Trump’s Gilded Age Cabinet isn’t a breach of populist promises — yet

There has been a lot of consternation from liberals as Trump has filled his Cabinet with billionaires and bankers. Isn’t this a violation of Trump’s promises to drain the swamp and reclaim the government from Goldman Sachs?

No, it’s not.

Yet.

You don’t have to like these picks, but you should understand why they don’t yet constitute a breach of Trump’s core promise to voters – and what would have to happen for them to develop into such a breach in the future.

Like a lot of Democrats, Trump talks about the system as being rigged for the big guy at the expense of the little people. But when Trump talks about this, it’s different from the way Democrats talk about it.

When Trump says the system is rigged, he’s complaining, but he’s not criticizing.

Maybe the big guy is taking more than his fair share, but Trump doesn’t begrudge him his effort to do so. Trump thinks that’s what smart people do!

Trump even brags about his past political donations to politicians on both sides of the aisle, which he describes as a (successful) effort to buy influence.

Trump openly describes himself as “greedy.” And his promise during the campaign was that, as president, he would be “greedy for you.”

So, who better to fill his Cabinet than the people who were smart enough to use the system to get rich? These are the smart guys, the ones who can finally get the good deal for regular Americans that they’ve been getting for themselves all along.

This might not be a good idea – I don’t think it is a good idea, to be clear – but it’s consistent with what he promised in the campaign.

But Trump has not yet gotten to the hard part. Starting in January, he will have to deliver on being “greedy for you,” on a scale far, far larger than the Carrier deal.

caption
Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s choice for Treasury secretary, speaking with members of the news media at Trump Tower in New York.
source
Reuters/Mike Segar

I don’t think he’s likely to succeed.

Many Trump opponents suffer from a remarkable combination of outrage and fatalism. Trump has lied and distorted his way here, the thinking goes, and he’ll be able to do whatever plutocratic things he wants as president and paint it as a victory for the common man. It won’t matter whether his stunts really create jobs and raise wages.

I’ve been a little more at peace since the election because I don’t think that’s true. A presidency is different from a campaign, and economic fundamentals are by far the largest driver of a president’s popularity.

Trump is under particular pressure because he has promised a lot. He is supposed to “Make America Great Again.” What that means is obviously in the eye of the beholder, but a major component is supposed to be more jobs and rising wages.

Trump may not always be interested in facts, but once he is president, facts will be very interested in him. If wages are flat and unemployment ticks up, nobody will be impressed with a Carrier-plant appearance in 2018.

Of course, economic performance under presidents also has a lot to do with luck, but that mostly matters within normal ranges of presidential quality and economic outcomes. If Trump is a garden-variety bad president, he could catch a break with global economic trends and luck into an economic up cycle.

If Trump is a very uncommonly bad president – if he manufactures a deep recession through trade policy or creates dangerous chaos – that should swamp the statistical noise and make Trump noticeably bad in the eyes of the electorate.

And if job growth and wage growth stagnate while Trump delivers a basket of goodies for the rich, then the talking point that he has a Gilded Age Cabinet – rich people implementing policies that only seem to benefit rich people like themselves and Trump – will be very powerful.

But that has to happen first.

You may not be inclined to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. But a lot of voters are going to – even a lot of voters who didn’t vote for him and who don’t like him.

If Trump does as bad a job of delivering for workers as you might expect, those voters are likely to come around to the view that Trump’s populism was a fraud. But they’re going to have to watch him fail before they judge him a failure.