What Happened: The Trump Presidency in Review
Ross Douthat of the New York Times, Rachel Bovard of the Conservative Partnership Institute, and Oren Cass of American Compass speak with Arthur Bloom of The American Conservative about what they see as the key lessons of the Trump administration.
This conversation is edited from a live event held on December 8, 2020 as a part of the What Happened? The Trump Presidency in Review collection release.
Arthur Bloom: Welcome everybody to our event, What Happened? The Trump Presidency in Review, in partnership with American Compass and The American Conservative. We’ve got a really good discussion for you all. I hope some of you who are tuning in now have had a chance to read the six pieces that have gone up both at American Compass and TAC earlier today. Really good stuff. And we’re going to be going into a little bit more detail today during this event. So without further ado, I guess it’s time to bring in the other panelists and I’ll introduce them all individually. So first we’ve got Oren Cass, the executive director of American Compass, Rachel Bovard, senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute. And Ross Douthat a columnist at the New York Times. So welcome all of you.
I think what we’ll start with the three areas that we really want to talk about today. There’s the question of personnel and staffing the Trump administration and how that went and what went wrong and what should be done better next time. The second one is the economic performance of the Trump economy. And then the third is the role of the conservative movement and how they sometimes helped and sometimes hindered the movement forward of kind of a Trumpy agenda. So I guess if we’re going to start with personnel, I suppose the best place to start is with you, Rachel, whose piece in the series was about the staffing of the Trump administration. It goes into a lot of detail about that. So maybe if you could just give us a rundown quickly—not as long as your piece, but the big points for everybody to hear.
Rachel Bovard: Sure. Well, thanks for having me and putting this together. So the biggest takeaway from my piece is that the Trump administration really suffered from a lack of cohesion across the ideological spectrum. I think people really focus on a couple of things when it comes to personnel, chief among them expertise, heft, gravitas, all these things. But they forget about the fact that you have to have ideological alignment among your staff. And it can’t just be at the cabinet level, it can’t just be the chief of staff. It has to be top to bottom, people have to be willing to do battle for the president’s agenda. And now I don’t want to confuse this with sycophancy or yes men, that’s not at all what we’re talking about. We’re talking about people who have a deep and fundamental connection to the president’s governing agenda.
And I think we saw in spades that Trump didn’t have that. And that was right from the get-go. He appointed Chris Christie to his transition team, a man who had no tangible connection at all to sort of the Trump agenda or what Trump was trying to do. And so you saw his personnel selections reflect that with the help of the team that he brought in from New Jersey. Again, completely disconnected from the campaign, resulted in sort of that entire network of selections being tossed in the Trump Tower dumpster.
Trump eventually got it right, but it took a really long time. He gave tremendous deference, I think, to his cabinet secretaries, many of whom sort of tangentially understood what Trump was trying to do, but in practice couldn’t execute in part because they weren’t necessarily ideologically committed. But people like Rex Tillerson, in theory, great at what he did in the business sector, but couldn’t translate that to sort of the levers of power and managing a bureaucracy that at many times, was at odds and very skillfully at odds with what the president was trying to do.
So eventually Trump, I think, did sort of try to right the ship by bringing in John McEntee to head PPO, someone who really did seem to understand that he needed to pick people who were aligned with Trump, but also people who were skilled enough and bullish enough to push the levers of power and Trump’s direction. But unfortunately that was so late in the game, it didn’t have that much of an impact. And then finally, Trumpism or whatever Trumpism, we will define it as today, didn’t necessarily have a broad base of support in Washington. And so, the end of my piece, I touched on the fact that traditional areas where staff have gone from Capitol Hill to Republican institutions in DC to the White House, that pipeline wasn’t necessarily there.
He didn’t really have a group of people or an intellectual base in DC that was ready, willing, and capable of going in and bending levers of power toward what Trump wanted to do. So, all of those areas, I think really hurt the Trump administration. And going forward, I think the focus has to be on that intellectual and ideological commitment in an administration, which is something the Trump administration definitely lacked.
Arthur Bloom: Now, one thing that kind of comes to mind about this is very early on, right after the inauguration, Steve Bannon said something to the effect of, “The Trump you’ve fought for, the Trump administration you helped to get elected is basically gone.” And in retrospect, that seems like a somewhat astute observation. And it took them, I guess, three and a half years or so to get to kind of start to work out some of this stuff. Why did it take so long?
Rachel Bovard: You know, I think it was a willingness of Trump or his administration, I think to defer a lot of power to sort of Washington insiders. I think whether it was Trump or the people around him were very compelled by this idea of someone like Reince Priebus, who was very networked by Washington standards and had a lot of credibility by Washington standards, but there was no oversight given to him.
There was no direction given to him. There’s very little transparency that anyone in Trump’s inner circle had toward how they were staffing the White House and once those people were in place, they were very difficult to get rid of. And so I think there were some very key moves made very early on that really shaped the Trump administration for the next three years. And it wasn’t until those changes were made at those key areas, the chief of staff, PPO, even agency heads that we started to see the ship of state turn little bit in Trump’s direction. But again, he was also, I think it was a lack of engagement of the Trump team to even get rid of some Obama holdovers that really affected them in the end as well.
