Last month in these pages, Tyler Cowen coined the term “placebo President” to describe the possibility that Donald Trump would largely fail to achieve the radically populist policy objectives he campaigned on but maintain the support of his white working class base by symbolically affirming their dignity and cultural status—offering his supporters “a public voice and the illusion of more control without the control itself.”
This presidency is too young, and the President too erratic, to say whether this thesis will hold in the long run. But it has never looked stronger than now, when, if the press reports are accurate, the populist firebrand Steve Bannon is rapidly losing influence in the White House and the gang of moderates led by Jared Kushner is tightening its grip. Meanwhile, the President is maintaining the inimitable aesthetic that drives his critics up the wall, but his stated policy preferences increasingly resemble those of an ordinary GOP establishmentarian: After deferring to the view of the Washington foreign policy “blob” and attacking Syria last week, Trump praised NATO and backed off his pledge to name China a currency manipulator. Though the administration continues to fight court rulings against the travel ban (its chief populist initiative to date), DACA has not been repealed, no tariffs have been implemented, and there are no signs of a looming “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
The pivot is already setting off alarm bells among Pepe partisans and paleoconservatives who were hoping for a revolutionary strongman, as well as reform-minded Republicans who worry about a Kushner-piloted White House drifting too far to the left and pursuing bad policies. Liberals are largely using the opportunity to attack Trump as a hypocrite and a flip-flopper who isn’t good for his word.
Nonetheless, there are not many signs (yet) of Trump’s core support base losing confidence in their man. And while some of the concerns about the administration’s pivot are well-founded, its also worth considering the potential virtues of Donald Trump’s placebo populism, if that is in fact what his presidency is going to deliver.
Educated people often imagine that politics is, or should be, a coolly rational exercise in distributing resources and regulating institutions to create the best possible outcomes for the greatest number of people. But it is not, and has never been. Contests over status and claims to representation are always lurking below the surface. As Walter Russell Mead observed during the primary, Trump’s appeal flows from his pattern of behavior as much as his policy priorities. “By flouting PC norms, reducing opponents and journalists to sputtering outrage as he trashes the conventions of political discourse, and dismissing his critics with airy put-downs, he is living the life that—at least some of the time—a lot of people wish they had either the courage or the resources to live.” This is at the core of Cowen’s idea of a placebo presidency: telegraphing cultural solidarity with a constituency that feels belittled and disrespected, in part merely by infuriating their ostensible social adversaries.
The degree of adoration a certain kind of liberal heaped on President Obama also reflected, in part, a similar kind of placebo effect. He advanced progressive policies, yes, although with the exception of the burst of legislation in his first two years, these were mostly modest—and, in any case, Obamacare, didn’t do much to materially benefit the urban upper-middle class professionals who made up a particularly loyal constituency. His political appeal among that group was not so much about “delivering” them concrete policy wins, but about embodying in his personal life their norms and values: academic rigor, social liberalism, devoted fatherhood, high-brow cultural tastes and preferences.
At a time of explosive cultural and ethnic and class division, when consensus on virtually any kind of major policy reorientation seems out of reach, it may not be the worst thing for some of America’s political energies to be redirected to the realm of style and symbolism while a centrist establishment puts the brakes on radical change. That is, it can be healthy for political leaders to offer their supporters a kind of placebo politics, rather than the full-dosage treatment. Donald Trump’s presidency will surely fail if the only thing he can offer his voters is the pleasure of watching academics and the media squirm. But the significance of this type of cultural combat as an outlet for pent up status resentments should not be dismissed. Indeed, it just might turn out to be part of a formula for adequate governance in an age of polarization.