If President Trump were a disciplined political actor who thought strategically about his party's electoral future instead of a reactive and impulsive vulgarian whose insecurities and prejudices just so happen to coincide and resonate with the insecurities and prejudices of a large swath of Republican voters, he could do far more than merely use Democratic gains in the House as an opportunity to keep his base whipped into a froth of partisan fury over the next two years.
Instead, he could do something far bolder — namely, make moves to turn our interminable ideological stalemate into a genuine partisan realignment by dividing and conquering the new Democratic majority. He could do this by going back to some of the more unorthodox ideas that animated his presidential campaign and that helped him to turn Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania (briefly) red.
Those ideas animated Trump's inaugural address, which sought to align the GOP with American workers. They've come out over the past year in the Republican administration's protectionist trade policies and in moves to restrict immigration. But for the entirety of Trump's first year in office and through much of the second as well, the administration deferred to the priorities of House Speaker Paul Ryan, the most orthodox of Republican politicians. The result was a mixed and muddled message, with a plutocratic agenda (a huge corporate tax cut and an extended and failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act an replace it with … nothing in particular) blended with selective nationalist gestures on policy and a barrage of racist rhetoric and demagoguery.
If that pattern continues, Republicans will go into the 2020 election with their base on board but the party's electorally decisive 2016 gains in the upper Midwest most likely lost (as they already appeared to be in Tuesday's vote).
There is another way forward, but it's not one that Trump appears capable of enacting.
It would require making an overture to the incoming Democratic majority in the House, proposing an agenda to give an added boost to American workers and the infrastructure that serves as the backbone of American industry. A middle-class tax cut, a plan to tweak the ACA to make health care more affordable, and a large infrastructure bill — that could make all the political difference.
These proposals wouldn't even need to pass for Republicans to benefit and Democrats to squirm. Trump would merely need to defend them, fold them into the White House's message, and convince voters they were an administration priority. This would go a long way toward demonstrating to Republican and (even more so) independent voters that the GOP's focus is shifting away from the super-rich and toward the struggles of Americans falling closer to the socio-economic mean.
The move would also sow chaos among Democrats, with the left wing of the party inclined to reject working with the White House at all, but a significant faction of those who won their House seats narrowly in red and purple states inclined to play ball. With the Democratic majority relatively thin, there wouldn't be a lot of room to maneuver. If these more economically populist bills passed the House (presumably with a good deal of Republican support), it would divide the Democrats, setting up intraparty squabbles heading into 2020. If the bills didn't pass, Trump could use this failure to lambast the Democrats for refusing to govern responsibly.
Those who hope to trounce Trump in 2020 would be furious about this mischief-making. But it could prove good for the country — and even, ultimately, for the Democrats.
The still-undigested lesson of the 2016 primaries — with the furiously anti-establishment Trump winning on the right and democratic socialist Bernie Sanders giving establishment scion Hillary Clinton a run for her money on the left — is that the American political system is ready for realignment, with each of the two parties vying to become the vehicle for a coherent populist message.
The Republicans jumped into an early lead in this contest, with Trump's anger, fear, resentment, and unapologetic championing of American nationalism wooing enough voters to prevail in November 2016. But the victory was exceedingly narrow, and the past two years have given the country the spectacle of a populism as performative and ephemeral as a tweet.
A Trump who pivoted toward a more substantively populist agenda might move the momentum back to the GOP — but he might also provoke the Democrats to fight back more full-throatedly and effectively, crafting a message unambivalently rooted in economic populism and civic nationalism rather than in the kind of grievance-group identity politics that mainly appeals to highly educated, upper-middle-class urban Democrats and actively antagonizes just about everybody else.
Such a left-populist message just might succeed in settling the dispute over which party will come to be seen as the greater friend and ally of those Americans who spend more time worrying about making ends meet than they do about corporate tax rates.
But of course this is only a fantasy. Taking the very first step down the road toward populist realignment would require a president more interested in acting strategically than in picking fights with journalists on Twitter, at political rallies, and during press conferences.
As long as Trump remains Trump, the promise and potential of the GOP helping to bring forth a fully populist realignment will remain stillborn.