A win for Trump and a loss for Trumpism

As time goes by, it becomes increasingly obvious that global populism has no coherent governing philosophy. Or if it does, it has no serious intention to implement those policies.

The most recent Economist has a number of articles discussing recent politics in Britain and France, which are both wracked by populist turmoil. It’s now clear that the Brexit hardliners have no governing vision for the UK, and that their ideology is essentially nihilistic. The same is true of the yellow jacket protesters in France. As with many other populist movements throughout the world, the yellow jackets began with a set of economic grievances and soon morphed into a crude nativist movement, full of racism and anti-Semitism.

Trump’s only major policy successes have been in adopting the traditional “Mitt Romney” GOP agenda, cutting taxes for big corporations, easing environmental regs, and nominating conservative judges. According to the FT, the rumored China trade deal is likely to continue that trend:

Yet there is scant evidence that Beijing has offered to make a big change in course, or to provide a mechanism to assure Washington that it will stick by any commitments. . . .

For Mr Trump, there is a clear desire to reassure markets and extend the momentum in the US economy ahead of his re-election bid in 2020. He wants to fulfil a key campaign promise to reset trade relations with China, especially as the prospects for other commitments, such as building a wall on the Mexican border, have faded.

The risk for the president is a backlash from China hawks both on the left and the right of the political spectrum, who are already grumbling that Mr Trump will settle for a weak deal. To them, he squandered much of his leverage by delaying the tariff increase.

“Lighthizer’s ability to get binding MoUs on the key non-trade barrier issues such as forced technology transfers can only occur if you execute the 1 March tariffs — otherwise the pressure comes off the Chinese,” Steve Bannon, Mr Trump’s former senior adviser, said in an email on Saturday.

China’s stock market was up 5.6% today. Good.

Obviously this rumored agreement won’t address the underlying economic issues that concern protectionists like Navarro and Bannon. It won’t reduce our trade deficit and it won’t bring manufacturing jobs back to America. But this is one of those rare occasions where I side with Trump, and I also believe this will be good for him politically. Most of his base doesn’t care about any actual policy changes, they are just interested in seeing him look like a leader who “owns the libs”. They don’t want to see empty shelves when they shop at Walmart. And a stock market crash would look bad to Trump’s upper middle class white supporters.

There are much worse things than a demagogue being a “market politician”, guided by stock market sentiment like an ox with a nose ring being pulling along by a farmer. Imagine if he were actually a 1930s-style populist, implementing actual populist policies.

Meanwhile, Trump’s attempt to close the southern border has failed, at least according to the metric used by the Trumpistas to claim success in early 2017. This NYT article provides numerous quotes of Trump gloating over the drop in detentions at the border, which occurred during the first half of 2017 (grey line):

Trump succeeded before he failed

By fiscal year 2018, things were back to normal according to this very same data source, and detentions are now well above the levels of previous years (red line).

As with Trump’s failure to achieve the Navarro/Bannon trade agenda, and as with his failure to get a big federal infrastructure program, this border failure is actually good news. We need more illegal workers to “Make America Great Again”. After all, poor Americans on welfare have zero interest in picking vegetables all day in the hot sun, unless you raised their wage so high that American consumers switched to imported vegetables and we started growing wheat in California. Illegal Mexican immigrants in construction will make new Texas homes more affordable for blue collar workers moving from Buffalo, fleeing New York state’s nightmarish fiscal policies and cold weather.

The Dems were willing to give Trump the wall in exchange for a DACA agreement, something overwhelmingly supported by his base. But ultimately his base cares more about Trump continuing to fight the elites, so he opted to forego the wall. Trump cares more about having the “fighting for the wall” issue than he does about stopping the flow of illegals.

I still think that Trump’s unique mixture of stupidity, cruelty, and dishonesty makes him the worst president in US history. But it would be even worse if he took seriously the demagogic populist agenda that he ran on. Instead, his primary goal seems to be propping up the stock market. We’ll see how the Dems react to that reality.

We live in the global era of populism, but actual populist policies are hard to find, outside of Venezuela.

