Just over a month into his presidency, Donald Trump strode into a hotel ballroom for the annual assemblage of the most fervent Republican activists and conservative leaders in the country and declared his takeover of the Republican Party — on behalf of the “forgotten men and the forgotten women.”
“The GOP will be, from now on, the party also of the American worker,” Trump said, to wild cheers. Among the changes: No more bad trade deals. Wall off immigrants. Avoid foreign wars.
Fast forward six months.
Trump has increased troop deployments to Afghanistan and threatened military action against North Korea and Venezuela. He has pressed, though unsuccessfully, for a repeal of the Affordable Care Act that would increase the number of uninsured by 32 million people and reduce Medicaid by hundreds of billions of dollars, contrary to his campaign vows. He proposed a budget that would slash government services including housing, transportation and education.
Trump has written neither his promised tax-cutting plan nor his trillion-dollar, job-creating infrastructure initiative. For all his talk of tax cuts for the middle class, Trump’s tax pitch last week in Missouri could have been delivered by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney or any number of traditional Republicans as he called for big breaks for corporations and investors that would be a boon for the nation’s top earners.
Those working on the tax and infrastructure plans are former Democratic donors and Wall Street princelings -- Gary Cohn, the chief economic advisor, and Steven T. Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary. The most populist advisor in Trump’s inner circle, Stephen K. Bannon, was forced out last month.
Bannon’s parting words, to a conservative journalist: “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.”
While Bannon’s meaning has been widely debated, what’s clear is that the broad notion Trump shared with him -- remaking the Grand Old Party as the new nationalist party of the American worker -- is, at the very least, in doubt. Even as Trump has attacked Republican leaders in Congress, to the delight of his anti-establishment supporters, his foreign and domestic policies largely have followed traditional party tracks — hawkish and pro-big business, partial to cutting both taxes and safety-net programs.
In a recent interview, Bannon clarified that his statement was not an obituary for Trumpian populism but rather a “call to arms” to “galvanize people with a shocking statement.”
“I want to say it more dramatically: This will happen unless we rally around and help Trump save what the original concept of his presidency was,” he said, sitting in a darkened dining room of his Capitol Hill row house, unshaven, his shirt largely unbuttoned, books about China spread in front of him.
Many Democrats, whose shock at Trump’s victory quickly turned to fear that, as president, he could break their longstanding claim to be the working-class party, now are openly less worried, even sanguine.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, one of the Democratic Party’s leading liberals, is among those who thought Trump had an opportunity to redefine Republicanism. She said she would work with him if she thought he would truly help workers.
But, Warren said, she was dissuaded by his early orders lifting regulations on the coal industry, lenders and other businesses in the name of promoting jobs, thereby leaving workers exposed to dangerous chemicals and making mortgages more expensive.
“These are always points down in the weeds, but it’s down in the weeds where the needs of middle class get cut off,” Warren said.
Trump railed against Wall Street during the campaign, then “turned around and named a whole team of Goldman Sachs bankers, and then handed over the keys to the economy to them,” she said.
Bannon sees partial victories in Trump’s actions on immigration and trade. Even if the president has not taken as hard a line on either issue as he did in his campaign, he has decisively broken with longtime Republican dogma, Bannon said. Trump has abandoned pending international trade pacts and reopened negotiations on existing deals and moved to slash both legal and illegal immigration.
Still, populists saw an opportunity for a more fundamental political shakeup that would have aligned those on the left and right and driven a wedge through the Democratic Party. The core policies of such a realignment would have included rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and taxing the wealthy to pay for it, avoiding foreign conflicts and protecting safety net programs, including Medicaid.
Bannon, for example, had argued against an upper-income tax cut when he was in the White House.
By contrast, Trump’s tax speech last week in Springfield, Mo., cheered C-suite types but sparked outrage from some far-right allies. “It's like Night of the Living Dead watching our beloved @realDonaldTrump go to DC & start babbling the same old GOP nonsense on tax cuts,” Ann Coulter declared on Twitter.
The president’s direction on tax cuts was even less likely to appeal to Democrats or the working-class voters who’d often supported them.
Party realignments like the one that Bannon and other Trump backers envisioned require extraordinary political talent, said William M. Daley, who was White House chief of staff to President Obama and Commerce secretary to President Clinton. Clinton showed that skill in co-opting Republicans’ positions on deficit reduction, trade deals and the shrinking of the welfare state, against his party’s orthodoxy, Daley said.
