When President Trump entered office a year ago without any prior political experience or a clearly defined ideology, it was very hard to predict how he’d govern. We now have a better idea, but any assessment of his presidency to date will differ depending on whether one is considering his rhetoric or his policies.
The simple way of looking at it is that Trump’s words and tweets are very consistent with the broadly Trumpian rhetoric that galvanized supporters during his campaign. But his policy achievements are actually much more consistent with the goals of those more conventional Republicans who identified themselves as NeverTrumpers.
Given that the terms “Trumpian” and “NeverTrumper” are a bit loaded, it’s worthy clarifying the context in which I’m using them.
As a candidate, Trump was a bombastic personality who disrupted the political world with outrageous statements and actions that broke the mold of what a presidential candidate could be. His myriad policy proposals were a mix of standard Republican agenda items with more populist stances on immigration, trade, infrastructure spending, and government negotiation of drug prices.
To Trumpians, Trump was a breath of fresh air, somebody who was willing to tell it like it was, unlike weak-kneed Republicans who allowed themselves to be neutered by Democrats, the liberal media, and the scourge of political correctness. Trump was willing to put Americans first, and look out for the white working class. As somebody who was wealthy himself, the theory went that he wasn’t beholden to the donors and corporations like others in the GOP.
NeverTrumpers were, broadly, those within the right-of-center community who declared that they would never vote for Trump, even as the Republican nominee against Hillary Clinton. Ideologically, there was a spectrum of NeverTrumpers. Some had been drifting away from the party for years, others were actually still ideologically very conservative, and would have likely supported more conventional conservative Republicans such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, or Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida.
To NeverTrump conservatives, the fears of Trump were two-fold. Where his supporters saw a breath of fresh air, NeverTrumpers were put off by his bombast — his racially-tinged rhetoric, boasts of grabbing women, swagger that covered up his thin grasp of policy, personal attacks on rivals, and his brazen dishonesty. In addition to believing he was fundamentally unfit to be president, many NeverTrump conservatives feared he wouldn’t even pursue conservative policies.
NeverTrumpers wondered: Would Trump, the former Democratic donor, revert to his previous pro-partial-birth abortion and pro-gun control past? Would he revive his support for single-payer? Would he cut deals with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on massive infrastructure spending? Would he appoint his pro-choice sister to the Supreme Court? Would he start a trade war with China?
In the first year of his presidency, however, there’s been an interesting contrast between Trump’s persona and his policies. On the one hand, he has not shown any inclination to grow into the office and become any more sober or presidential. His statements and behavior, on Twitter and elsewhere, has generally been as wild and erratic as they were during the campaign. He hasn’t seemed to have gained any more appreciation for policy details. He’s kept up his populist rhetoric. And yet, at the same time, most of his policies and actions have taken a conventional conservative Republican approach.
He has pursued an aggressive deregulation agenda; the tax cut bill he signed (which included drastic reductions in corporate taxes) could have been pursued by just about any Republican president; his judicial picks led by Justice Neil Gorsuch have come straight from the Federalist Society crowd; he’s shown himself to be a Second Amendment enthusiast; and arguably, he’s operationally been the most pro-life president in history.
At the same time, many of the more populist policies on which he broke with traditional limited government conservatives during the campaign haven’t come into fruition. He hasn’t followed through on his tough talk against China and didn’t use tax reform as an opportunity to tax imports.
In addition, his promise of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill has gotten nowhere, and during the healthcare debate, he never pushed the idea of having Medicare negotiate drug prices, which he wildly claimed during the campaign would allow him to save the government hundreds of billions of dollars annually.
He hasn’t gotten Mexico — or the Republican Congress — to pay for a wall, many of his immigration moves have been stymied by the courts, and pending current negotiations, his hawkish immigration goals have still not been realized.
So, to sum up: Trump has tangible accomplishments when it comes to deregulation, cutting taxes, and appointing conservative judges. Yet on infrastructure, immigration, and trade, his populist promises remain unfulfilled.
This reality, as interesting as it is, is unlikely to do anything to change general perceptions about Trump. NeverTrumpers are likely to find his statements and antics too off-putting to rally behind him, while Trumpians are likely to support him and his daily war against the media, even if his policies don't match a lot of his populist rhetoric.