Arthur Bloom: Now, Oren, you were on our podcast last week. And I mentioned how, when we look at some of this personnel stuff and just kind of the inability to grab hold of the machinery of government, and I sort of joke that the big problem with Trump is that he’s not Richard Nixon. So what are the consequences of that? And how can kind of Republicans be thinking about how to do it better next time?
Oren Cass: Well, I think Trump’s not Richard Nixon or anyone else. The ways in which he was such a unique figure and many things really core to his style, I think in a sense made this harder. A lot of the things Rachel is underscoring, and as she pointed out at the end, if you were going to do better than that, you would have really had to have a president in the inner circle who were laser focused on these exact questions.
And obviously the administration was not. I do also think there’s just sort of an inherent challenge if you’re an iconoclast and you run against the establishment and you want to shake things up. Then yeah, you sort of show up and there’s no one there who’s ready to just staff your administration, almost by definition. And, and typically what we’ve seen in American politics is the iconoclasts lose. So, whether you’re thinking of a Barry Goldwater or what the new Democrats started to do in the eighties, they actually had a lot of time in the wilderness to build up some of that infrastructure, so that by the time you have Bill Clinton show up in 1992, there is a Progressive Policy Institute. There is essentially 10 years of work done. There are binders on the shelves to start to take over.
And so in that sense, Trump was almost a victim of his own success, where he actually won with no political infrastructure or institutional infrastructure around him. And that’s then going to be a problem when you get into the White House, even if you’re in an extremely efficient and focused executive, which I think it’s safe to say he wasn’t. So I think both of those dimensions have to be better in the future. We need elected officials who are going to focus on that and invest the attention and a certain sort of consistency in doing better in that respect. But we also need to have the institutional infrastructure to draw from because your best personnel moves are never going to be better than the pool that’s out there.
Arthur Bloom: Now, Ross, you’ve been very, very critical of the Trump administration. And on some of these same grounds, I think as us, but I guess, you make the reasonable point that the buck does stop with the president when it comes to these things. But do you kind of give him a little bit of leeway for not being able to work this stuff out because he is such an iconoclast? Or what do you think about all of this stuff?
Ross Douthat: Well, I think you need to distinguish between the kind of victim of your own success problem that Oren is describing that would have attended any figure, from a Goldwater down to a Ross Perot, who won in the way that Trump did. And Trump’s own distinctive, indifference to anything resembling a sort of granular understanding of policy, which again, most politicians are not enmeshed in all of the details of policy, but the difference between the level of engagement that a George W. Bush gave to the sort of workings of policy in his White House and the level of engagement that Trump gave was substantial, I think it’s fair to say.
And obviously the same goes for sort of democratic peers, whether a Clinton or an Obama. And in that sense, you sort of have a double problem, right? Do you have the problem of the iconoclast who gets there without having the personnel, who gets out ahead of the personnel he would need. And then you have the fact that for Trump to succeed in that environment, he would have needed to be at least as engaged as a typical president would be, and probably much more so, and instead he was much less engaged.
And then you also have the further problem where Trump had a temperamental affinity for figures within the Republican coalition who fundamentally disagreed with the agenda that he ran on in 2016, right? So, Trump ran as some kind of, anti-austerity and anti-Ryan Republican kind of figure who was willing to spend a lot more money than the Romney Ryan ticket was promising to spend in 2012. But the people he liked in Congress were not the sort of Susan Collins, Joe Manchin zone of moderate Democrats and Republicans who could have worked with him on a big infrastructure bill. They were the hard-ass Tea Party guys, right? That was who Trump liked. He liked Mark Meadows, he liked Mulvaney.
He liked these kinds of guys. Similarly in foreign policy, right? Trump ran obviously, not an isolationist, but some kind of realist. And you can make a sort of strained argument that John Bolton is not a neo-con, he’s actually a realist or something, but fundamentally, Trump liked guys like Bolton, who seemed like hard-ass Hawks and put them in key positions and then lived to regret it, substantially So in the case of Bolton. So I think that was part of the problem, too, right? That even independent of sort of the policy minutia. At the level of temperament, Trump liked and put in positions of power, people who were not on board necessarily with some of his fundamental heterodoxy.
So I agree with basically everything that Oren and Rachel said, but I think that too was part of the problem. And the exceptional figure is Bannon himself. And Bannon was the person best positioned, obviously to be a kind of Carl Rove, what Carl Rove did with Bush, Bannon aspired to do with Trump. And there are a lot of theories about why that didn’t work. I think as an outside observer, it seemed to me that Bannon simply wanted too much power in a sense, too quickly. That the core of the Bannon agenda was figuring out how you realign the electorate on economic policy, which as he kept saying during the transition, would have started with an infrastructure bill or some sort of populist economic agenda.
But he gets in the White House and he really wants power over the National Security Council or something. And it just seemed like he was trying to run the whole administration and ended up running none of it very, very quickly. Maybe there’s an alternative timeline where Bannon was slightly less ambitious, but actually got more done. But either way, once he was gone, then it was just Republican functionaries and the family, neither of whom had any particular commitment to populism or whatever we want to call Trumpian foreign policy.
Arthur Bloom: Your piece, Rachel, talks about some of this. There’s a nice phrase in there, big names over steady hands, and I think that really gets to the heart of the problem with people like Bolton or the various other people on FOX News that Trump saw and wanted. We saw, I think, a lot of the kind of MAGA universe would defend decisions like this on the grounds that Trump was doing some sort of team of rivals thing or a good cop, bad cop thing. Why is it a mistake to think that way? As a kind of secondary question, we’ve got a couple people chiming in on the Q and A asking, “What is the PPO?” I might add to that, why is it important?
