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Donald Trump’s Tilt Toward Convention

There aren’t many institutions in Washington and beyond championing the president’s nationalistic policies. But there are plenty trying to pull his agenda in a more traditional Republican direction.

By RONALD BROWNSTEIN / The Atlantic / April 16, 2017

As Donald Trump jettisons his “America First” campaign promises at an accelerating pace, the populist nationalist political movement that roared into power with him is beginning to resemble a paper tiger.Trump’s march to the GOP nomination last spring demonstrated there’s a substantial audience within the party’s rank and file—particularly among older and blue-collar Republicans—for the nationalist movement’s insular themes of resistance to trade, immigration, and foreign alliances, and embrace of government spending that benefits economically strained workers and retirees.

But Trump’s tumultuous first months in office have shown with equal clarity that such an agenda has extremely little institutional support inside the GOP beyond a constellation of sympathetic media outlets (like Breitbart News) and talk-radio and cable-television hosts (such as Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity). Lacking many champions in Congress, think tanks, conservative interest groups, or the business community, many of the movement’s most distinctive ideas—say, confronting China over trade or protecting the mostly white older population from budget cuts—have been rapidly losing ground to more conventional GOP interests and priorities.

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“Within the Republican Party, there is not a lot of institutional support for what we understood to be Trumpism during the campaign,” said Peter Wehner, a frequent Trump critic who ran the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives for George W. Bush. “It was so idiosyncratic to him. You didn’t have people running around saying they were Trump Republicans like [there were] a couple of generations ago saying they were Reagan Republicans.”

This broader struggle over the direction of the administration and the party has inevitably been personalized into a tale of personal intrigue between Stephen Bannon, Trump’s rumpled senior strategist and leading proponent of a racially tinged economic nationalism, and Jared Kushner, the president’s silky son-in-law who has emerged as a rallying point for more traditional GOP voices skeptical of that agenda.

Defining this sort of tension as a battle between competing advisers “for the president’s soul” is a familiar Washington construct. During the Ronald Reagan administration, the debate over its direction was often reduced to a conflict between supposed “pragmatists,” led by chief of staff James Baker, and “movement conservatives” revolving around White House counselor Ed Meese. In Bill Clinton’s first years, the White House was seen as divided between “New Democrats,” like policy and political advisers Bruce Reed and Rahm Emanuel, and more traditional liberals aligned with congressional Democrats, like adviser George Stephanopoulos.But while there often were genuine personal tensions between those competing camps—and the comparable power centers that emerged in other administrations—the larger issue was that each camp reflected elements of the party coalition that the president could not ignore. The waxing and waning of each individual’s influence inside the White House was usually a barometer of which set of party interests the president at any given moment felt it most necessary to accommodate.  Trump in just weeks has hurtled “from Bannon-esque, apocalyptic, racial nationalism to Goldman Sachs, conventional, elite liberalism.”In some ways, Trump’s situation is reminiscent of Clinton’s when he took office in 1993, after running as a “new Democrat” who pledged to challenge “brain-dead politics in both parties.” Clinton, to put it mildly, had a much more detailed understanding of policy than Trump does. But he faced a similar political challenge: He had campaigned and won on a new direction for his party that had little support among its existing institutions. There were relatively few Democrats truly attuned to his message that Clinton could appoint to fill the departments and agencies; few members of Congress entirely on board with his agenda; and, apart from the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, few party institutions supporting the elements of his program that most departed from Democratic orthodoxy. (Those elements included passing the North American Free Trade Agreement, shrinking the federal workforce, and reforming welfare to require work.)The tension between Clinton’s desire to reposition the party and the entrenched preferences of almost all of its other power centers contributed enormously to the turbulence of his first two years. Only after Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994—in a backlash against that chaos—did Clinton feel sufficiently liberated to pursue his new direction over the continuing opposition of much of his party’s infrastructure. That declaration of independence, crystallized in his strategy of “triangulation,” set him on a path toward reelection in 1996.Trump finds himself in a similar initial position with few potential appointees steeped in his agenda and few other party power centers committed to its most distinctive elements, like the reconsideration of free trade and international alliance. Even more so than Clinton in his first months, Trump, as if through magnetic force, is finding himself pulled by this power imbalance toward the agenda that dominated his party before he arrived.“To state the obvious, [the institutional imbalance] is going to make it all but impossible for President Trump to march very far down the trail candidate Trump blazed,” said William Galston, former deputy domestic-policy adviser for Clinton and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “That’s the fact of the matter. I have to say that he is yielding to that fact at a pace I can only describe as breathtaking.”

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