PS. Next up is an entirely symbolic meeting with Trump’s love interest in North Korea. More “leadership” for his base.

PPS. For you alt-rightists depressed by all of this, consider that the new populist socialism on the left is every bit as empty of actual policy content as is Trumpism. No, America’s not about to become socialist, and, “You can keep your private health care plan.” I promise.




24 Responses to “A win for Trump and a loss for Trumpism”

  1. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    25. February 2019 at 11:35

    I think you just wrote that Trump’s ONLY major policy victories were on taxes, regulation, court nominations, and (maybe) trade with China.

    In two years.

    I guess this explains the non-stop hysterical TDS that’s been in the air.

  2. Gravatar of Ryan Ryan
    25. February 2019 at 11:40

    As with many other populist movements throughout the world, the yellow jackets began with a set of economic grievances and soon morphed into a crude nativist movement, full of racism and anti-Semitism.

    Do you truly believe this, or is that just how elites choose to dehumanize the populations they have failed?

  3. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. February 2019 at 12:30

    Brian, Those are things that Trump regards as victories, not me.

    He has certainly failed to enact most of the populist agenda he ran on. Cutting taxes for corporations and making easier for companies to pollute and doing ineffectual trade deals with China is not populism.

    Ryan, How would you describe the yellow jacket protesters?

  4. Gravatar of Steven Kopits Steven Kopits
    25. February 2019 at 12:31

    You can see my forecast for border apprehensions here:

    You can see my related interview on Fox and Friends this weekend here:

    And if you want to invest half an hour in our white paper, here:

  5. Gravatar of Jeff Jeff
    25. February 2019 at 12:41

    Trump’s only major policy successes have been in adopting the traditional “Mitt Romney” GOP agenda, cutting taxes for big corporations, easing environmental regs, and nominating conservative judges.
    Except that it’s very unlikely that Mitt Romney would actually have the courage to undertake that agenda in the face of unrelenting liberal criticism. Neither Bush did, and while Reagan did some major tax cutting, his judicial appointments were not all that conservative (Scalia was conservative, but O’Connor and Kennedy were moderates) and he did far less deregulating than Trump has done so far. And of course, no recent President of either party has done much to reduce spending.

  6. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    25. February 2019 at 13:27

    OK, I didn’t vote for the guy, but I regard the SCOTUS appointments as good news, sorry to hear you didn’t like them.

    Also, the tax bill moved the corporate tax rate closer in line with other countries, which strikes me as a good thing. And it increased taxes on high income people in blue states (like me), another good thing. And it reduces taxes for lots of people who don’t make much money and don’t itemize- another good thing. Sad to hear you opposed all this.

    It’s not clear to me if we need more or less regulation in the economy, but I am interested to learn you’re firmly on the “moar regulation” side of the debate.

  7. Gravatar of Liberal Roman Liberal Roman
    25. February 2019 at 13:47


    I think you miss Scott’s point. We have no problem with atros policy successes. The point is they are no different than what President Rubio or President Jeb would have done.

  8. Gravatar of Liberal Roman Liberal Roman
    25. February 2019 at 13:48

    *Trump’s policy successes

  9. Gravatar of BC BC
    26. February 2019 at 00:54

    “Trump’s only major policy successes have been in adopting the traditional ‘Mitt Romney’ GOP agenda”

    A testament to Mitch McConnell’s political skills. While most people focus on criticizing or cheerleading for Trump, McConnell figured out that Trump’s stupidity made him easy to manipulate. McConnell doesn’t fret about whether to support or oppose Trump. Trump has no ability to advance an agenda anyways. McConnell asks how he can get what he wants, given a weak President.

  10. Gravatar of Mike Sax Mike Sax
    26. February 2019 at 06:56

    Janet Yellen was impressed


  11. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    26. February 2019 at 10:31

    @Liberal Roman: I was going to say the same thing to Brian. I would much have preferred a different Rep president, who would have delivered the same policies without the clown show.

    @Jeff: A fully Rep Congress for the first 2 years means a president Jeb or Marco wouldn’t have needed to worry about criticism from the libs. Sure didn’t slow down Trump’s pen.

