Donald Trump's Biggest Problem

"The president has lost his base, or is in grave danger of doing so." 

Trump promised a new direction for the party and the right. He has loyally given orthodox conservative Republicans what they want, including, in Neil Gorsuch, a Supreme Court justice who is, if anything, rather critical of the Trump style of politics. Tax cuts are high on Trump’s agenda, and he has already begun scaling back regulations. Even in foreign policy, he has offered a much bigger military budget and has taken few active steps to change America’s alliance structure. The trade-off for these concessions to the orthodox Republican center-right, however, was expected to be that Trump’s populist right would get immigration restriction, a measure of economic nationalism, and no more humanitarian or nation-building wars. It’s that part of his agenda, the part that appeals to his base, that Trump is having a hard time delivering. And in the case of foreign policy, if the Syria attack is a portent of things to come, he may no longer have any intention of delivering what the base demands.

Trump is not wrong, on pragmatic or ideological grounds, to seek experienced personnel for his administration or to reshuffle roles if the current line-up is too fractious or unable to get policies enacted. And even as he launches a more symbolic than substantive strike against Syria, his secretary of state indicates that ISIS, and not Assad, remains the Trump administration’s primary target in the Middle East. The friction of the moment does not mean that the Trump revolution is about to turn into the McCain-Ryan-Kristol counterrevolution. But for the right, it is a moment of great danger and anxiety.

The president has a clearly difficult task ahead. He has to unite and lead some all-but-irreconcilable elements in the Republican Party. The task calls for great creativity and confidence. It also calls for prudent loyalty, however. He can keep his base while adding to it, if he is deft. On the campaign trail last year, he displayed remarkable instincts for building up his support even as he fought and won battles the establishment insisted were unwinnable—such as condemning Jeb Bush for his brother’s war in Iraq. Trump needs the same sort of sangfroid now. He can be a moderate, as well as a populist and a conservative, without becoming a president that Bill Kristol can applaud. To do it, he and his staff just have to keep their focus on the interests of the nation.

Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of The American Conservative.