Rachel Bovard: Maybe I should start with that, because it is sort of a fundamental part of this. So the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, PPO Office, they are the ones who select, vet, and place the majority of political appointments, then confirm by the Senate, or they place people who were unconfirmed in various appointments throughout the administration. So they are very critical to how your administration will be staffed, selecting the right people. PPO is a critical component of what Trump was trying to do, and it was staffed originally by Johnny DeStefano, who was a John Boehner hand, close ties to Karl Rove, downtown fundraising elements. Again, no tangible personnel experience, no tangible commitment to the Trump agenda. So his tenure largely served to sort of shepherd in people who really wanted a White House job and wanted to put it on the resume, but weren’t actually committed to the Trump agenda.
So that’s kind of the first question. The second question, sort of dealing with the big names issue, I think Trump was very attracted to this idea of big names, staffing up with really qualified people, or in his view, heft and gravitas I think played very heavily into his calculation. Sometimes it works, but I think the critical problem that he had was when you bring in big names and principals in their own right, they don’t become staff. They remain as principals, and they aren’t willing to subordinate their own agenda to what the president is trying to do.
I think the classic example of this was Gary Cohn, Trump’s original economic advisor, who came from Goldman Sachs, was very successful, but also a registered Democrat. But I think Trump was very attracted to the profile that he brought to the White House. But it ended in the fact that Gary Cohn was there to push his own agenda, not Trump’s agenda, and the infamous anecdote of him removing a letter from Trump’s desk without Trump’s knowledge that would have ended the US free trade agreement with Korea, because, again, that was his agenda. That wasn’t Trump’s agenda. So you can bring in big names, but I think largely, it fails when they are unwilling to actually participate in what the president’s trying to do. They still remain as principals.
Arthur Bloom: So to maybe sum up a little bit, it’s not just a problem of trusting people and then being proved wrong. He more or less put the big staffing decisions of the administration in the hands of his political enemies. Do you think that’s putting it too strongly?
Rachel Bovard: To some extent, with people who are registered Democrats, yes. But I think Trump also gave a tremendous amount of deference to Washington establishment creatures, right? Like Johnny DeStefano, like Mitch McConnell, who very early on told Trump, “Hey, I don’t want to hear any more of this drain the swamp talk.” I mean, people who were Republican functionaries, but were not committed to the Trump agenda, had no idea what the Trump administration wanted to do, and didn’t care, were only really sort of focused on putting their people in positions where they could get things done. So you had people working at cross purposes with the Trump administration, and Trump was too willing, I think, to give them deference when, in fact, he shouldn’t have been.
Arthur Bloom: Well, what would Italics Ross make of this problem? I’m a little bit curious. Ross, did you want to jump in on this?
Ross Douthat: Who is Italics Ross, Jordan? For viewers who aren’t consistent readers of my column, Italics Ross is I guess the rather more reactionary and also pro-Trump voice in my head that I occasionally allow out to make bad arguments, which I then obviously just swat down. I mean, I think Italics Ross, in this area, I think would actually have pretty similar views to non-italics Ross, in the sense that he would say, “Look, you have to treat” … He would say a lot of the things that sort of the establishment press reacted to with horror about Trump in terms of sort of approaches to personnel, the idea that you would just sort of fire people here, remove civil service protections there, do all of this kind of stuff.
That stuff is, in fact, what a transformational Republican president might need to do. You just can’t do it if you, one, don’t have people ready to fill those roles who are actually competent and capable and, two, are, like Trump himself, not prepared to sort of think strategically about what you’re doing, right? So in that sense, you could say the sort of Trumpism looks like a dry run for some future radical transformation of American government by a populist political figure. But the lessons you can draw are lessons about sort of appropriate impulses, not effective actions, right? But so some of the stuff that gets tasked as sort of terrifying fascism on the march, right? Like the federal architecture stuff, right? Italics Ross and non-italics Ross are both completely onboard with making American architecture great again, right? That kind of thing was good, and it’s the kind of thing that should have been happening sort of as—I guess the problem was often that sort of less central decisions ended up being made in the way that you would want more central decisions to be made almost, right? So you would have a few people who figured out, “Well, this is what a disruptive effective administration would do,” and they would go ahead and do things like that, but that never applied at the macro level to the people running economic policy, foreign policy, and so on, although I will say that Steven Mnuchin in the end, I think in terms of sort of looking for figures who had no ideological profile whatsoever and ended up being relatively effective stewards of what Trump sort of promised in 2016, I think Mnuchin’s negotiations sort of between the Republican Party and Nancy Pelosi almost got Trump reelected, I think, right?
If Mnuchin had had his way, there would have been a second relief bill much earlier than the one we’re still talking about now, and it might not have made the difference, but it would have helped Trump more than the sort of Steve Moore, Art Laffer, “Unemployment insurance is bad, and we need less of it to stimulate the economy” approach.
Arthur Bloom: I definitely want to get into that second stimulus in the economic performance bit, because that’s a hugely important thing, where a lot of these kinds of tensions were drawn out. But before we get there, I wanted to ask or we can talk about the missed opportunities or how nice it would have been if we had sort of a populist heritage foundation or something that could kind of have the binders on the shelves. But we also had this kind of hostile takeover of the Republican Party, and I guess I wonder if it could have been any different. That’s a counterfactual, but what do you make of that question?