  12. Gravatar of Ed Ed
    26. February 2019 at 14:08


    I am neither an alt-rightist nor a socialist, but I have to say you seem incredibly smug in your belief that the current wave of global discontent will have no results whatsoever. That the current representatives for those discontents are rather feckless is not surprising–historically, the clowns are the first group to climb to the top of a bus of that nature. Historically, though, the first-wave clowns are usually followed by more formidable leaders if the discontents remain. Do you really believe that in a couple of years all of the populists and socialists will be holding self-struggle sessions in which they admit the errors of ever doubting neoliberalism?

  13. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. February 2019 at 14:22

    Jeff, Oh come on. Even Obama favored cutting the top corporate rate to 28%. If Hillary had won there would have been a big corporate tax cut. Presidents have FAR less power than most people assume.

    Brian, I like consistent judges, not conservative judges. I like people who don’t change their views on whether presidents are above the law based on whether a Dem of Republican happens to be in the White House.

    I don’t favor more regs and I don’t favor a higher corporate tax rate. Reread my comment, I never suggested that. But I also favor a balanced budget and doing something about global warming. Trump’s tax cut was not paid for.

    Ed, Time will tell, but for now they have no serious agenda that is likely to be implemented. I didn’t predict Trump, and I can’t predict what comes next. Maybe the 2020s will be the decade of libertarianism. Who knows?

    And I prefer “contrarian” to “smug”. 🙂

  14. Gravatar of Viking Viking
    26. February 2019 at 14:42

    “After all, poor Americans on welfare have zero interest in picking vegetables all day in the hot sun, unless you raised their wage so high that American consumers switched to imported vegetables and we started growing wheat in California.”

    Ir if welfare were decreased enough that picking vegetables in the hot sun is one way to survive.

  15. Gravatar of George Wilson George Wilson
    26. February 2019 at 15:36


    Great post. CBP enforcement statistics are interesting. As a professional who works with the immigrant community, I can add a bit of insight to explain the deviation in the statistics. FY17 is the first year where we see a difference from the general seasonal pattern of border apprehensions. We can interpret this in two ways. Either more people crossed the border, or there was a shift in policy. The Obama era data shows a dip in January and a peak in May. Steady policy and steady seasonal fluctuations. In Jan 2017 Cuban nationals were no longer granted automatic residency, an Obama era policy, and more Haitians crossed after TPS was removed, by Trump. Cubans and Haitians do cross the border via the SWBorder Additionally; the Trump administration has been hostile to people who have a valid claim of Asylum. This is well reported and could explain the additional findings of inadmissibility that has inflated the stats. I would have to look closer, but I don’t trust Steven Kopits’s shallow interpretation to scare the elderly on Fox. As with everything data is useless without context.

    Also, I don’t think the left has a socialism problem. I think Americans have a problem identifying fascism and confusing it with socialism. The USA directly influenced Hitler with the KKK and the Immigration act of 1924. The Smithsonian has a piece on this here is a quote – “Just eight days after the Reich Citizenship Law, the Law on the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, and the Reich Flag Law were formally proclaimed by Adolf Hitler, 45 Nazi lawyers sailed for New York under the auspices of the Association of National Socialist German Jurists. The trip was a reward for the lawyers, who had codified the Reich’s race-based legal philosophy.”

    IF we define socialism as “a political ideology that advocates for an egalitarian redistribution of wealth and power in society through the redistribution of society’s means of production.” America is already socialist. What were the Trumps tax cuts if you consider Corporations worthy of an egalitarian break? What are the soy farm subsidies? What about Trump floating the idea to nationalize the coal industry via the Defense Production Act? Sounds like socialism to me…

    The socialism label is silly. It is an excuse for inaction. While the boomer generation has refused to acknowledge and act on climate change, young people will have to be bold and withstand “socialist” name calling when proposing something, anything to deal with what is ahead. WE are going to bear the brunt of the immense catastrophe as we age and I hope we do not leave a mess like this waiting for our kids. Markets won’t matter by then. Because if a few hundred thousand immigrants scare boomers imagine millions of climate refugees. Not from far away lands but within our own country. Who knows, maybe the bad socialist Canadians will have to deal with Americans flooding the border. If that happens, I hope they do not treat us like Trump has treated our neighbors to the south.

