This is how Trumpism died

Ezra Klein
President Donald Trump (C) gathers with Vice President Mike Pence (R) and Congressional Republicans in the Rose Garden of the White House after the House of Representatives approved the American Healthcare Act, to repeal major parts of Obamacare and replace it with the Republican healthcare plan, in Washington, U.S., May 4, 2017.
Carlos Barria | Reuters

Donald Trump's enthusiastic support for the Senate health care bill is proof that there is no such thing as Trumpism, and there never will be.

Health care was the issue on which Trump had gone furthest to differentiate himself from traditional Republicans. "This is an un-Republican thing for me to say because a lot of times they say, 'No, no, the lower 25 percent that can't afford private,'" he told Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes. "But I am going to take care of everybody. I don't care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody's going to be taken care of much better than they're taken care of now."

The promises Trump made on health care were sharp breaks with conservative orthodoxy, and he knew it. "Insurance for everybody," he promised. "Much lower deductibles," he said. And he bragged about crossing conservatives to protect entitlements:

@realDonaldTrump: I was the first & only potential GOP candidate to state there will be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid. Huckabee copied me.

But in office, President Trump has been submissive to the congressional GOP's health care agenda. He threw his weight behind Paul Ryan's American Health Care Act, calling it "incredibly well crafted" and holding a Rose Garden celebration after it cleared the chamber. Trumpworld is so all in on Mitch McConnell's Better Care Reconciliation Act that the America First Policies PAC, which is run by ex-Trump campaign staffers, is buying ads attacking recalcitrant Senate Republicans.

Both bills reflect longtime Republican health policy thinking and break Trump's promises. They cover fewer people than are covered now with worse health care that carries higher deductibles. They feature massive cuts to Medicaid. And Trump has meekly fallen in line. The insurgent campaigner who relished confrontation with the congressional GOP during the election has been surprisingly low-energy in pushing his own agenda.

What is true on health care is true elsewhere in Trump's presidency. His budget was lifted from the Heritage Foundation's wish list and broke his promise to protect Social Security. His "infrastructure week" came and went without a plan. His outline for tax reform reflected traditional conservative ideas about how to cut taxes for the rich and abandoned his populist promise to raise rates on billionaires like himself. His wall between the US and Mexico remains unfunded on both sides. His foreign policy has, in most cases, reflected the consensus that preceded him. Virtually the only distinct elements of Trumpism that exists today are a hostility to immigrants and the travel ban, which is now a temporary half-policythat the Supreme Court could still strike down.

Trumpism's biggest problem, by far, is that its namesake doesn't believe in it. Trump delivers his policy pronouncements with confidence and brio, so it's easy to assume he's committed to them. But the force he brings to salesmanship obscures the diffidence he brings to governance.

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"The idea that Trump had a stable set of intuitions that could then be translated into a set of principles that could then be translated into a set of policies was wrong," says Yuval Levin, the influential editor of the conservative journal National Affairs. "People made a lot of some things Trump said during the campaign, but it seems he didn't have a worldview in that way. He just gets pushed and pulled in different directions."

No one thought Trump would spend much time in the policy weeds. But they did think he would have strong opinions on the overall direction of policy and he would demand those opinions be heeded. Congressional Republicans feared Trump blasting their bills and their budgets as a way to boost his own popularity and define his brand of populism. But Trump has proven remarkably fluid in his policy positions. While hints of the old Trump have surfaced occasionally, as when he called the House health care bill "mean" (after lobbying on its behalf), he has mostly been content to support whatever Ryan and McConnell think they can pass.

Congressional Republicans have learned their lesson: They don't need to worry about Trump's past statements because Trump doesn't worry about his past statements.

Another possible way for Trump to define his agenda would have been to outsource it to staff who shared his philosophy. But the Trump White House has few staffers who could properly be called Trumpists. "There's no such thing as the Trump administration in any conventional sense," says Julius Krein, the founder of the pro-Trump, populist conservative journal American Affairs. "It's a collection of different people with very different agendas, and there's not necessarily a lot of coordination."

Trump does not seem to have staffed his White House with any particular ideological or even operational goal in mind. He hired GOP party operatives like Reince Priebus to top management positions, anti-populists like Gary Cohn and Steve Mnuchin to run his economic policy, and mainstream generals like H.R. McMaster and Jim Mattis to run his national security policy.

Trumpism's biggest problem, by far, is that its namesake doesn't believe in it. Trump delivers his policy pronouncements with confidence and brio, so it's easy to assume he's committed to them. But the force he brings to salesmanship obscures the diffidence he brings to governance.

Partly, this might have been necessity. "There just weren't a lot of Trumpists for him to choose," says Levin. "People both of the caliber to be part of the Cabinet and who are Trumpists are rare. There's Jeff Sessions and then I don't know who else there is."

But the result is that Trump is getting advice from people who largely oppose everything that made his candidacy distinct. Tom Price, his health and human services secretary, used to author the House GOP health care plans that Trump ran against. Mick Mulvaney, his budget director, believes the entitlement programs Trump wants to protect are the single largest threat facing the nation's finances. Mattis, his defense secretary, is a firm believer in the international coalitions Trump views with such mistrust. Cohn, who runs Trump's National Economic Council, is a fan of the internationalist economic order Trump derides. And Priebus, the former Republican National Committee director who is now Trump's chief of staff, just wants a united Republican Party — that's all he ever wanted.

Making matters worse is that Trump chose a hyperconfrontational governing style that robbed him of any leverage he might have had over the Republican Party. He has infuriated liberals, done nothing to build relationships with congressional Democrats, and embroiled himself in a series of scandals that make it existentially important that he retains the support of congressional Republicans. As a result, he has no political room to play Democrats against Republicans, which would be necessary if he wanted to pull the GOP into a new ideological space.

This, then, is how Trumpism died: Trump didn't believe in it, his staff didn't believe in it, and his political strategy made it impossible.

Commentary by Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief at Vox. Follow him on Twitter @ezraklein.

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