Oren Cass: Well, with Trump, I call it an almost sort of Shakespearian question more than a political one of, Could you have had the effective and importantly disruptive parts of Trump without the ineffective, if not downright counterproductive parts?
You can, in a lab, design the kind of ideal figure who you’d say could do that, but in practice, it may and certainly empirically it appears to have been the case that you had to have someone who cared so little about what the experts thought to be willing to point out places where a lot of the experts happened to be wrong. So it may be in the nature of our politics that you have to have … I think Julius Krein in his essay makes a great distinction between a transitional presidency and a transformational one. That transitional type of step is going to be separate from the transformational one, again, with the weird phenomenon that Trump, in fact, won. There’s the expression of the dog caught the car. I’ve extended that to the moose jumped in front, and the car slammed into it and the dog slammed into the back of the car as maybe the better description of what we experienced.
But whichever metaphor you prefer, the point at the end of the day would be we got a little bit of a pile-up. I think what has been heartening to see and what’s important to think about, looking forward is regardless of who’s in the White House, the work has to be done in all of the other institutions of our politics so that we can actually make forward progress and so that the next time around, there are ways to address a lot of these problems we’re talking about.
Arthur Bloom: Well, let’s move onto the next section on the economic performance of the Trump economy. I think, having talked to a lot of kind of more typical kind of Freedom Caucus type conservatives, they were very, very happy with the Trump economy, which admittedly was very good, but in your piece or when you talk about how it wasn’t the tax cuts, really, that did that, and I think that’s probably an argument that’s worth unpacking for the people that are watching and explaining why their pursuing a pretty typical Republican economic agenda was not necessarily the thing that created the results that they liked.
Oren Cass: Yeah, sure. I mean, I think the starting point, as you started with, is to say that the Trump economy really was very strong sort of leading into the point when COVID hit. There were some measures on which you could say it didn’t look as good or it looked better, but at the end of the day, the unemployment rate was the lowest it had been since the late 1960s. We just were rising, particularly at the bottom. For decades, we’d seen this pattern where the fastest wage increases were with higher educated and higher income workers, whereas now we were actually seeing the greatest wage increases at the bottom of the labor market.
So those, I think, are sort of unconditional points of celebration that, frankly, you’ll see folks across the political spectrum acknowledging at this point. The question is why? Why was that happening? As you said, there’s one theory that says, “Well, you see, because the one big thing we did was a tax cut, and it worked just the way we said it would.” I think the important thing to underscore is that there’s just no empirical support for that argument. The theory behind corporate tax cuts, high-income tax cuts as a way to drive the economy is that that’s supposed to spur a lot more investment, that you’re making it relatively more attractive to invest, so you’re going to see a lot of that happen, and, as a result, you’re going to get the kinds of productivity gains and wage growth and everything else we want.
So it’s actually quite easy to go and look and say, “Okay, well, did it spur investment?” And the answer is no, it did not. It did not. It showed no signs whatsoever of spurring investment. In fact, investment was slowing and even concerningly starting to decline in 2019. Again, this is not actually an especially controversial point. AEI did a very good symposium that Aparna Mathur, who then went to Trump’s Council of Economic Advisors, edited. I think they had 20-plus economists and other experts from across the political spectrum. Maybe with one exception, they all said either it obviously did not work or there’s just no evidence that it has worked yet.
So you could make a claim that these things take longer to kick in and tax cuts are the right policy and they just didn’t have time to really get going. That’s a fine claim for us to debate someday, but you can’t claim that a tax cut that didn’t get going yet is the cause of the economic gains that we did see. So that just can’t be the explanation for what we saw happening.
I think it’s equally important to recognize that it would be hard to make a case that sort of the what we would call kind of MAGA policies are the effect. So it’s not that the trade war with China was the reason that we saw this success. Again, I think there’s a somewhat parallel timeline point to be made, which is just that it is hard to make out the kinds of gains you would want see from a different approach to trade policy within the first year or two. In fact, you don’t. You do see a shift in the relationship with China in decline in imports from China and also decline in exports to China, but that mostly shifted then to importing more from other countries instead. Again, we didn’t see the boom in investment. We didn’t see the big increases in our own domestic capacity.
So what you’re left with, actually, is that what happened was we ran incredibly aggressive expansionary fiscal and monetary policy at the top of a business cycle, by which I mean we had low interest rates and cut interest rates almost as if we were in the middle of a recession, even though unemployment was at 4% and then below. We ran trillion-dollar deficits, even though unemployment was at 4% or below. If you compare those policies to what we’d done in the past, they looked like the policies of a deep recession, whereas if you look at what we’d been doing during the Clinton boom, prior to the Great Recession, and in the mid-2000s, we weren’t spending anything like that in terms of fiscal stimulus. Interest rates were many points higher. And so it’s good news in a sense. There’s some really interesting stuff to learn there, that would economists had thought about, “Oh. The economy is getting too hot. We got to slam on the brakes here,” wasn’t really true. In fact, the hot economy was great and it was great for exactly who we wanted it to be great for, which was particularly lower income workers. The only problem is that’s just not a sustainable policy in and of itself. You can’t just do that forever. At some point, you actually need the investment, the productivity gains that drive our prosperity. And so I think it remains an open question, “Okay. How do we make that work?”
