Not yet 100 days into Donald Trump’s presidency, the populist revolution he seemed to promise is already over — at least for now. Two weeks of head-spinning policy reversals have put Trump squarely inside the chalk lines of conventional Republican conservatism on both economics and foreign affairs.
His impulsive management style and his fact-challenged rhetoric are still intact. But most of his policy positions are now remarkably similar to those espoused by the GOP’s last establishment nominee, Mitt Romney, in 2012.
In foreign policy, Trump once derided traditional alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said he’d seek an alliance with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and promised to avoid entanglement in Syria’s civil war. In the last 10 days, Trump praised NATO, confronted Russia and ordered a missile strike against Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack.
On trade, Trump promised to declare China a currency manipulator, threatened to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement and suggested he’d abolish the Export-Import Bank; he’s walked away from all three positions.
On economics, Trump promised to cut middle-class taxes and protect Social Security and Medicare. But the first drafts of his tax plan awarded the biggest cuts to top-end earners — and last week, Trump’s budget director said he hopes to persuade the president to back changes to Social Security and Medicare too.
Trump is still pursuing at least one populist priority, his crackdown on immigrants who are in the country illegally — but even there, his policy isn’t much harsher than the “self-deportation” plan Romney proposed.
“Trump has adopted … the very policy positions that he railed against during the 2016 campaign,” Lanhee Chen, Romney’s policy director in 2012, told me. Trump’s new stances, he said are “in line with those put forth by Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie, generally speaking, in 2016.”
Some of Trump’s supporters aren’t happy with the change. “No one elected the president so Gary Cohn could go to Washington,” Trump campaign strategist Sam Nunberg complained to the New York Times, referring to the Goldman Sachs banker who now heads the National Economic Council.
What happened? One answer is that Trump has been mugged by reality. He’s abruptly discovered that being a successful president is more complicated than winning an election.
It was clear during the campaign that Trump was never strongly tethered to most of his positions, which he revised or abandoned depending on the needs of the moment. It has become clear that he had only a tenuous grasp of the complexity of many of the policies he proposed to change.
“Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated,” he said after his first brush with actual policy choices.
In foreign policy, after a campaign filled with breezy assertions of “America First,” Trump was confronted by real world dilemmas with real world consequences. He wisely took the advice of the advisors he calls “my generals,” Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and National Security advisor H.R. McMaster.
In economic policy, he has surrounded himself with business moguls, mostly from New York — several, like Cohn, from Goldman Sachs. They brought corporate leaders into the White House to plead the case for keeping the Ex-Im Bank, which finances export sales mostly for big corporations, and another populist promise quickly disappeared.
A more basic explanation for his flip-flops is his ego: Trump wants to win. He has been furious, aides say, that the chaos of his first weeks in office — especially the botched roll-out of his immigration ban and the failure of the House healthcare bill — made his poll numbers tank.
Stephen K. Bannon, the most populist of Trump’s top advisors, was tagged as an author of both of those fiascos. Bannon insisted on rushing the immigrant ban into place, and on healthcare, he alienated members of Congress whose support Trump needed.
It didn’t help Bannon’s cause when he argued against the airstrike in Syria, which rewarded Trump with a few days of bipartisan praise. It helped even less that Bannon tangled openly with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.
The result: Bannon’s revolutionary populism is out. Conventional conservatism is in.
So does this mean Trump is now a predictable, conventional conservative president and that the rest of his tenure will be the equivalent of a Romney administration?
Hardly. Trump is still an experimental politician. His positions will depend on the needs of the moment.
His immediate need is for success in Congress, where he’s trying to revive the healthcare bill as a prelude to the centerpiece of his economic strategy, a tax reform plan.
This month, those priorities are pulling him toward the demands of the House Freedom Caucus, the hard-line conservatives who blocked the first attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Next month, if a Freedom Caucus Trumpcare bill gets through the House and lands in the less conservative Senate, the same need for success may pull him back toward the center.
This week, he sounds like President Mitt Romney. Next week: Who knows?
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