There's no questioning that President Trump, after seven months in office, is still talking (and tweeting) like a right-wing populist. Indeed, at his fiery, free-form rally in Phoenix on Tuesday night, the president took repeated angry swipes at the media, suggested he'd pardon strident opponent of illegal immigration ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and even gestured toward "terminating NAFTA at some point." But beyond such outbursts, which amount to little more than gusts of hot air, the hostile populist takeover of the GOP that Trump promised to lead has come to almost nothing.
That could have momentous consequences for the country — and particularly, for the Democrats.
Trump and Bernie Sanders rode ideologically opposed but structurally parallel populist waves through the 2016 presidential primaries. Each took on his party's establishment, including its preferred standard-bearers, and did much better than anyone expected — Trump did well enough to nab the nomination, Sanders did well enough to force frontrunner Hillary Clinton to move in a populist direction that meshed awkwardly with her public persona.
Trump was a populist on two levels. At the level of attitude and affect, he was an instinctual populist bomb-thrower, hurling live rhetorical ammo at the leadership of both parties (along with media elites and rich donors) on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. This was coupled by vows to break from Republican orthodoxy in a populist direction on a range of issues — immigration, foreign policy, tariffs and trade, taxes, entitlements, health insurance, infrastructure. True, on some of these issues (taxes, what to do about ObamaCare), he could be wildly self-contradictory. But when all the off-sides positions were added up, Trump looked like a candidate ready to shake things up from top to bottom. Nothing less than the ideological makeup and electoral coherence of the post-Reagan Republican Party appeared to be in the crosshairs.
What would replace them? In the mind of Trump's now-departed chief strategist Stephen Bannon, it would be a GOP reborn as a "worker's party" that jettisoned the tax cuts and open borders favored by the party's establishment in favor of a muscular nationalism that cut back sharply on immigration, jacked up taxes on the wealthy, started trade wars with international competitors, put entitlements (for citizens) on a sure footing, and sent the underemployed working class to build massive infrastructure projects.
Moveover, with Trumpian nationalism provoking elites on the Democratic side of the aisle into spasms of identity-politics-fueled indignation, the newly populist Republican Party would be well placed to pick off millions of erstwhile Democratic voters — members of the white working class, but also some African Americans and Latinos. And with that, the populist realignment would be complete, with Republicans the clear beneficiaries.
That's not at all how things have worked out. Aside from sabotaging himself by repeatedly interfering with the investigation of Russia's role in the 2016 election, Trump spent the bulk of his time during the crucial opening six months of his administration pushing the House and Senate to pass a series of wildly unpopular bills that would have repealed and replaced the Affordable Care Act with an alternative that primarily benefited the wealthy at the expense of ordinary voters. Now he's turned to tax reform, which is equally likely to leave the rich even better off than they already are while changing little for anyone else. And then there's the president's decision to extend the already interminable war in Afghanistan, which is exactly the policy that the establishments of both parties would prefer.
True, Trump's embattled travel ban and proposed cuts to legal immigration have attempted to advance a form of right-wing cultural populism. But aside from that, what we've had is a lot of nasty, divisive rhetoric used as window dressing on a policy agenda of Zombie Reaganism — exactly what Trump ran against a year ago.
And that's what could end up benefiting Democrats.
The opportunity goes beyond the possibility of outright ideological civil war on the right, which would certainly be helpful to the left. The failure of the GOP to refashion itself as a populist party that could poach voters from the Democrats also opens up the possibility of the reverse taking place: America's left-of-center party redefining itself in terms that could appeal to disaffected Republicans pining for a genuine populist option.
What would a more populist Democratic Party look like? It would embed its bold proposals for cradle-to-grave universal health care, free college tuition at public universities, and ambitious infrastructure projects in a galvanizing story of American citizenship and patriotism, sacrifice and civic duty. It would speak proudly and without shame about the public aspects of our lives — and of how the self-indulgent and self-centered cynicism of our politics has led too many of us to forget, and too many of our public officials to denigrate, what we owe to one another as fellow citizens, as well as what the government does to make our freedom (as individuals but also as communities) possible.
This civic liberalism would forthrightly defend a vision of the common good — of the United States as an enterprise to which all of us can and must contribute as a precondition for enjoying the freedoms and protections that this enterprise provides. It would also call on us to open this enterprise to those excluded from it because of prejudice or bigotry. And the case for inclusion would be made in emphatically civic terms — as an unapologetic expression of the reality of the American us, of the we in "we the people." By virtue of our citizenship, we belong to something more than the sum total of our individual selves. We are Americans, each deserving of the equal protection of the law, each worthy of a helping hand when we're lost or struggling in our individual pursuits of happiness.
Would this vision of civil liberalism appeal to all of those who were drawn to President Trump's populist message? Of course not. But I bet it would appeal to a good number of them, not to mention large numbers of Democrats who have voted for the party in recent years more out of habit or antipathy for the GOP than out of genuine affection or sense of personal affiliation. Add in the millions of voters whose souls were stirred by Bernie Sanders' social-democratic populism and the Democratic Party could well be left with a solid majority.
In that case, Trump's hostile populist takeover of the GOP would have given way to a winning populist transformation of the Democrats.