Arthur Bloom: In other words, we were running a very, very hot economy without any kind of strategy to take advantage of that or direct that in a particular direction or anything. Ross, did you want to jump in on that? You looked like you did a minute ago.
Ross Douthat: Oh, I’m sure I had many intelligent thoughts a minute ago, but now they’re all gone. Yeah. I mean, I basically agree with Oren. I might be a little bit more sympathetic to … It’s not so much that I think we can run the economy hot forever, as I think there’s some reason to hope that by running the economy hot, you do … Oren, you concede some of this in your essay. You do sort of create some necessary preconditions for the kind of future investments and so on that you want the economy to have. You create the preconditions for people to get married and have more kids. There’s sort of a preconditioning generally of having an economy run hotter than our economy has run for a long time that is good and it shouldn’t be sort of minimized.
I think if the case for the sort of Trumpy side of this being important is, I mean, one, that he was more likely than other Republicans to want an economy running hot. He had no commitment to sort of monetary hawkishness, to put it mildly. He was the only kind of Republican who would publicly jawbone the Fed chair and complain about rate hikes. And I don’t think this was the key factor, but I think probably the fact that immigration rates did go down played some role and probably a little bit more of a role than a lot of economists would think in the increase in wages at the bottom of the wage distribution. And that was sort of purely Trump.
And then the final thing I’d say is that I agree with Oren about the effects of the tax bill. I think that the tax bill is best defended, slightly ironically, for all the sort of ancillary elements. So built around the corporate tax cut were a lot of, I think, very worthwhile efforts at right-wing social engineering, the kind of thing that … To say something that the Wall Street Journal editorial page would abhor, but the fact that built around the corporate tax cut are a really worthwhile cut to the state and local tax deductions that mostly benefit blue state rentiers. The fact that you had the modest increase in the child tax credit, the fact that you’re trying to tax university endowments. All of those kinds of things I think were, again, things that were sort of small examples of what a more effective Trump Administration would have done at a larger scale, but also were not fundamentally about economic stimulus. They were literally efforts of social engineering.
Oren Cass: Yeah. Julius Krein makes a good point about that in his essay as well, which is that in a sense, the both most effective and probably most lasting parts of TCJA, The Tax Cuts And Jobs Act, were those tax increases that Ross just mentioned, the capping deductions, the tax on endowments, child tax credit, which is a cut, but exactly the kind that the supply siders don’t like. And so what was most effective and likely to be most lasting really was actually something that represented potentially a pretty significant shift in the orthodoxy.
Arthur Bloom: And Rachel, did you want to jump in on this one too?
Rachel Bovard: Well, I think what is most interesting to me about Trump from the broad sort of economic perspective, when you get to questions about traditional Republican approaches to economics, and I think Dan McCarthy points this out in the opening of the essay series, is that Trump wasn’t actually that different from a lot of mainstream Republicans in his emphasis. He still wanted tax cuts. He still talked about the stock market a lot or responded to the performance of tech stocks. Those are very traditional Republican things, but I think what was different about Trump and what I think can be a sustainable course for a Republican future is the emphasis of those things. Because for so many Republicans, the emphasis is exclusive. It’s tech stocks, the stock market performance, and tax cuts, full stop.
But I think Trump took a much more rounded approach at not only the economy, which he broadened to include our immigration rates, kind of the right-wing social engineering that Ross mentioned, can the economy work for the culture, but also took on culture wars. It’s all sort of a holistic spectrum approach to what Republican economic policy will look like. And I think that was a broad part of his appeal from an economic perspective that I think can actually sustain in the Republican party, should they choose to.
Arthur Bloom: And I think maybe it’s worth dwelling on for a little bit about the second COVID stimulus and the negotiations about that. I know there is a lot of interest in us talking about this a little bit more, and it gets to both questions about the economic policies of the administration, and also the conservative movement. And I think one thing that was pretty interesting is from the beginning, there was resistance in the administration from people close to it, from people like Art Laffer, Steve Moore, and Larry Kudlow to doing a second one. And then those people were basically in the inner circle. And then also from the outside, you had basically Trump’s most loyal parts of the conservative movement coming out against more of it. And it was sort of like this, this moment that seemed both politically suicidal and maybe a mistake policy-wise.
And so it strikes me that there’s kind of a … This is a great example of conservative orthodoxies kind of shooting them in the foot. And I think it’s worth kind of unpacking what happened there and what lessons the conservative movement ought to take from it. Ross, how about we start with you about that one, because you feel strongly about this?
Ross Douthat: Yeah. I mean, look, you don’t want to overplay the politics of it too much. I don’t think anyone can say definitively, “Oh, if only you had passed this extra relief package, Trump would have come closer or actually won.” But I think that it was both a political and a policy no brainer basically. It was very clear that the initial effort that the Trump White House supported to prop up the economy during periods of both directly ordered shutdowns, but also just sort of a retreat from commerce by people who were scared of the coronavirus. That that was incredibly effective. The US economy weathered this incredible shock without a stock market crash, with people’s incomes actually going up, all of these things that made it possible for Trump to even be mildly competitive in the election. If the economy had just looked the way it looked three weeks into the crisis, Trump really would’ve lost in the kind of landslide that the polls seemed to foretell.
