It is perilously hard to gauge what Donald Trump’s beliefs are. Clearly he is a Republican conservative today, but given his past support of Democrats and his immersion in the liberal New York milieu, how much will these earlier experiences influence and possibly mitigate his move to the right? Above all, what does he believe in, and how will this shape his policies?
These are not easy questions to respond to. Trump lacks long experience in government, where one accumulates positions by way of experience, and he is no ideologue either. Partisans of the right sometimes compare Trump to Ronald Reagan. But Reagan had served as governor of the largest state in the union. Even more, he had well-honed ideas of what government should and should not do. My friend Steven Ross of USC, researching the chapter on Reagan for his book, Hollywood Left and Right, told me that Reagan had done a lot of writing and thinking before assuming the presidency, and penned his own speeches laying out beliefs and agendas.
Trump has none of this. What does he really believe?
The evidence suggests a clear path: that he will emerge as a very traditional, rib-rock conservative, not as a policy innovator, albeit with some exceptions to be discussed later.
There are several reasons for this. Trump is drawn to applause like moths to a light bulb, and he’s getting it more and more from the right, which at one time expressed reservations about this rich New York socialite. Notice, for example, the love fest—on both sides—at the recent CPAC conference. Add to that his rejection by liberals. It is thus clear that Trump, without deep anchors to his belief system, will gravitate more and more to traditional right wing positions and policies, not to some new force. That’s where the adulation is, and that’s where he must go.
Thus, Trumpism will be no radical, innovative force, but slowly sink into the modern version of conventional rightist Republicanism. This is no champion of the white working class that got him elected. Note how, amidst his forest of tweets, there is no infrastructure proposal yet, a measure anathema to old-fashioned fiscal hawks, yet vital to workers needing jobs.
Two factors, however, will pull him in unique directions. One is incredibly mighty, but just starting to rear its head. As the administration begins introducing legislation, especially on the tax code, it will have to deal with an immense army of lobbyists, remarkably well-equipped with both arguments and cash, seeking to get things their own way, and not necessarily Trump’s.
As a recent article in the NY Times put it, discussing members of “the swamp” Trump has pledged to drain, “And now the dwellers of that so-called swamp are mobilizing to protect their patch of the bog, with armies of corporate lobbyists scrambling to protect their favorite provisions, exceptions and deductions before it is too late…. the prospect of revamping the system has already created fierce infighting among Republicans and a massing of lobbyist forces underwritten by a divided but well-heeled business community.”
The real estate industry, just as one massive example, is gearing up to block Republican plans to change the mortgage deduction. At the other end of the altruism scale, charities are massing to prevent any loss of the deduction for charitable giving, a move some conservatives are advocating to help balance the budget. These forces will shape his administration, based on treasure and self-interest, not Republican promises.
And there is also the question of what role Steve Bannion will play, Trump’s chief policy adviser, and the antithesis of a traditional Republican. In an excellent analysis, Max Fisher argued that Bannion’s chief cause is “sovereignty”, defined not just as a set of borders, but as “a core cultural identity that it must protect.” Fisher explains, “Mr. Bannon is articulating a central idea of nationalists the world over: that the nation-state is the fundamental building block of humanity, with each nation defined by a fixed cultural identity.” In a sharp piece in the NY Times. Christopher Caldwell explained how, “at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, he described the ‘center core’ of Trump administration philosophy as the belief that the United States is more than an economic unit in a borderless word. It is ‘a nation with a culture’ and ‘a reason for being.’”
This is the old, late nineteenth century ideal, especially embraced by newly formed nations like Germany, that each nation has a nationalistic identity, formed by generations of everyday citizens and their fundamental belief systems. This nation-state is deeply imperiled, furthermore, terribly under siege both by cosmopolitan elites and by foreigners seeking to infiltrate the home state, weaken and change it. For Bannion, these dangerous influences are obvious: the most dangerous elite cadre is the news media. And the foreign, viper-like segments are illegal immigrants, and especially Muslims.
Caldwell then elaborated, “Mr. Bannon does not often go into detail about what Judeo-Christian culture is, but he knows one thing it is not: Islam. Like most Americans, he believes that Islamism — the extremist political movement — is a dangerous adversary. More controversially he holds that, since this political movement is generated within the sphere of Islam, the growth of Islam — the religion — is itself a problem with which American authorities should occupy themselves. This is a view that was emphatically repudiated by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush.”
The structure of this administration is being fleshed out, with many surprises to come.
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