Now that Donald Trump has signed the COVID-19 relief bill, resolving the crisis he instigated by denouncing it as a “disgrace” and insisting it be expanded to include much larger payouts to individuals, it’s possible to assess just how the battle lines of partisan combat in Washington have shifted since the waning days of the Obama administration.
The answer is: hardly at all.
Ever since Trump defied expectations in 2016 by winning his party’s nomination with a highly unorthodox message, a wide range of prognosticators, along with some of the party’s elected officials, have suggested that the Republican future involves transforming the GOP into a “workers party.” Such a party would mix standard Republican positions on taxes, judges, and abortion with defenses of key aspects of the welfare state that benefit the working class, including increased access to affordable medical care.
In sum: The entrepreneurial party of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, which sought to “reform entitlements” (read: gut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid), would be replaced by a party that actively seeks to offer a helping hand to struggling American workers.
Trump’s instincts do seem to point in precisely this direction. But he has proven to be such an atrocious negotiator, so incurious about the details of public policy, and so incapable of learning how to use the levers of power in Washington (beyond tweet-based rabblerousing) that he’s accomplished less than nothing during the four years of his presidency. Instead of dragging his party to embrace an agenda less skewed toward the rich, he has ended up revealing that those who favor a more worker-friendly approach are vastly outnumbered and incredibly weak in the GOP.
That’s unfortunate — for Republicans and for the country as a whole.
America’s two major parties are locked in a struggle over which of them will come to be seen as the party of the working class. In this battle, Democrats have a number of advantages rooted in their history going back nearly a century to the New Deal. But over the past decade or so, the party has drifted away from that legacy, doing better and better among those who live in economically flourishing cities and inner-ring suburbs, and shifting sharply to the left on cultural issues (race, gender, crime, and immigration).
These trends have alienated voters in exurban and rural areas (especially in the post-industrial Midwest). That has created an opening for Republicans to make inroads with an economically populist and culturally conservative message. That, in a nutshell, is Trumpism — and it is potentially very potent at the ballot box. If Trump had taken a strong stand over the summer that the next COVID relief bill needed to include $2,000 checks for every American, and if he had repeated that line through the fall and combined it with his attacks on crime, urban unrest, and the threat of “socialism,” he likely would have prevailed in the election.
Instead, the president said very little about the economy (beyond bragging about its pre-pandemic greatness) and next to nothing about the relief bill wending its way through Congress. That allowed Joe Biden to portray himself and his party as defenders of working people. When that familiar Democratic stance was combined with the Biden campaign’s deft refusal to be baited into offering defenses of the culturally toxic behavior of rioters or endorsements for politically asinine slogans (“Defund the Police”), the result was a winning message.
Trump’s last-minute acting out about the relief bill confirmed that his political instincts remain sound, even as he continues to be incapable of acting on them in a politically productive way. That’s not only because of Trump’s personal ineptitude. It’s also a function of the ideological alignment of the parties, which hasn’t changed much at all in the past four years. It was Nancy Pelosi, the head of the Democratic Party in the House, who jumped at the prospect of increasing the size of relief checks from $600 to $2,000 — and Republicans in the same chamber who rejected it. Which is exactly what would have happened in 2014, 2004, 1994, or 1984.
Four years after Trump seized control of the GOP, Republicans are happy to playact cultural populism, lashing out against the “woke left” in order to burnish the party’s working-class bona fides. But economic populism remains a bridge too far.
Which means, once again, that Washington’s battle lines have moved very little over the past four years.
From here on out, the most sensible path forward for both parties is clear. Democrats will continue to portray themselves as a party of working people on economic issues — and keep trying to placate the cultural left while also working to steer clear of its most extreme excesses. Republicans, meanwhile, will keep attacking the cultural left and using that red meat to portray themselves as aligned with ordinary Americans — while also favoring economic policies that primarily benefit the wealthy and often leave working-class communities in ruins.
The details may have shifted somewhat through the decades, but the general shape of things has changed very little since the Obama administration — and even since the Reagan administration. Trumpism pointed, haltingly, at another possibility. But as its namesake prepares to leave office in a spasm of election-fraud conspiracism and impotent acting out against his own party’s plutocratic priorities, the much-discussed re-alignment of the parties appears to be stillborn, with the entrenched positions of both parties as fixed as ever.