And on the policy front, independent of the debate about whether sort of stimulus works, this sort of Keynesian arguments, the pandemic did not create the kind of conditions that a normal economic crash or recession create. It’s not a situation where people are over-investing in restaurants or over-investing in real estate, and then they get their comeuppance. The pandemic is literally a once in a century event that makes people not want to go out to eat because they’re scared they’re going to die.
And that’s why it’s reasonable to call it relief, not stimulus. You are literally trying to temporarily tide the economy over. You don’t even have to get into debates about the multiplier in a stimulus in the teeth of a recession and all of that. So I think that combination of politics and policy just, I think, yeah, it made it pretty obvious that the Trump White House should have, I mean, not just notionally supported this, but sort of pushed on the open door with Democrats.
And I think fundamentally there was plenty of resistance to it from these different factions in the party, but a fully engaged president, and this goes back to the, I think boring but correct point that I’ve been making about Trump, a more engaged president could have just bulldozed that opposition. If Trump had come out in late summer and said, “Look, this is a litmus test of your loyalty to me, whether you’re going to pass another Trump bucks.” And leading up to the election, it would have passed.
Arthur Bloom: Yeah, there were definitely opportunities where he could have kind of reached over the conservative coalition and basically forced them to fall in line. And he didn’t really seem like he had the either savvy or interest in doing that. But Rachel, do you think it’s time to show some of these supply siders the door or what?
Rachel Bovard: Well, I think key to the second stimulus negotiations was something that Ross mentioned, which I think that in March, you definitely had this consensus that this was about relief. You had a broad consensus that Congress needed to act to help Americans. I think that consensus was lost by the second time around. You definitely had people within the administration, Kudlow on the inside, Moore and Art Laffer, though I tend to think we blow up their significance a little bit more as the boogeymen of the right or populous right more than they actually are. But they were all saying, “Look, no. We need to let the traditional Republican arguments.”
But what I really think we fail to address, and I think Ross touched on this a little bit, is the fact that there was zero interest from congressional Republicans. Almost to the point where the Republican Senate, Mitch McConnell was like, “We’re not doing this.” And there was no effort from the White House on the ledge affairs team or the President himself to, to use Ross’s word, bulldoze his way through it. I mean, we can talk about the outside conservative movement as a hangup, but I really think had Trump muscled this through Congress, given them a bill, told Mnuchin to lay on the tracks in front of Pelosi to get it done, I think he would have seen more action, but you just didn’t see a cohesive strategy to either focus on A, what the President wanted, and B, what it was going to take to get it done. So I actually put the failure of it more on that legislative strategy than actually on some of these economic advisors or faculty.
Ross Douthat: Well, I mean, and the other thing that’s worth stressing is that in the period when this didn’t happen, I think there was a widespread assumption that you weren’t going to have, among a lot of Republicans, that you weren’t going to have the kind of fall wave of the coronavirus that we’ve actually had. And I’m critical of that take, I should say though, that part of me in late August and early September certainly hoped that the herd immunity threshold was a lot lower than a lot of people anticipated. Part of me wanting to believe that that was right and that there just wasn’t going to be an October and November wave, in which case the recovery in the fall would have accelerated and a relief package would have been less necessary.
But I do think you got tangled up. The sort of Senate resistance to a bill was an entanglement of sort of ideological preconceptions, resistance to sort of the idea of a blue state bailout with this sort of increasing commitment among Republicans to the idea that like, “No, the worst of the pandemic was over. It was now overblown. It was less dangerous than we thought,” and we could go into the fall confident that things were just going to keep getting better. And they just didn’t.
Arthur Bloom: And Oren, did you want to weigh in on this one as well? Also, we talked on the podcast I guess about was Trump’s ability to be more of a populist hindered by exactly this, by the Republican Congress? And what could he have done if he had tried maybe?
Oren Cass: Yeah, that was the piece I wanted to pick up on is the relationship with Congress is such an interesting one. And in a sense, it fits in personnel. I mean, the President doesn’t get to pick the Congress, but something that was so different about this presidency than a typical one was that you didn’t have the sort of alignment with either party that a president could typically count on with one. I think on the podcast, you’d at one point phrased it as, of course in the first couple of years, Trump had to deal with a Republican Congress. Which I thought was funny because on the one hand, that was an apt description of the situation. But of course, usually you would say the greatest blessing an incoming administration could have was control of the Congress in its own party.
And so to some extent, this kind of goes back to all the same themes, one that you have the iconoclast without the institutional support. Moreso I think to the point that Ross and Rachel have made … Oh, that’s funny. We have Ross and Rachel here. I hadn’t appreciated that until now. That’s my main insight from this conversation. And now I forgot what I was going to say.
The bigger challenge in a sense was that you had, with this Congress, folks who mostly wanted to go in a different direction and the no willingness from, or capability in the administration, to actually do what a White House does to manage negotiations. Somewhat, that was personnel, but an awful lot was the President himself. I mean, I don’t know how you make progress in pushing people to hold a line or make progress when the principal is kind of changing position constantly. And so I think there were probably an awful lot of folks in Congress who, if they felt like, yes, if we get behind this, this will actually happen, maybe it would have done it. But at least politically wisely said, “Well, we don’t know where this is going to be tomorrow. And it might be in a different place the next day. And there’s not a lot to be gained and an awful lot to be lost by sticking our necks out.” And so I think that happened on issues throughout the presidency and then certainly most so at the end here.
