Trumpism: The Myth, the Man, and the Mandate

Letter from Mar-a-Lago

The Grand Ballroom at Mar-a-Lago is fit for a sovereign. Rows of chandeliers hang beneath the ornate ceiling of a room, washed with gold and crystal, that would put a smile on the face of the Sun King. I was there the night Donald Trump took the stage, flanked by American flags and shimmering cream curtains, to announce his intent to capture the White House again in 2024.

The gilded room was packed with a crowd whose thunderous cheers and applause frequently interrupted Trump’s unusually sedate and somber rhetoric. But then he mentioned his signature promise to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. “We built the wall,” he said, “we built the wall. We completed the wall, and then we said, ‘let’s do more,’ and we did a lot more.” It was a rare moment that evening where a boast by Trump did not elicit applause, but only a strange silence. Because in truth, Trump’s wall was unfinished when Joe Biden entered the Oval Office and issued an executive order to immediately halt its construction.

This and other moments of Trump’s speech caused me to wonder about the future of the man and the mandate—of Trump and Trumpism—the latter of which has suffered from inconsistencies in its objectives and accomplishments, something even the former president’s loyalists must be able to sense.

In truth, it isn’t easy to discern what a 2024 governing agenda would look like for Trump, considering that his announcement speech declared his first administration to have accomplished all its goals. What is there left to do but be a conventional conservative Republican? Tax cuts and the Abraham Accords typify the planks that have replaced his earlier, more radicalized populist platform. Other analysts, including those who supported Trump’s 2016 agenda, have noticed this shift.

Ryan Girdusky is a conservative commentator and campaign consultant who defended Trump’s election as part of a global populist revolt against cosmopolitan elites. Girdusky described it to me this way:

In 2016, Trump’s message to working-class Americans was, “You’re being screwed.” Trump said to them, “You’re not part of the elites; I am, and I know how broken it is, so I can fix the system.” Trump made immigration and trade central to his platform for that reason—because the people who are in control don’t care about these Americans.

But now, Girdusky believes Trump has two key problems as he marches toward 2024:

First, he views his time in office as a “Camelot” period where everything was going well, and we just have to bring it all back. Second, the message went from “You’re being screwed” to “I’m being screwed.”

In the Mar-a-Lago announcement, Trump notably omitted mention of the 2020 election having been stolen. Presumably, advisers instructed him to steer clear of that controversy. However, after it came to light recently that Twitter and Facebook cooperated with federal authorities to suppress reports of Hunter Biden’s corruption and criminality—which, by extension, would have reflected badly on then-candidate Joe Biden—Trump revived his complaints about election fraud. He demanded that the 2020 election be overturned or redone: “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution,” he wrote on his social network, Truth Social. This call to terminate the rules that would prevent his reinstalment in the White House amounts to a mere fantasy, but it illustrates Girdusky’s point: Trump’s platform now centers on Trump’s grievances, which may be starting to feel played out.

James Antle, the Washington Examiner’s politics editor, told me that “there was a newness and freshness to Trump in 2015 and 2016 that is sorely lacking this time around.” Antle has regularly defended Trump from critics who he felt treated the former president unfairly. But as Antle implies, Trump’s worst enemy might be himself: “He is like a singer whose greatest hits were overplayed, and even the fans feel a bit checked out. That doesn’t mean he can’t win, but it makes it harder.”

The first and—as of this writing—only rally since Trump announced his run for 2024 will be held in South Carolina and will include, as a speaker, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), whom Trump condemned as a “RINO” last year. The news of Graham’s inclusion at the upcoming rally left ardent Trump supporters bewildered.

It isn’t easy to discern what a 2024 governing agenda would look like for Trump, considering that his announcement speech declared his first administration to have accomplished all its goals. What is there left to do but be a conventional conservative Republican?

Among Republicans in general, the mood appears to be shifting under Trump’s feet. An NBC News poll conducted Nov. 3-5, 2022, found that 62 percent of Republicans identify more as supporters of the Republican Party than as Trump supporters, while only 30 percent of Republicans identify as Trump supporters more than GOP supporters. Compare that climate to the one of January 2019, when another NBC News poll showed nearly the opposite: 51 percent supporting Trump over the party and 38 percent vice versa.

In October 2021, Marist College pollsters asked, “Do you think Republicans have a better chance of winning the presidency in 2024 if Donald Trump is the party’s nominee, or if someone else is the party’s nominee?” Respondents answered 50 percent to 35 percent in Trump’s favor. Following the 2022 midterm elections, however, a Marist poll found 54 percent “of Republicans and Republican leaning independents do not think Trump is the candidate to take back the White House in 2024.” A majority of voters identifying as Republican—52 percent—and 60 percent of Republican-leaning independents said “someone else” would be better in 2024.

