After last November’s democratic malfunction, there was a great deal of chin-stroking about how Donald Trump’s “economic populism” might play out, with a different kind of Republican agenda enacted through [causal mechanism omitted.] This was always really, really silly. There was no reason to think Trump had any commitment to economic populism, and no way he could enact a non-neoliberal agenda even if he wanted to:
The reason for this can be found in a remark in Wolff’s book attributed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: “[Trump] will sign anything we put in front of him.” McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan are often called cowards for refusing to check Trump, but this is exactly wrong. They, and the other members of the House and Senate Republican conferences, are not refusing to check Trump because they’re scared of him. They’re refusing to check Trump because he’s useful to their policy goals. Supporting Trump has given them a 49-year-old ultra-conservative Supreme Court justice and a huge upper-class tax cut that will take health care away from millions of people. These are not very attractive principles to be selling out your country on, but they are principles. And Ryan and McConnell understood the implications of Trump’s victory clearly while a lot of pundits were still erroneously assuming there would by a major ideological rift within the Republican Party.
Trump governing as a completely orthodox Republican also explains why he has found it easy to cut Bannon loose. Many people misunderstood Bannon’s primary importance as ideological, and assumed Trump would advance a more economically populist agenda than the typical Republican. This was always a misguided assumption. There was never any reason to think Trump, a compulsive liar with no policy knowledge, had any commitment to a populist economic agenda. And even if he did, Ryan and McConnell would be setting the policy agenda, an agenda that would be ruthlessly devoted to advancing the interests of corporations and rich people. Trump has governed consistently with the white nationalist elements of Bannon’s thought, but Trump has advanced similar views for far longer than he’s known Bannon.
Bannon was important to Trump, but not as some kind of ideological Svengali. As detailed in Joshua Green’s important book, Devil’s Bargain, his crucial contribution was as a campaign strategist. Through institutions like the Government Accountability Institute, Bannon was able to get negative stories about Hillary Clinton generated by Republican operatives taken seriously by the mainstream media, something he correctly saw as crucial to their success. While the GAI’s stories about the Clinton Foundation turned out to be entirely bereft of substance, they helped permanently tar Clinton and paved Trump’s way into the White House.
So Bannon played a major role, but with Hillary Clinton in Chappaqua rather than the Oval Office, his usefulness to Trump declined greatly. Trump’s policy agenda has been and will continue to be Ryan and McConnell’s, which is the only way he can get the legislative “wins” he desperately desires.
And because Trump will advance their agenda, Ryan and McConnell will look the other way, no matter what legal and media investigations reveal about the president. The only way Congress will act to constrain Trump is if Democrats take over one or both houses in 2018.
The dynamic is straightforward: the Republican Congress will continue to be all-in in Trump, because Trump is a useful tool for enacting their ex ante agenda. The 2018 midterms will be among the most important in American history.