  16. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    26. February 2019 at 19:34

    His leadership on Venezuela caught me on the wrong foot. From the very first day, he attacked regimes like Iran and Venezuela. Venezuela’s regime is already collapsing, quite surprisingly, at least according to the libertarian ideology.

    I’m also neutral on his meetings with Kim Jong-un. We don’t have any results yet. It might become a disaster like Obama’s notorious Iran deal, or it might lead to something useful. We just don’t know it yet. You seem to know it already, which is great. But as you admit yourself in this thread: Your political predictions are rather bad.

    The other positive points were already mentioned by Brian Donohue.

    I was extremely disappointed in his betrayal of the Kurds. That really hit me. That was his worst action so far, in my opinion. But he seems to make a (small?) correction here, after all.

    We live in the global era of populism, but actual populist policies are hard to find, outside of Venezuela.

    Maybe one should make a theory out of this. Right-wing populists talk a lot, but fortunately (because of Hitler’s long shadow?) they can not implement their most extreme political goals in our times. It just not possible, not even close. It seems to be quite different with extreme left-wing populists. Socialism still has a good reputation amongst so many people, so left-wing populists unfortunately can still go all the way Venezuela style. It happens all the time, and is often supported by the Western intelligentsia and other usual suspects.

    In the end, Trump is no threat to Neoliberalism. But the new (rather: extremely old) left populism is a real danger.

  17. Gravatar of Scott H. Scott H.
    27. February 2019 at 05:12

    I didn’t vote for Trump, and I see his flaws. However, the R’s put forth the only candidate that could beat Hillary. You can’t have all this Marxist inspired drumbeating in the media and expect a non-populist President to win. The fortunate thing about Trump is that we knew the trade thing couldn’t go anywhere.

  18. Gravatar of Justin Justin
    27. February 2019 at 12:00

    I find it fascinating to watch the media-academia axis try to spin populism as some temporary phenomenon they don’t need to take seriously. A small example of their propagandistic efforts is to rebrand the Yellow Vests as the “Yellow Jackets”. A Yellow Jacket is of course a nasty, flying, stinging insect, plus “jacket” sounds somehow more threatening than a “vest”.

    This is pretty good too: “their ideology is essentially nihilistic”. See nihilism is bad, much worse than the strong ethos of the establishment. Better to believe that the masses are merely cattle to be managed, socially experimented on and bled at the expense of the global oligarchy. The notion that citizens are part owners in a club good known as a “nation”, and deserve a sizeable voice in club meetings isn’t even a position, it’s nihilism.

    “Vi Buhlives in nasing, gives us da money Lebowski”

  19. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    27. February 2019 at 14:53

    Do you still believe things would be better had Hillary won?

    I don’t get your rhetoric about “consistent judges”. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. I want judges who will fight for people like me. I don’t want consistent government, I want good government.

  20. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. February 2019 at 18:56

    Christian, You said:

    “From the very first day, he attacked regimes like Iran and Venezuela.”

    Yes, and he has a love affair with the leader of North Korea, a regime that is far worse.

    You said:

    “You seem to know it already, which is great.”

    Are you incapable of writing a on-idiotic comment?

    Justin, You said:

    “masses are merely cattle to be managed, socially experimented on and bled at the expense of the global oligarchy”

    Yup, I devote this blog to advocate the bleeding of the masses to make me and my family richer. Sort of like Trump.

    Harding, You said:

    “Do you still believe things would be better had Hillary won?”

    I never claimed that. I said the presidency would be better with her in office.

    When I switch from one plumber to another, it’s not a claim that the country would be better off with the new plumber. Only fools think the president has a lot of influence on how the country is doing.

    If you are asking “Do I still think Trump is the worst president in American history?” The answer is “Yes”, and indeed it becomes more and more obvious every day. Even his former advisors say he’s a complete idiot. Did you see how his long time lawyer described him today?

