One of the most remarkable developments of the 2016 campaign was the ease with which Donald Trump’s profound differences with Republican elites—on immigration, trade, entitlements, infrastructure and foreign policy—were minimized and papered over in service of holding the party together and creating a unified front against Hillary Clinton. This act of collective make-believe (still taking place, despite Trump’s fiercely defiant inaugural) allowed GOP leaders to avoid creative thinking and continue to operate according to the official playbook: Attack the other party, support your nominee, and when he wins, pretend that there is no daylight between your agenda and his.
The Democrats are still figuring out how to frame and organize their opposition to Trump, but one option—visible in protests, the press and comments from Democratic leaders—is to follow in the footsteps of the GOP elite and assume that Trump is an ordinary Republican at his core. That way, for the Democrats, the enemy is unified: An undifferentiated mass of racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-worker plutocracy.
Here’s Jonathan Chait making the case in New York Magazine that the disagreements between the President and the party whose primary he ran in are a matter of emphasis and tone rather than substance:
Trump and his party are cooperating on a wide range of traditional Republican policies: regressive tax cuts, weakening of labor laws, environmental protections, and regulations on the finance industry, and an assault on the Affordable Care Act. Both Trump and the Congressional GOP have attacked Obamacare for providing too little coverage, and have refrained from writing detailed alternatives because their ideas would provide even less coverage. To the extent that Trump is giving his Congressional wing trouble on health care, it is because he spouts off without understanding the issue.
The differences between Trump and his Congressional allies are no wider than those that divided Barack Obama and his party in 2009, or George W. Bush and his party eight years before that, or Bill Clinton and his eight years prior.
“Far from being at odds with the agenda of a party allied with entrenched wealth,” Chait concludes, a “populist style is the best way to lend that agenda mass appeal.” In other words, Chait is urging Democrats to do what Republicans have already done: Play down or ignore Trump’s heterodoxies and proceed as if the President fits neatly within the established, decades-old party system.
Trump’s administration is only in its first week, and Chait’s view—that Trumpism is just an innovative vehicle for typical supply-side Reaganism, not a deviation from it—could ultimately be vindicated. It’s possible that Ryan’s agenda will be rubber-stamped and combined with blustery speeches and Carrier deal-type theatrics. And believing that Trumpism is standard GOP fare is tempting for Democrats because it absolves them of the need to think creatively. The party already knows how to attack Republicans as enemies of the working class, stooges for the rich and defenders of entrenched privilege. If that’s all Trump is, then Democrats already have a playbook ready for how to oppose him.
But if that’s not what he is—if Trump is really a realigning force in American politics, who can and will shake up coalitions and party priorities more than he already has—then hewing to the standard anti-Republican partisan playbook leaves the Democrats acutely vulnerable. Steve Bannon and others in Trump’s circle have ambitions to create an institution-smashing nationalist populism that discards many of the assumptions held by establishment figures in the Democratic and Republican parties alike. Trump’s inaugural, which signaled his intention to do just that, was quite popular. Answering this new politics will require fresh thinking among its opponents or its base of support will continue to grow.
There is and will continue to be strong institutional pressures in both parties to revert to the positions that are most familiar and comfortable: For Republicans to keep talking about small-government conservative values, to make-believe that Trump shares them, and to do their best to support his priorities; for Democrats to keep advocating for Obama-style liberalism, to suggest that everything about Trump is anathema, and to mount scorched-earth opposition to his entire program.
But if there is one thing we can learn from Trump, is that Americans are sick of ordinary political rituals, partisan incantations and the stagnation they produce. As Francis Fukuyama argues, it may be that “the rise of an American strongman is actually a response to the earlier paralysis of the political system.” Americans would be better off if leaders in both parties backed away from the convenient fiction that Trump is an ordinary conservative Republican and recognized him for what he is—an ideologically unpredictable vessel with populist instincts—and thought carefully about where his agenda can and cannot fit with their own priorities and acted accordingly.