The roots of Donald Trump’s reelection defeat can be traced to the early summer of 2016, when he made a fateful bargain with his own party. In June of that year, House Speaker Paul Ryan—who had pointedly refused to endorse Trump even after he became the de facto Republican nominee—finally caved. Or that’s the way it appeared. “Speaker Ryan’s abject surrender makes it official,” declared a Democratic spokesman. “The GOP is Trump’s party now.”
But that wasn’t quite right. Ryan hadn’t raised the white flag; he had made a bet. “I’ll be voting for @realDonaldTrump,” the Wisconsin native tweeted, because “I’m confident he will help turn the House GOP’s agenda into laws.” Ryan wagered that if he swallowed Trump’s racist authoritarianism, Trump would enact his economic vision. For Ryan and his ideological allies—who have devoted their careers to shredding America’s social safety net—that bet has paid off. It has also helped cost Trump a second term.
In his campaign four years ago, Trump didn’t tell Americans that he had embraced Ryan’s take-from-the-poor-and-give-to-the-rich agenda. To the contrary, Trump vowed not to cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. He said he’d raise the minimum wage. He pledged to end Wall Street’s beloved carried-interest deduction. In his election night victory speech, he promised to “rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals.” In part because of these claims, polls found that Americans viewed Trump as more ideologically moderate than any Republican presidential nominee since 1972.
What Trump promised was authoritarian nationalism plus economic populism. It’s a recipe that in other countries has proven strikingly popular. In 2019, Poland’s xenophobic and homophobic Law and Justice party won a dominant election victory in large measure because of its immensely popular payouts to Polish families, which, according to the World Bank, dramatically reduced child poverty. (Law and Justice’s popularity has fallen since then, as many Poles have revolted against its draconian efforts to outlaw abortion.) In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has launched a New Deal-style public works program that gives hundreds of thousands of Hungarians government jobs. In Brazil, another Trump ally, Jair Bolsonaro, has boosted his approval ratings—particularly with poor Brazilians—by buffering them during the pandemic with government checks. Obviously, these autocrats also use repression and propaganda to buttress their rule. But even commentators who acknowledge their authoritarianism admit that their economic policies enjoy substantial support.
By contrast, Trump has—in spite of his campaign promises—embraced a fiercely anti-populist economic agenda. A Gallup poll taken the month he was inaugurated found that Americans considered infrastructure his most important campaign promise. But a former Trump official told The Washington Post that the White House never seriously considered making infrastructure its top agenda item because “Paul Ryan and these guys had waited 30 years for this once-in-a-lifetime chance to cut taxes. They were not going to let that go.” In 2017, after Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell shepherded a tax cut through Congress, Trump signed it into law even though, according to the recent book Let Them Eat Tweets by political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, it constituted the second-least popular piece of major legislation of the last twenty-five years. When the Trump White House did finally propose an infrastructure bill, congressional Republicans reportedly balked at both its price tag and the prospect that it would increase the deficit. So the idea was shelved.
The other major congressional initiative of Trump’s first year was the effort to cancel Obamacare—a repeal effort that, according to Hacker and Pierson, constituted the least popular major legislation of the last quarter-century. According to one poll, the GOP’s bill enjoyed the support of just 17 percent of Americans. Yet Trump supported that, too.
But Trump’s most self-destructive acquiescence to the congressional GOP came this fall. Last month, after the Democratic-controlled House passed a $2.2 trillion relief bill, Trump’s Treasury Secretary proposed legislation totaling $1.8 trillion, which would have included $1,200 payments to individuals, higher unemployment benefits, and money for ailing businesses. After Trump said he “would go higher,” the White House and congressional Democrats appeared close to a deal. Then McConnell intervened. He declared that the Senate would not even vote on a package of that size. So Trump let the negotiations collapse, even though polling from The New York Times showed that more than 70 percent of Americans—and a clear majority of Republicans—supported a new, $2 trillion stimulus. A Pew Research poll found that a new stimulus bill was especially popular among lower-income Republican voters.
Why did Trump, who is often portrayed as dominating his party, cave? For the same reason he has caved to foreign leaders: because he lacks the knowledge and self-discipline to craft a successful negotiating strategy. Overcoming the congressional GOP’s deeply-embedded hostility to the social safety net would have required enormous effort and tactical skill. As Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris has detailed, based on data from the Global Party Survey, the Republican Party is far more hostile to welfare spending than culturally conservative, and even far-right, parties in other countries. Authoritarian populists in Poland and Hungary don’t have to contend with the Koch brothers, who spend vast sums making Republican domestic policy safe for plutocracy.
Even a Republican president deeply committed to economic populism would have found it difficult to stock his administration with like-minded people since there are few major conservative think tanks or advocacy organizations that champion higher taxes or greater spending on health care. Trump didn’t even try. As a result, some of his key domestic policy advisers—from Vice President Mike Pence to White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price—were former allies of Ryan from the Republican House.
In the more than four years since he made it, Ryan’s bet has paid off. The Trump administration has redistributed wealth upward even more aggressively than Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush did. But for Trump, the political consequences have been dire. When he took office, more Americans viewed him as ideologically “moderate” than as “very conservative.” Last month, “very conservative” exceeded “moderate” by more than fifteen points. Some of that shift may stem from Trump’s cruel and bigoted rhetoric. But Trump’s rhetoric was just as cruel and bigoted four years ago. In fact, his attacks on Mexican-Americans and Muslims were even harsher in 2016 than they have been this year.
This newfound perception of Trump as ideologically extreme likely stems in large measure from his embrace of an economic agenda that most poor and working-class Americans loathe. In 2016, according to exit polls, Trump lost voters who earned under $50,000 by roughly ten points; this year, he lost them by fifteen points. In 2016, voters earning between $50,000 and $100,000 favored him by four points; this year, that flipped to a thirteen-point deficit.
Among the richest Americans—those earning over $100,000—Trump substantially improved his margin of victory over 2016. But in blue-collar America, his support crumbled. Some of that shift may be because of Trump’s opponent, but much of it is because of Trump himself. Except perhaps on trade, he turned out not to be the economic populist he vowed to be in 2016.
For years now, commentators have wondered when the Republican Party would return to normal. By “normal,” they generally mean well-mannered, not openly racist, and not openly hostile to the rule of law. They mean the Republican Party as defined by people like Paul Ryan. But that Republican Party, for all its supposed decorum, has for decades pushed policies that threatened the wellbeing and economic survival of many Americans.
Four years ago, Trump won the presidency in part because he pledged to end that assault. Instead, he escalated it, even during the worst economic downturn since the Depression. Donald Trump didn’t lose reelection because he changed the Republican Party too much. He lost because he changed it too little.