  21. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    28. February 2019 at 21:08


    I said “things” in general. It was meant to be broad. The presidency is definitely a thing.

    “Did you see how his long time lawyer described him today?”

    Mike Cohen is an idiot (more so than Trump) and not known for his honesty. He famously graduated from the least selective law school in the country. I am not a Trump fan, as you know. I view presidents in terms of policy value added, not in terms of their personal style. And in terms of personal style, the worst president is still very much George Bush II. In terms of policy, LBJ or FDR was probably the worst.

    “Yes, and he has a love affair with the leader of North Korea, a regime that is far worse.”

    So you still believe Trump, Sumner? What love affair? Trump temporarily closed negotiations with North Korea just today just because of his desire to lift no sanctions of the beleaguered country until it fully destroys its nuclear stockpile. That’s a hate affair, not a love affair. Trump is attacking North Korea in exactly the same way he is attacking Iran, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Syria, and Russia. In terms of marginal product, Maduro (who sucks) is far worse than Kim (who also sucks).

  22. Gravatar of P Burgos P Burgos
    1. March 2019 at 10:45

    I thought that Trump’s administration had made some regulatory changes that have reduced legal immigration. For example, I thought that Obama was able to use regs to grant work visas to the spouses of H1-b visa holders, and that Trump’s administration reversed this. I thought that they had also made changes to reduce some other forms of legal immigration (most notably when it comes to asylum, but also in other areas). On top of that, I also believe that Trump has caused a decline in student visas (though maybe attributing it to him is giving him too much credit).

    That isn’t to say that I agree these things are a positive direction for the country to take. Just that Trump and the Trump administration haven’t been totally incompetent in making immigration to the US more difficult.

  23. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    2. March 2019 at 12:12

    Harding, You said:

    Mike Cohen is an idiot”

    So when Trump said he’d hire the “best people” . . .

    Burgos, Yes, he’s slightly reduced legal immigration, but reducing illegal immigration was certainly the focus of his campaign. Did he run on reducing legal immigration? In his State of the Union he said he favored increasing legal immigration.

  24. Gravatar of Steven Kopits Steven Kopits
    4. March 2019 at 07:46

    George –

    In what sense is my interpretation ‘shallow’? In October 2017, I predicted a doubling of apprehensions in 2018 in The Hill, and the actual came in at +86%.

    In September, I stated ‘illegal immigration could go a lot higher’, and it has.

    In November, I made a forecast for 2019 at 31% above 2018. January actuals came in 33% above a forecast I already thought was aggressive!

    Right now, I am to the best of my knowledge the only analyst forecasting illegal immigration and my forecasts have been pretty good. These forecasts have been used by the right to underpin Trump’s assertion of a ‘national emergency’. I personally don’t agree with that assessment, which I make clear in the F&F interview. But the numbers are the numbers.

    Underpinning all this is my contention that the Great Recession was a depression, depression-lite if you’ll have it, but still a depression. Depressions have predictable characteristics, most notably the rise of fascism and socialism. But depressions do not last forever, and the US depression ended, from a sociological point of view, between mid-2016 to mid-2018, depending on how you count.

    For example, I mark the US middle class depression as ending in August 2017, the month Bannon was fired and the balance of opinion towards Brexit moved to ‘stay’.

    By contrast, remittances to Mexico did not regain their 2007 peak in real terms until July 2018! The undocumented population had been drifting down ever since 2007, presumably because realized US wages were below the Relocation Wage (ie, it wasn’t worthwhile to stay in the US for Mexican migrants). Well, with remittances at a new high — and with that huge unfilled jobs gap visible in the JOLTS data – it was intuitively clear that the job market in the US must look favorable again for migrants. A boom in migrants coming across the border was a plausible consequence. To date, that has proved the case, and I don’t see the trend breaking to 2030, plus or minus a recession in there somewhere.

    I am not trying to scare the elderly. Far from it! The elderly will want to be a primary employer of migrant labor over the next 15 years or so!

    I am trying to create an awareness that migrant labor is a black market problem and all black market problems have the same solution: legalize and tax. Every single reader of this blog should know that without my telling them.

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