Rachel Bovard: Can I just add though that one of the things that most surprised me about how Trump sort of interacted with Congress was his unwillingness, I think, or whatever it was, he refused to use the tremendous amount of political capital that he had. You had how many Senate Republicans in cycle this year, and at no point did Trump, as the most popular Republican in the country, tie any of that to support for his priorities. He sort of blanket endorsed all of them without any quid pro quo as far as I could tell, there was no threat of, “Hey, I’m not going to come put my arm around you in X state if you don’t help me with my key priorities and that,” you can draw … I think Trump was very good at sort of grassroots-based out politics, I think he was less adept and I think had a team that wasn’t interested in sort of the party, Washington machinations that I think would have made him much more successful on Capitol Hill.
Oren Cass: Yeah. But I do, I would ask, what were his priorities? I mean, did Trump want a second stimulus or a second Covid relief bill?
Rachel Bovard: I mean, my impression was that he did, I think the agnosticism was sort of in the details itself. I think that’s the part he outsourced. And that I think is the open question of what did the staff and personnel want because I think that was a little less clear.
Arthur Bloom: Yeah, that’s another big I guess, mark key point of this series of articles is that there kind of is no Trumpism or there is none yet. What do you mean by that Oren?
Oren Cass: Well, let’s say it’s a question that I hear kind of come up a lot is, “Can you have Trumpism without Trump?” accepting the premise of that question I would say the answer is surely no but that’s because I don’t know what Trumpism means except Trump himself. I mean, I think if you look … One of the things that was most interesting in working on this project and I think comes through most clearly in Wells King’s essay, where Wells kind of goes through like, “Let’s talk about what his agency actually did,” is for almost every example of one kind of policy that seems to clearly lean in one direction and advanced priority, you can find a statement or a policy or an appointment that is essentially the equal and opposite.
And even when you think about it, one of the kind of top issues, something like immigration, on the one hand you had some very clear, quite restrictionist language and policies but then you also had a series of appointments and rhetoric and even policy on particularly guest visas of various sorts that kind of suggested an enthusiasm for aggressively expanding immigration.
But certainly with, just one other example, I think with, if you look at Wall Street and financial markets, I think you see the same thing where on the one hand you would expect and at sometimes see a real sort of skepticism of a Wall Street-led economy. And then on the other hand, in both the appointments and the regulatory moves, you see kind of exactly the approach you’d expect from the most pro-Wall Street Republican you might have in office.
Ross Douthat: See, I don’t know. I think we know what Trumpism is. I mean, I think there’s a question of, is there a better, richer, more effective Trumpism, a Trumpism that sort of has one, more focused on personnel and policy details and two, has the kind of agenda for what do you do with that running hot economy to Oren’s point. But look, I mean, Trump dramatically shifted Republican policy emphases from where the party was in the Romney-Ryan campaign in 2012 in ways that we just sort of take for granted.
We take it for granted that even if Mick Mulvaney is putting out budgets that seem to cut Medicaid or something that Republican Party under Trump was just not organized around entitlement reform and had sort of given up on what was throughout the Obama era, a huge organizing idea for the Republican coalition or on foreign policy. The fact that there’s endless confusion and competing personnel and John Bolton wanting to bomb Iran and so on, you still can say that there’s a radical revision under Trump from where the party was under George W. Bush in terms of its attitude towards democracy promotion, overseas military deployment, all of these kinds of things. There is this clear, attempted pivot away from the Middle East towards China joined to kind of this realpolitik in the Middle East itself.
I mean, I think all of that is pretty clear and what Oren is describing is the fact that despite that clarity, there was all kinds of chaos and uncertainty and implementation because there weren’t enough people at high levels who believed in the whole package but the whole package is still there or the whole package was still there. It was something real that was distinct from both Bushes and Ryanism, even as it picked up pieces from both.
Oren Cass: I mean, I think I agree more on the foreign policy side and we, in this program and as I think generally I was very much focused on the kind of economic and domestic policy side. But I think it’s telling that even Ross’s has primary example of obvious Trumpism was one in which his budget director and later chief of staff did exactly the opposite. I mean, if Trump is, and in fact not just in proposals if you look what they did on Medicaid with work requirements, if you look at what they did to try to frustrate Obamacare, you can say, “Well, that’s not what Trump wanted.”
Trump was sort of his rallies in 2016, but that certainly, I don’t think that rises to the level of an ism, I would argue. I would say that’s just Trump. And then, the one other thing that I always find fascinating is Trump obviously spoke very differently about immigration and trade but if you actually look at his policies, they are almost indistinguishable from what Romney ran on in 2012 on both issues and—
Ross Douthat: That’s true, but in that sense Romney, to an extent that people maybe don’t always acknowledge, on China and immigration Romney anticipated, that was the Trumpest part of the Romney agenda, you could say.
Oren Cass: That could be. Anyway, these are the reasons I say it’s hard to actually make out a Trump. I think Trump obviously is an incredibly significant figure and there are many things you could define about him. I think adding ism to the end and drawing a, creating something coherent enough to ask how it would be carried forward, I think, as opposed to it kind of having a lot of lessons to be learned from, that need to be built on is how I would draw the distinction anywhere.
