Edward Luttwak’s bracing polemic in the Times Literary Supplement on why Donald Trump won the presidency, and why we can expect a Trump dynasty to rule America for the next 16 years, has been making the rounds over the past few days. Luttwak is always a pleasure to read. His timing, however, feels a bit off, as recent events have left many of us wondering if the Trump dynasty can even last another 16 weeks.
That’s a slight exaggeration, I’ll admit. Though Trump’s approval rating is hovering around 39 percent in even the most forgiving of polls, we can’t rule out the possibility that the president will find a way to not just restore but broaden the coalition that elected him in November.
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What would it take? Assuming we can’t make use of Bill and Ted’s phone booth to go all the way back to Trump’s inaugural, before the humiliation of Sessions, the defenestration of Priebus, and the short, shambolic Scaramucci interlude, Trump’s best bet might be to lean in to all the chaos he’s been causing by declaring his independence from the Republican Party.
When an ally of recently deposed White House chief of staff Reince Priebus told CNBC’s John Harwood that Trump was moving toward a more independent White House, it had the ring of truth. Why else would the president have dumped Priebus so unceremoniously? It can’t have been merely to please Anthony Scaramucci, because the president soon rid himself of his newly minted communications guru. While the most parsimonious explanation is that Trump is a hothead who fired Priebus on a whim, his decision to install John Kelly as Priebus’ successor suggests something slightly more premeditated. Tasked with defending some of Trump’s most controversial policies as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Kelly did the job remarkably well. By installing a well-regarded retired Marine general as his new COO, the president is giving himself an opportunity for a reset: Priebus the party hack is out; Kelly the disciplined public servant is in.
Post-Priebus, it’s not hard to imagine Trump distancing himself from a party and a movement he’s never held in especially high regard. Rather than offer passive-aggressive criticism of Republican policies, such as when he called a GOP health care proposal “mean” while nevertheless giving it half-hearted support, he could offer more forthright, and hopefully more coherent, criticism. Tussling with Republican regulars wouldn’t help Trump woo Democrats in Congress, who will remain implacably opposed to him regardless of how he tries to pivot. What it might do, however, is reassure the Obama-Trump voters who were so essential to his victory that he has not put down roots in the D.C. swamp—a real danger, as demonstrated by the softening of support for Trump in much of the Rust Belt.
As for the substance of Trump’s post-Republican agenda, think of it as Trumpism 2.0. Trumpism’s core tenets, including immigration restriction, would remain. Where he might change course is on economic policy, tweaking some of his old chestnuts to make them a bit more intellectually credible and more convincing to wary moderates and independents.
Last week, Ryan Grim of the Intercept reported that Steve Bannon has been banging the drum in favor of imposing a new 44 percent marginal tax rate on all income greater than $5 million. House Speaker Paul Ryan would never tolerate such a high rate, which he’d no doubt see as an unsavory manifestation of class warfare. I’m not convinced of the wisdom of a new millionaire’s bracket myself. Nevertheless, if Trump were to call for a higher top tax rate, he’d strengthen his populist bona fides and the notion that he is something other than a standard-issue Republican.
If there’s one consistent theme in Trump’s politics, it’s his gut-level commitment to economic nationalism, which, while anathema to the GOP wonk class, has proven at least somewhat appealing to the Republican rank and file. Whereas the president’s erstwhile GOP allies might not want him bashing “Benedict Arnold CEOs” who offshore production, as John Kerry did as the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, a Trump liberated from the GOP might go all in on anti-trade demagoguery. Or he might take a more measured approach by, say, endorsing Barack Obama’s proposal for a global minimum tax on the foreign profits of U.S. corporations, a shrewder way to combat the flow of economic activity to tax havens overseas.
And while Republicans at least present themselves as the party of spending cuts, Trump could make a clean break by declaring himself the candidate of a “high-pressure economy.” Over the past few years, a number of economists, from centrists like Narayana Kocherlakota and Neel Kashkari to socialists like J.W. Mason, have been arguing that the Federal Reserve should worry less about inflation spiraling out of control and more about the persistence of low levels of labor force participation, especially among ex-offenders, young people, and Americans who live in small towns and rural areas. In a recent report for the left-of-center Roosevelt Institute, Mason makes the case that the best way to address sluggish productivity growth would be to boost demand through expansionary monetary policy. As unemployment levels fall, there is a risk that inflation will pick up, but not before more and more workers are drawn back into the labor force by rising wages. Moreover, as wages rise, there will be added pressure for firms to adopt labor-saving technology, which in turn will raise productivity levels. As Trump weighs the question of who should be the next Fed chair, and as he crafts Trumpism 2.0, the high-pressure economy could be his lodestar.
I’m under no illusion that Trump will adopt anything like this agenda. But regardless of how exactly he does it, going a more independent route has the advantage of allowing Trump to be Trump. No longer would he be judged by the standard of whether he’s advancing the interests of a party to which he nominally belongs. He’d instead find himself in his comfort zone, firing thunderbolts at swamp-dwelling apparatchiks (or, if you prefer, responsible stewards of constitutional government) in both parties. This way, if he doesn’t get anything done, which seems inevitable, he can blame anyone and everyone aside from himself. And in the unlikely event he does get something done, by forcing Republicans to embrace his new program or by forging some new coalition, he’ll be able to take all the credit. Win win win win!