absorbed to fight for them.
So he’s not being dogged by leaks and accusations because he’s trying to turn the Republican Party into a “workers’ party” (he isn’t), or because he’s throwing the money-changers out of the republic’s temples (don’t make me laugh), or because he’s taking steps to reduce America’s role as policeman of the world (none are evident).
No, he’s at war with the institutions that surround him because he behaves consistently erratically and inappropriately and dangerously, and perhaps criminally as well.
Or perhaps not: All of this may still not rise to the level of impeachable offenses. But the conservatives rising to his defense need to recognize that there is no elite “counterrevolution” here for them to resist, because there is no Trump revolution in the first place.
You don’t want to sell him out to the establishment; I get it. But open your eyes: He’s already been doing that to you.