Beutler observes that it’s still very wrong to say that Trump is meaningfully pivoting to the center:
It is strange, for instance, to describe the combined law enforcement policy of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, economic policy of adviser Gary Cohn, and foreign policy of Trump’s Twitter feed and the military generals in his good graces as “centrism.” Trump has instead taken the three-pronged fusionism of standard movement conservatism—pro-corporate economic policy, religious right-wing social policy, and hawkish foreign policy—and stripped away any pretense of concern for racial equality and inclusiveness. Describing that kind of platform as “centrist” is both inaccurate and a gift to reactionary forces in society.
Chait has similar thoughts:
From the perspective of 2017, more than eight years after Bush departed office, the comparison between the two presidents may sound comforting. That is largely because Bush has disappeared into his painting studio, his reputation benefitting from both his general absence from the political scene and the particular contrast with his frightening, orange quasi-nemesis. It is easy to look back on Bush’s tenure as comparatively benign — but Bush’s presidency was a period of gross misgovernance. His legacy includes not only Iraq and Katrina, but his obsession with cutting taxes for the rich, a comprehensive fealty to the business lobby, rampant corruption, refusal to take any steps to limit climate change, and a deregulatory agenda that set the conditions for the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
The Bush presidency was the most comprehensive governing failure of any administration since at least Herbert Hoover, and it ought to have poisoned the party’s national brand as deeply as it did Hoover’s GOP (which did not win another presidential election for twenty years). But the Republican Party managed to largely skirt the reputational fallout from the Bush catastrophe. It did so, in part, through the tea party: Conservatives hailed right-wing protests against Barack Obama as a call for ideological purity, cleansing the supposed big-government, cronyist tendencies of the Bush administration. The Republican Party of the Obama era insisted it had learned the lessons of the Bush years, when its agenda had devolved into little more than shoveling cash to K Street. The post-Bush GOP was allegedly sadder and wiser and filled with righteous abhorrence for the temptations of lobbyists and deficit spending.
Those lessons have all been forgotten. The Republican government, under Trump, has retraced the steps it took under Bush — from the obsession with tax cuts for the rich, to the vanishing line between the party’s paid lobbyists and its public servants. The reality is that, contrary to the willful misreading of conservatives elites, the tea-party revolution was not fundamentally a reaction against deficits or crony capitalism: It was a heavily racialized backlash against social change. And that spirit — the true animating spirit of the grassroots right — has lived on in Trump’s presidency.
The Trumpian mix of K Street economics and Breitbartian racial messaging is not a perfectly natural one. Trump’s vicious ethnonationalism makes his wealthy advisers and donors (many of them the same people) uncomfortable, especially the portions that disrupt their transborder workforce. And Trump’s elitist economic policy is the opposite of what his downscale white base thought he would deliver. But it fits together closely enough to function. The political reality Trump has discovered through trial and error is that he is delivering each constituency the thing it most craves. Trump’s white-identity politics satisfy his voting base enough to make his plutocratic economics tolerable. And the financial and political elite are willing to swallow their qualms about his ugly ethnonationalism because they are going to get paid. If you thought George W. Bush was generally.
In terms of “political time,” I’m more convinced than ever that to the extent that regime politics is applicable to polarized, ideologically coherent partisan coalitions, Trump is an “articulation” president rather than a”disjunctive” one. The Trump administration is just a further refinement of Reaganism: tax cuts, attacks on civil rights from the executive and judicial branches, deregulation, but lacking the ability to carry out frontal assaults on major New Deal programs. Trump doesn’t fundamentally change this, and even a one-term Trump presidency wouldn’t indicate that this coalition is no longer a viable force.