Arthur Bloom: It’s not the king, it’s his wicked ministers, of course. Well, it seems like some of these shifts though, Ross, even if we don’t call them Trumpism, you see them as positives. And so, if you wanted to see those continue, what would be your maybe top three suggestions for conservatives? Well, I mean, my first suggestion is a very unpopular one with conservatives at the moment, which is to recognize that Trump probably did actually lose the election. And I think that to Oren’s point, I think we can go back and forth about the coherence of Trumpism as an ism, however coherent it is, it looks more like a foundation than a fulfillment.
And so, if you think of it as a foundation rather than a fulfillment, you have to think about what do you do differently first politically, to expand the base of support for this kind of conservatism beyond the 46 to 47% of the country that voted for Trump. And right now, maybe it won’t look like this six months from now, but right now, conservatives are not having an argument about like, “Well, why did Trump lose and what can we learn from it?” They’re having an argument about how Trump really won and it was stolen from him, which sets you up, I think for a near future in which a lot of conservatives just don’t see any need to sort of think beyond the foundation, I guess.
That’s my concern about where the conservative narrative I guess is right now. That they’re to sort of be a big picture about it like to really govern the United States of America. The US is, we’re a Republic not a democracy. Okay. But we’re a democratic Republic. People, the majorities matter. And historically, all transformational presidents have at some point or another claim super majorities. And I just don’t right now, see a lot of thinking in the Republican Party about how you get to maybe 60%, maybe the 72 landslide is beyond us in a polarized era.
But a Republican president who won 55% of the vote would find it a lot easier to do all of the kinds of things we’re talking about than a Republican president who is trying to sneak through with an electoral college majority. I think before you even get to the policy issues, so obviously they’re intertwined, you want to think about the political problem and say, “This is our foundation,” but what you should aspire to is not litigating the Georgia election, you should aspire to winning the way Reagan did.
Yeah, I suppose so. But if we’re encouraged by a majority of the country being socially conservative and economically liberal, the other thing that there are majorities of people that are, as conspiracy theorists, it’s just sort of a given, it’s now Americans are.
Ross Douthat: Sometimes conspiracy theories are true. I just don’t think this one is.
Arthur Bloom: And Rachel, same question to you. If we’re encouraged by these shifts, what are the best ways for Republicans to be carrying it forward?
Rachel Bovard: So, this is a very critical question because I actually do think Trump accomplished quite a lot. When I talk to people on the left, they’re like, “Well, Trump was terrible. He was no different than any other Republican,” but I think when you look at what he was up against, when you look at how he was bedeviled by his own people and up against various establishment structures in Republican Washington, what he did manage to accomplish was remarkable.
But my biggest critique, I think of Trump himself was that while he was very good and I think recognizing what resonated intuitively with people, I think he recognized his own election as more of a moment than a movement. And I think that sets up a very critical time for Republicans, many of whom are now fighting for what that movement is or is it just a moment? And if it is a movement, if we call the MAGA movement or Trumpism itself, I think there’s a very dedicated part of DC that wants to push a lot of sort of Bushism under the MAGA tent and call it MAGA.
And so, I think it was very much a fight for the soul of who we’re going to be going forward and a failure to recognize, I think, what Trump did, what propelled him into office and to Ross’s point, what we should be learning from it. But I’m very aware of this moment as a very critical one for us going forward because there’s a lot of people I think, trying to claim the mantle of what MAGA is when perhaps it is just looking backwards instead of forwards.
Arthur Bloom: Now, we’re almost out of time so why don’t we give you the last word, Oren?
Oren Cass: Oh, terrific. Let me tell you everything wrong that Rachel and Ross just said. I agree with pretty much everything they both just said. The other thing that comes to mind for me and I wanted to put this in the symposium and everyone yelled at me and made me take it out, but they can’t stop me from saying it now, is that I think there’s sort of a Marie Kondo lesson to be learned here, which is that you really have to go through it. Like Rachel said, the Trump administration did a lot and you kind of have to go through and touch each piece and ask, “Does it spark joy?” I think it’s so tempting to either want to be pro-Trump and therefore defend everything or be anti-Trump and therefore explain it all away.
Oren Cass: Thinking about earlier when I was talking about kind of the economic results, I was trying to explain that some of Trump’s policies probably were responsible but then that leads me to say like, “Well so, the trade policy didn’t accomplish anything in the short run,” when even there it’s actually much more important to go through. They did a lot of things on trade and some of them with resetting the China relationship with action to the USTR were really good and important. On immigration is the same way. I think there are some things that you’d say were either awful or awfully done and others that were really important and effective reforms.
And so, I think getting to the point where we can talk about in those terms and less, forget about left versus right polarization, be less kind of tribal even within the right of center and not have to have it all be viewed through the lens of Trump but rather viewed as an administration and be able to say some of this really needs to be discarded and isn’t the way forward but others of it is exactly the way forward.
And so to Ross’s point, I guess if I could just extend on the foundation metaphor, there’s sort of a foundation and then also a lot of sort of detritus and refuse and holes left over from the construction. And it’s important to clean up and fill those in but also build from what we have. And so, I think that’s the project going forward.
Arthur Bloom: Well, we’ll leave it there. This has been What Happened? The Trump Presidency Reviewed, I’d like to thank all of our guests. Ross Douthat, Rachel Bovard and Oren Cass. Get in touch with us. We’ll be on Twitter. Give us your thoughts and we’ll see you next time.See more from this series
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