I asked this question before Trump took office. Now we have some information. Trump won the election by running as a populist. What did this mean?
— He blamed corruption of governing elites for the bad state of the nation.
— He ran as an outsider, beholden to no one.
— He rallied support by identifying specific “enemies” of the nation, above all foreigners.
— He attacked establishment institutions, above all the press.
— He adopted a mixed ideology, including both liberal and conservative elements, in an attempt to appeal to both tails of the political distribution.
These commitments led directly to several major campaign tactics, which, while nearly unprecedented in recent American political history, are characteristic of populists in American history and around the world. These tactics included:
— Obvious lies and unkeepable (if only because mutually contradictory) promises.
— Vilification of political opponents.
— Implicit celebration of political violence.
— Vulgar language.
The purpose of these tactics was to separate Trump from the establishment. The establishment does not do these things. Why not? We can give two explanations.
The establishment’s view. The key to democracy is political competition. Political competition works only if we agree to rules of the game that prevent the incumbent party from destroying the out-of-power party. One such rule is: don’t prosecute former leaders (recall Obama’s refusal to prosecute Bush for torture.) A related rule: avoid personal attacks. By limiting the extent to which conflict is personalized, we maximize our ability to cooperate where we have common interests.
The populist’s view. This style of cooperation enables the establishment to enrich itself. The parties maintain the rules to ensure that (as much as possible) each party gets a turn to feed at the public trough. If they are throwing each other in jail, they will immiserate each other rather than enrich themselves. This is why the elites have fattened over the last 20 years at the people’s expense.
The problem for Trump now is how to maintain his anti-establishment bona fides—the basis of his political power—while sitting at the apex of the establishment. He faces numerous contradictions. He needs the bureaucracy to carry out his plans, but also to serve as the enemy that justifies his ascent to power. He needs the press to report his policies, but also to serve as a metaphor for the elite forces arrayed against him. He has blamed the courts for failing to enforce travel ban #1, but he needs them to enforce travel ban #2. He needs all of them to be his friend and his enemy. Every time he lashes out at someone, he weakens his institutional position. Every time he cooperates, he weakens his political position.
No wonder he has entangled himself in contradictions.
The attack on Obama seems like the latest, and surely most desperate, effort to avoid the dilemma. Safely out of office, Obama cannot directly retaliate. But Trump needs Obama. He needs the support of Obama appointees in the courts and Obama supporters who took positions in the civil service when Obama was still in office. He also needs Obama’s advice, and he may well need public statements of support from Obama in discrete cases. (News reports say that Trump wanted Obama to condemn the national security leaks, which Obama declined to do.)
Trump needs to make the move from populist to establishment figure if he wants to succeed as president.