But is this enough to say that Republican voters are turning bitterly against Trump? Not exactly. A Pew Research survey conducted Oct. 10-16 reported that 60 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they feel “warmly” toward Trump. Writing in The Washington Post, Aaron Blake summarized the polls this way:

There is plenty of goodwill remaining for Trump, but that doesn’t mean voters feel compelled to give him a third shot at the presidency or prefer him to someone with less baggage who still speaks to their priorities—in a way, it bears noting, that virtually no other candidate did in 2016.

Shannon Felton Spence, Director of Global Communications and Strategy for Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said in an email to Chronicles that “Trump would be wise to run on his record, rather than the 2020 election.” She explained why:

Running on “stolen election” lost him the midterm elections. His candidates not only underperformed; they lost. There was a referendum in November 2022 on the election denial of 2020, and it lost. It’s simple math.

Spence added that “Republican voters are happy with Trump’s record and what was accomplished while in office, but they don’t want to relitigate the 2020 election results.” Spence also noted that Democratic voters feel the same about Biden as a growing number of Republicans feel about Trump. “At this point, both parties play the game of ambivalence,” she said. “No one is excited about either of the leading 2024 candidates. Voters on both sides are waiting for someone to come and ignite them again.” Indeed, Biden is 80 years old. If Trump wins in 2024, he would be 82 at the end of a second term. Spence suggested that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis could be a kind of successor to Trump, although he has not declared any intention to seek the presidency at the time of this writing.

Perhaps no other priority defines Trumpism better than immigration, as it is essential to a movement whose self-conception is grounded in a struggle over national sovereignty, identity, and territorial integrity. Immigration is also an issue that induces extreme responses. Those who favor more liberal policies claim Trump oversaw a draconian crackdown. Meanwhile, those who prefer more restrictive prescriptions nod along with Trump’s pining for a return to Camelot.

The truth is mixed, according to Mark Krikorian, a nationally recognized immigration expert who since 1995 has served as executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank favoring immigration restriction. “Trump was neither the complete failure on immigration, nor the resounding success that he always is in his own mind,” Krikorian told me. He added that

[Trump’s] administration made significant progress in expanding and updating border barriers against determined opposition, but gaps remain, not least because of Biden’s Inauguration Day stop-work order. But even if all the planned wall had been constructed—even if the Democrats had cooperated and funded all the wall Trump asked for—that would’ve been only a partial success. That theme of partial success goes for the rest of the last administration’s immigration agenda.

Krikorian also noted that the Trump administration’s immigration policymaking was plagued by bad personnel, including Chad Wolf. Before he served as the acting secretary of Homeland Security, Wolf worked as an immigration lobbyist for a trade body of Indian companies. Immigration restrictionists panned him for failing to advance—and even for undermining—the 2016 immigration platform. “They did a lot of good work in pushing regulatory changes, but a lot of things were left undone or half-done because of a lack of focus,” Krikorian said. He added that these shortcomings don’t appear to have been resolved:

It’s not clear there is a Trump immigration agenda for 2024, other than complaining about Biden’s border disaster. And it’s all overshadowed in any case by his pathetic inability to get over 2020 and look to the future. And anyway, Trump isn’t even really a restrictionist, since he mused about the possibility of increasing immigration when the unemployment rate was so low before COVID-19.

That Trump is not truly a restrictionist may seem a bizarre claim—but it has merit. Start with Trump’s performance on H-2B visas. The H-2B program is rife with abuse, suppresses American wages, and is open to countries that send workers with high overstay rates—meaning these “seasonal workers” often become permanent illegal aliens. Congress sets the cap at 66,000 but allows the Department of Homeland Security discretionary power to raise it. In 2017 and 2018, Trump raised the cap by 15,000 visas to 81,000. In 2019, his administration increased the cap again by 30,000 to 96,000.

Then, on Jan. 31, 2020, Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency and moved to restrict travel from China, effective Feb. 3. Nevertheless, on Feb. 20, The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, led by Wolf, planned to admit an additional 45,000 H-2B visa guest-workers, “the highest number” during his time in office. By early March, that number dropped to 35,000, bringing the H-2B visa total for the year to 101,000. That announcement came while the Trump administration was preparing more travel restrictions on non-U.S. citizens from more than a dozen European countries.

It was also in March when Politico reported that Lindsey Graham was leading an effort to increase the number of EB-5 visas offered to wealthy immigrants—mostly from China. White House senior adviser Jared Kushner was involved in that scheme, which briefly moved forward even after Trump imposed additional travel restrictions.

In the end, more aliens were issued H-2B visas or otherwise acquired H-2B status under four years of Trump than during Obama’s first term, returning America to highs not seen since the days of George W. Bush. It took the pandemic to eventually curtail the number of H-2B recipients, kill the EB-5 increase, and halt other growing visa programs. Trump supporters, ironically, can thank the coronavirus for improving the former president’s immigration record.

