The peak of Donald Trump’s presidency, so far and perhaps forever, happened before he became the president. It was the deal he struck with Carrier, the Indiana air-conditioning company, to keep a factory open and jobs in the United States. No moment was so triumphantly Trumpian; nothing has gone as well for him since.
Was the Carrier deal sound economic policy, a sober and restrained use of the presidency’s powers? Not precisely. But it featured Trump following through on his most basic campaign promise: the pledge, delivered in rallies across the country’s stagnant reaches, that he would focus on good-paying jobs for people both parties seemed to have forgotten.
It was the message that helped win him the Midwest, and with it the Electoral College. It was the message that Steve Bannon spent the transition boasting would lead to a realignment that would shock conservative ideologues as much as liberals. And it’s a message that’s basically disappeared – and with it, the president’s brief uptick in popularity – during Trump’s stumbling, staggering, infighting first few weeks in office.
As a result, right now his presidency is in danger of being very swiftly Carterized – ending up so unpopular, ineffectual and fractious that even with Congress controlled by its own party, it can’t get anything of substance done. The war with liberals and the media may keep his base loyal and his approval ratings from bottoming out. But it does nothing to drive any kind of agenda, or pressure Congress to enact one. And the more the Trump White House remains mired in its melodramas, the more plausible it becomes that the Trump-era House and Senate set a record for risk avoidance and legislative inactivity.
Obviously, the absence of agenda-setting starts with the compulsively tweeting president. But the role of Bannon in these first few chaotic weeks also distills the White House’s problem.
The former Breitbart impresario has a clearer-than-your-average-Republican grasp of the political promise of Trumpism – the power of a right-leaning populism to speak to voters weary of cultural liberalism and libertarian economics. But instead of spearheading a domestic agenda oriented around these insights, instead of demanding (or making sure his boss demands) an infrastructure bill and a working-class tax cut from Congress the day before yesterday, Bannon has seemingly set out to consolidate power over national security policy – an arena where his ideas are undercooked and his lack of expertise is conspicuous.
In effect, Bannon is trying to be both Dick Cheney and Karl Rove – the Darth Vader of counterterrorism and the architect of a domestic realignment, except with less experience, subtlety and political support than either.
This is not going to work. (In the end, it didn’t work out that well for Cheney and Rove, either.) Liberals can scare themselves about Bannon’s supposed plan for a slow-motion coup and Trumpistas can tell themselves that “disruption” is just what the ossified establishment needs. But a White House run this way will be politically impotent long before it reaches its first midterm.
Is a different scenario possible?
Of course, because the president still has free will. (We can talk about total depravity later, Calvinists.) He has, to his credit, assembled a reasonably competent Cabinet. He campaigned, again to his credit, on a reasonably popular policy agenda. He faces no immediate foreign policy or economic crises, no threat that requires him to act sweepingly and instantly.
So there is no necessary reason why he could not wake up tomorrow and decide to show a broad deference to Rex Tillerson and James Mattis on foreign policy, while letting Jeff Sessions and James Kelly between them hash out an immigration enforcement agenda. There will be time to reshape the world order if his approval ratings ever edge back over 45 percent; for now, he could shelve plans for big-league disruptions and Nixon-to-China strokes of genius and simply take crises as they come.
Which in turn would free him – and, yes, Steve Bannon, too – to pick a few policy themes and hammer them. And not the hardest policies, either: Let Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell figure out how to get an Obamacare replacement through Congress and tell Tom Price to prop the system up if they can’t. From the White House, the message should be simple, boring, popular.
We want a big infrastructure bill. A middle-class tax cut. Corporate tax reform.
Infrastructure. Tax cuts for workers and parents. A better tax code for business.
Not a war with the judiciary. Tax cuts. Not CNN or Nordstrom’s perfidy. Jobs. Not Bannon’s theories about Islam or the crisis of the West. (And you know I like theories about the crisis of the West!) Bridges and roads and tunnels.
This isn’t complicated. In fact, it’s kind of easy.
Which is good advice for anyone in crisis, new presidents included. If you can’t figure out how to handle the hardest stuff, try something simple for a while.