Half Empty

Donald Trump has only delivered on half of his promise to white voters. But other Republicans are picking up the slack.

President Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a rally on Thursday in Elkhart, Indiana.
President Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a rally on Thursday in Elkhart, Indiana.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

In the past week, Donald Trump has abandoned what was left of the “economic nationalism” that drove his presidential campaign. On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters there may not be an infrastructure bill before the end of the year, which likely spells the end for Trump’s promise to revitalize the nation’s roads, bridges, railways, and airports with billions in federal dollars. On Friday, Trump backed down from his promise to renegotiate prescription drug prices using Medicare’s buying power, opting instead for only modest reforms that leave pharmaceutical profits largely untouched.

After more than a year, Trump has now fully embraced and adopted the hard-right economic policy of the congressional GOP.

It wasn’t preordained that Trump would take this route, outsourcing his domestic agenda to Republicans in Congress, abandoning the “welfare chauvinism” of his presidential campaign, and embracing the conservative governance of House Speaker Paul Ryan and other right-wing Republicans. The last week shows just how wide the distance has grown between Trump the candidate and Trump the president.

As a candidate, Trump pushed welfare chauvinism, where benefits flowed to racial in-groups but were restricted for out-groups. To that end, he was protective of Social Security, Medicare, and other federal benefits enjoyed by his base of older white Americans. He promised jobs and assistance to disadvantaged white communities, with a parallel interest in punishing perceived freeloaders: blacks, Hispanic immigrants, Muslim refugees, and foreign countries like China.

Class in the United States is shaped, mediated, and experienced through race and racial hierarchy. To white workers, Trump offered greater economic security, achieved through racist policy and represented by the removal of perceived racial threats. Vote for Trump, he argued, and you would get new infrastructure and health care. Coal would return, shuttered factories would reopen, immigrants would be deported, and blue-collar white workers would have their country back.

It’s an old promise, and here, as always, it fell through. A notorious scam artist through his entire career, Trump—for reasons of disinterest and ignorance—reneged on the promised “benefits” of his election-year populism, handing domestic policy to Ryan and congressional Republicans. Instead of health care, Trump voters received a yearlong push to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It failed, but Republicans eventually managed to undermine the law, threatening insurance for millions of Americans. Instead of broad tax cuts for working families, Trump delivered a tax-reform package in which most assistance goes to the highest earners as well as large corporations and wealthy estates.

This isn’t just a question of broken promises. Trump’s welfare chauvinism was critical to his appeal. He offered a “third way,” attracting a decisive cohort of voters who opposed immigration and racial liberalism but supported greater government spending. While Trump has delivered on the racism of his appeal—pushing aggressive cruelty in immigration policy while picking fights with prominent black leaders and celebrities—his inability to deliver the benefits has left many voters disillusioned. Some Trump voters in Kentucky, for example, are dismayed by policies that have left their businesses in a state of emergency. The same goes for Midwestern Trump voters, turned off by the chaos and dysfunction of his presidency as well as the broken promises.

These are just anecdotes, but election results seem to bolster the idea that some blue-collar whites are distancing themselves from Trump. Democrat Conor Lamb won a deep-red Pennsylvania district in March, running on labor rights and Social Security, while a number of Democrats have won special elections for state legislative seats in Trump districts across the country, from New Hampshire to Oklahoma.

One big question that emerged from the 2016 presidential election was whether Trump augured a permanent shift among blue-collar whites—with greater racial polarization bringing them firmly into the Republican camp—or whether this was contingent on the power of Trump’s explicit racism, his Democrat-lite posturing, and his ability to deliver on these promises. At this point, it looks like a little bit of both. Some blue-collar whites have left the Democratic coalition for good, making a permanent home in the Trumpified Republican Party. Others wanted something concrete out of the deal and have backed away from Trump now that he’s failed to deliver. It’s these voters who could help Democrats capture the House of Representatives.

But while Trump hasn’t delivered on Trumpism, that doesn’t mean it’s a dead letter. Negative attitudes toward blacks and immigrants pervade American politics, and the synthesis of explicit racism with racially exclusive redistribution may still prove potent.

In GOP-controlled states like Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio, lawmakers are trying to impose Medicaid work requirements that would exempt rural whites who live in high-unemployment counties while burdening urban blacks who live in high-unemployment cities that reside in otherwise low-unemployment counties. A Washington Post analysis of the Michigan proposal found that while black residents make up about 23 percent of Medicaid enrollees in Michigan, they would be just 1.2 percent of the people eligible for an exemption. By contrast, 57 percent of Michigan Medicaid enrollees are white, but they would make up 85 percent of the population eligible for an exemption.

Trumpism is not the future of Donald Trump’s presidency, but in an age of demographic change and racial polarization, it may still be the future of the Republican Party.