The liberal-leaning Migration Policy Institute concluded just ahead of the 2020 election that “despite public perception to the contrary,” Trump’s policies had not led to “a marked drop in the number of permanent immigrants, temporary foreign workers, international students, and those receiving asylum in the United States.”

Trump’s performance with regard to the H-1B program, abused by companies that deliberately avoid hiring American tech workers, further illustrates this reality. During the 2016 presidential race, Trump railed against the H-1B program. He invited former Disney IT workers who were replaced by visa recipients to share the stage with him at a rally. He even said, “we should end [the program].” And then, approvals of petitions for H-1B workers increased overall by 6 percent between 2017 and 2019. Approvals of petitions for new H-1B workers (as opposed to continuing workers) dipped in 2018 before soaring in 2019 to the highest level since 2001.

On the illegal immigration front, an analysis by the Cato Institute of data from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and from the TRAC Immigration Project shows similarly disappointing results: Trump only managed to remove 325,660 people from the interior of the U.S. during his entire term in office. By comparison, deportation under President Barack Obama reached an annual average of nearly 400,000 by 2012. And President Bush deported more people in 2008 than Trump did during his entire presidency. Trump even considered a sweeping amnesty in 2018 for DACA recipients. Krikorian said that Trump “promoted his amnesty proposal as legalizing more illegal aliens than Obama’s DACA program, as though that’s a good thing.”

While arrests and deportations of people illegally present in the American interior collapsed under Trump, an amnesty was on the table, and legal immigration continued more or less apace. A restrictionist’s Camelot, it was not.

To be sure, Trump has spoken about immigration ahead of 2024. He promised to go to war with the cartels and enact a naval crackdown on maritime drug smugglers. But a question and a problem arise. First, why didn’t he do that as president? Second, the First Step Act signed by Trump in 2018 made it possible to shorten mandatory minimums for criminals caught smuggling drugs into the U.S. by boat or submarine. This effect was dubbed the “Scarface” provision by critics like Sean Kennedy, a visiting fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. “These criminals have never been eligible for such leniency and are rarely if ever U.S. citizens,” Kennedy said. In other words, Trump’s own policies granted some relief to maritime drug smugglers, who are often foreign nationals connected to cartels.

So, what went wrong with the Trump administration? In a nutshell, according to Krikorian, “they got rolled by Paul Ryan, who sabotaged a realistic compromise that would have cemented real improvements.” Though they were promised the wall, Trump supporters instead received a tax-cuts plan Ryan had dreamed about for decades. Gary Cohn, Trump’s former national economic advisor and ex Goldman Sachs president and chief operating officer, led the efforts to pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Among the three achievements that Trump and his camp tout most often, only one is consistent with his 2016 priorities while the other two were introduced after the fact: the wall (Trump), criminal justice reform (Kushner), and tax cuts (Ryan). Of the three, only the latter two were successfully implemented.

In December of 2022, former Trump advisor and nationalist mastermind Steve Bannon voiced, on his “War Room” show, frustration with Trump’s lack of policy vision. “The president and Mar-a-Lago, you’ve got to get the game up. You’ve got to get better. It’s just not good enough right now,” Bannon said. “I hate to be so brutally frank, but we’re fighting for the country. You’ve got to get off the Truth, got to get engaged in these battles up here right now, because that sets the stage for your second term.”

I asked Bannon what he thinks a second-term agenda should be. He broke the plan into three parts: national security, nationalist economics, and deconstructing the administrative state. In practice, it would mean cutting the defense budget, ending forever—and proxy—wars, bringing home manufacturing, stopping immigration, crushing “tech oligarchs,” and dramatically downsizing the federal bureaucracy.

But Trump isn’t talking about these things, or he maintains that he has already accomplished them, mostly or entirely. Yet the swamp, another one of Trump’s main rhetorical targets, is alive and well. As the Brookings Institution reported in October 2020,

Despite campaign promises to the contrary, Trump opened the contract and grant spigots instead, adding more than 2 million jobs to the blended federal workforce, including 1 million in the Departments of Defense, Transportation, and Health and Human Services alone.

Supporters arrive at President Donald Trump’s club, Mar-a-lago in Palm Beach, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. Trump is preparing to launch his third campaign for the White House with an announcement Tuesday night. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

It seems Trump himself has mixed feelings about his chances. Since announcing his candidacy, he has not embarked upon a spree of public rallies, as he did in 2016. His fundraising numbers at present are relatively weak compared to the eyepopping figures of the past. Politico reported on Dec. 8 that since Nov. 28, Trump’s main fundraising committee had brought in just over $4.1 million via 108,000 distinct donations—about $38 per contribution, on average. Apparently, Trump still has strong appeal with small-dollar donors who see him as sticking up for the little guy.

But folk characters live in the eye of the beholder, thriving perhaps more in imaginations than in reality. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that there will come a day when Trump is president once more (and into his eighties.) But it is harder now to believe, given all we know and have seen so far, that the man will live up to the myth, and to the America First mandate.

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