From the start of his short, truculent and unabashedly populist inaugural address, President Trump called out the Washington establishment: “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.”
He painted a dystopian picture of the United States and promised: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
Trump is about to discover that he can’t simply order up the change he wants. In his first two days in office, Trump has appalled the CIA’s professionals and declared open war on the media. His inauguration sparked some of the largest women’s demonstrations ever in the nation’s capital and across the world. Only two of his Cabinet appointees joined him in office, the rest struggling to overcome questions about financial conflicts of interest, ideological extremism and simple competence.
Trump’s populist promises to what he calls his “movement” are likely to face fierce opposition not only from Democrats and citizen movements but also from within his own Cabinet and from congressional Republicans in control of Congress. Looking over his shoulder as he delivered his inaugural address were House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the embodiment of what Trump scorned as “politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining but never doing anything about it.”
Trump’s Cabinet is composed of various establishments. A large portion is drawn from the Davos class, the international bankers and chief executives who gather each year in Switzerland to celebrate the global system that has been rigged so effectively to their benefit. Six of Trump’s leading economic aides come from Goldman Sachs, the investment bank that previously supplied the treasury secretaries under Presidents Clinton (Robert Rubin) and George W. Bush (Henry Paulson), architects of the corporate trade system that Trump promises to upend.
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Members of the Davos class gathered in Switzerland on the eve of Trump’s inauguration. They focused on the threat posed by populism, fretting about what needed to be done to preserve the system that so rewards them. There were calls to “man up,” to do a bit “more redistribution,” but no one was ready to change the stacked deck.
They applaud Trump’s call for lowering taxes on the rich and corporations and for more deregulation and privatization. Most will put up with his efforts to distract by casting blame on immigrants or on a government that serves “those people.” But they oppose Trump’s core populist economic pledges: to take on China, tear up the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, “buy America and hire America,” and impose penalties on companies that ship jobs abroad. The one Trump adviser to attend Davos, Anthony Scaramucci, a former hedge-fund manager and Davos regular who is joining the White House as an assistant to Trump and liaison to the business community, reassured the gathered elites that Trump was, in fact, a champion of free trade and that he wanted to have a “phenomenal relationship with the Chinese.” Former ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, praised the TPP in 2013 and during his confirmation hearings said he does not oppose it.
Similarly, Republicans in Congress support those parts of the Trump agenda that fit conservative orthodoxy: repealing and replacing Obamacare, dismantling the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, deregulating the banks, lowering taxes, increasing the military budget. Even here, internal disagreements and Democratic opposition may get in the way.
But congressional Republicans will choke on Trump’s populist promises: on trade and tariffs, on protecting Medicare and Social Security, on “buy America,” on putting money into a major infrastructure program. McConnell has already deep-sixed consideration of term limits for Congress. McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, Trump’s nominee for transportation secretary, declared that “the government does not have the resources to address all the infrastructure needs within our country.” Trump himself has already contradicted his rhetoric about draining the swamp in Washington.
Trump has shown himself a master at populist stunts — such as cowing Carrier to save 700 or so jobs — and at populist rhetoric. Nationalist posturing and racial signaling — on immigrants, on African Americans, on Muslims — can provide red meat to his movement. But the jobs aren’t coming back. Coal won’t revive without massive subsidy. His Republican Congress and Davos Cabinet aren’t going to embrace a robust industrial policy or a plan to rebuild America. Tax cuts and deregulation will shaft the very people Trump promises to help. Real billionaires in both parties — George Soros and Michael Bloomberg — have called Trump a con man. But even a good con can’t last forever. It won’t be long before working people catch on to Trump’s game and we start seeing lawn signs saying “Dishonest Donald.”