For Trump, “what he would have to do to get Democrats to the table would put him at risk with a lot of his Republican people,” Daley said. Should Trump pursue an infrastructure program, for example, members of his party will demand to know, “How’s he going to pay for it?”
Policies aside, Trump’s potential for inroads into the populist left also has been greatly diminished by his pugnacious personality. In particular, he has lost ground by his racially divisive rhetoric and actions, notably his response to the violent white supremacists’ march in Charlottesville, Va., in July and, in January, his unsuccessful order banning travelers and refugees from some Muslim-majority countries.
There was a faction in the White House “that actually had some of the policies that we would have supported on trade and infrastructure, but they turned out to be racist,” Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, said during a recent breakfast with reporters.
“On the other hand, you had people that weren’t racist. But they were Wall Street. And the Wall Streeters began to dominate the administration and has moved his agenda back to everything that I think they fought against in the election.”
Some Trump allies contend he could have gotten Democrats to vote with him early on had he started with an infrastructure package rather than attempting to repeal what Democrats consider their signature achievement of the Obama years, the Affordable Care Act.
“Had they gone for infrastructure — ready-made jobs, getting America working again, not just a couple factory openings,” said former campaign advisor Sam Nunberg, “…everything would have changed.”
Many Trump advisors, however, were convinced they needed to tackle Obamacare first to keep establishment Republicans within their fragile coalition. And many in Trump’s administration never believed Democrats would vote for anything that had Trump’s name on it.
“Because it’s President Trump’s idea, you get many people who won’t even listen to the second sentence,” said White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.
Other problems reflect Trump’s unique status as a true outsider, the first president with neither political nor military experience. He has few allies in Congress who share his populist vision, no well-developed policy initiatives, no Washington think tanks to fill the void and little infrastructure to sustain a movement capable of governance. That forced him to staff his administration with a mix of traditional conservatives, business executives and generals unfamiliar with the political and legislative arena.
“There aren’t enough Trumpians to fit in a phone booth, and the few that there are don’t have credentials, even for this administration,” said Ramesh Ponnuru, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
As a result, Trump has had to rely on Congress’ Republican leaders, whom he did not fully trust and who did not trust him: Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others with traditional, business-oriented views of party policy.
Trump’s own inexperience and impatience with both policy details and the legislative process is proving a big handicap, observers say.
“Trump couldn’t stand up for his own populism,” said Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of a book on the modern Republican Party and former advisor to a moderate Republican group. “The populism has just been rhetorical at this point.”
Now that Trump is president, however, he’ll be judged by the results he achieves.
“The president will be judged -- regardless if he’s Donald Trump the mogul, the magnate — he will be judged, and his base could potentially be less loyal” if he fails to deliver for them, cautioned Nunberg, the former campaign aide.
That danger was evident in a focus group conducted last week in Pittsburgh by veteran Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart for Emory University. Trump, when he announced his abandonment of the Paris climate accord in June, memorably said, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”
The five Trump voters in the group of 12 all expressed disappointment. Several said they were concerned about Trump’s personal behavior, especially his constant tweeting and picking fights. But there was also a sense that he had missed an opportunity.
“You figured that as a business person, he’d pick the most top-notch people for the job,” said David Turner, a registered Republican and Trump voter who is in the construction business. Instead, he said, “Same guys, different suits.”
Asked to name one thing that stood out from the first 200 days of his administration, none of the focus group members named a positive achievement. Two alluded to the failed healthcare legislation and two, disapprovingly, to Trump’s naming of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to a powerful White House position.
Trump has registered historic lows in public opinion polls. While he has continued to do best among non-college educated whites, his support from that group has fallen from a peak of about 60% approval in January to 52%, according to the latest poll from the nonpartisan SurveyMonkey.
At Bannon’s row house, known as the “Breitbart Embassy” for the far-right media website he’s back to running, the former White House advisor has launched a new fight to save his vision for populist revolution.
“The pressure on the working class is immense, and it comes from two sides,” he said. “It comes from the trade deals, and it comes from illegal immigration, and that’s the Trump promise.”
While critics see Trump directing his appeals to the white working class, Bannon insisted that record low unemployment and wage growth within two years would win over African Americans and Latinos, two groups that now vehemently oppose Trump.
At Bannon’s house, Patrick Howley, a former Breitbart News reporter now starting his own website, was holding a framed illustration titled “Tug of War.” It shows Bannon pulling Trump’s feet toward bleachers labeled “campaign promises” while Trump’s White House advisors pull him toward a crowd labeled “establishment.”
Howley was looking for a place on the wall to hang it.