Trump’s “Omakase” Menu in 3 Parts

In many ways, Donald Trump resembled the “omakase menu” of candidates. People voted much on faith as any specific policy prescriptions — the same way, entertainment execs in the San Fernando Valley eagerly line up at Sushi Nozawa (aka Sushi Nazi) for whatever the chef has dreamed up that day (no alterations permitted). Although, hard to imagine that line including Trump.

That does not mean that Trump did not come with any proposals. Clearly, Trump became synonymous with the wall, deportations, the Muslim ban, “law and order” and trade.

Yet, digging deeper left a lot for the imagination.

1. “Make America Great Again” opened itself to various interpretations on how Trump would accomplish this task — and what “Great Again” actually encompasses.

2. On immigration related issues, many people — including Trump supporters — probably subscribed to the saying: “Take Trump seriously, not literally.” Yes, Trump talked breathlessly about a great walled paid by Mexico and sending 11M illegal aliens back; but, to many people, these views probably felt aspirational — like if Trump boasted he would slim down to a 200 lb. svelte physique.

3. With social issues such as abortion, Trump’s evolving views came across as a work-in-progress as evidenced by his declaration — later retracted — that Trump would prosecute pregnant women.

4. With foreign affairs and the military, Trump deferred on revealing his plans lest he give advance notice to ISIS.

5. Lastly, his lack of government experience — and his rather brief history as a Republican — gave little clues to how he’d actually govern or whom he would appoint to his cabinet.

And, his supporters appeared to like it that way. Trump ran his campaign on celebrity, bombast and a few key slogans. His biggest applause lines centered not on policies, but chants of “Lock Her Up”, lashings of a “dishonest” media and pledges to “drain the swamp.” During the primary debates, Trump often went into hibernation during segues into ideology and policy. Trump’s coalition hewed to no specific ideology or geography: two of his strongest states were Massachusetts and Alabama, which have little else in common. His supporters included former Democrats, independents and those who had previously shown little interest in politics. Trump appealed to the downtrodden, but his voters actually did decently well financially (in the primaries, their mean income was ~$75K).

By contrast, his biggest rivals had specific constituencies — and administrations one could vividly imagine. Cruz catered to evangelicals and social conservatives. In many ways, Rubio positioned himself as a traditional Republican in the mold of a Reagan or Bush — business friendly, hawkish on defense and sunny in temperament. Kasich hoped to thread the needle by targeting the increasingly small moderate wing of the Republican party — maybe a latter day Poppy Bush.

Trump’s lack of specifics and previous political record invite comparisons to Reagan. Both admonished the nation to “Make America Great Again.” Both had started out as political neophytes, who first rose to stardom as celebrities. Both built their political philosophy around a couple of key tenets: supply –side economics, reduced government and a muscular foreign policy for Reagan; America first (encompassing immigration and Muslim views) and less open trade for Trump. Both appeared to ride the crest of a global wave. Reagan rose to power in the same cohort that included Margaret Thatcher, Brian Mulroney of Canada and Helmut Kohl of Germany. Trump, of course, has coincided with Brexit and populist re-awakenings in Italy, France, Poland and the Netherlands.

But, this analogy goes only so far. Unlike Trump, Reagan had 8 years of governing the country’s largest state in which he offered clues to how he would lead as President. Reagan’s tenure as governor also gave him a stable of associates who would populate his administration in the ’80s (e.g. Ed Meese, William French Smith); Trump lacks any real coterie of close advisers as Trump’s “Apprentice” like transition makes clear. Whereas Trump’s views have emerged in real-time, Reagan radio addresses in the late 1970s lucidly sketched out his worldview (http://www.hoover.org/research/reagan-his-own-voice) .

Omikase Gets Served

In short, Trump offered a blank canvas onto which people could project what they wished. It also meant that people would find surprises and incongruities. Let’s look at Trump’s action in the month since the election:

a) Trump has filled many cabinet positions with traditional conservatives — people who would have been at home in, say, a Cruz administration. Some choice picks include:

i. Jeff Sessions, an opponent of criminal justice reform, as attorney general

ii. Betsy DeVos, a champion of charter schools (some of which of dubious distinction) and anti-gay views, at education

iii. Thomas Price, an avowed opponent of Obamacare, at health

iv. Andrew Pudzer, a fast food executive who opposes minimum wage increases and worker regulations, at labor; he would have the least government experience for a labor secretary since the Reagan administration

v. Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General with deep ties to the Koch Brothers and energy producers, at the EPA. Pruitt has led the charge to dismantle Obama’s environmental regulations

vi. Rick Perry, long-standing Texas Governor and friend of the oil & gas industry, at Energy — putting him in charge of a department he once vowed to eliminate

vii. Ryan Zinke, whose voted with the League of Conservation Voters on 3% of votes, at Interior

b) Yet, at the same time, Trump has embraced economic talk and actions that would make a liberal Democrat like Dick Gephardt blush. Trump’s strong arming of Carrier to preserve ~1,000 jobs in Indiana drew the wrath of Sarah Palin, who critiqued its “crony capitalism.” Trump’s threatened severe 35% tariffs for companies that ship jobs overseas, earning the admonition of the Wall Street Journal (Trump’s Carrier Shakedown). Just recently, Trump released some morning tweets accusing Boeing of waste with a new version of Air Force One. Trump’s calls for vast infrastructure spending elicit little enthusiasm from many congressional Republicans — but mirror (on steroids) similar programs pushed by Obama.

c) Meanwhile, Trump has given the far right some long needed love. He’s elevated an editor of a once fringe conservative website, Steve Bannon, as chief White House strategist. Another major appointee, national security advisor designate Mike Flynn peddles all sorts of conspiracies — including one that resulted in gun shots at a local Washington D.C. pizzeria.

How do we make sense of these actions — which often appear at cross purposes? They stem out of the need to motivate three distinct constituencies — the “Trump” coalition if you will.

  1. The “hard core” Trump supporters, who flocked to his rallies and gussied themselves up in Trump face paint. These people provide the oxygen off of which Trumpism lives — although they probably represent a small minority of actual Trump voters.

2) The traditional Republican — it includes the vast swath of Republican politicians and voters. These people most likely did not see Trump as their 1st — or even 2nd or 3rd choices. During the primaries, they probably pulled the lever for a Cruz, Rubio or Bush.

Paul Ryan

3) The blue-collar, Trump “Democrats” who enabled trump’s victory in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. It’s these voters who caused places like Trumbull County, Ohio — which had never gone Republican — to flip from 23% Obama to 7% Trump. These voters do not have a definite conservative ideology and, in fact, may likely have voted for Obama at least once — if not twice. Their migration to Trump stemmed out of economic anxieties and a backlash against a Clinton campaign too laden with cultural identity issues.

Joe the Plumber

In the space of a month, Trump has behaved in different ways to please each of these three groups. If he maintains this triangulation, he may very well win reelection despite having lost the popular vote by 2%+ or ~2.8M votes.

First, Trump takes care of his hard-core supporters — the Trumpheters if you will. The Bannon and Flynn appointments as well as the “Thank You America” tour will cheer this small, but highly vocal group of Trump supporters — the ones who attended his rallies (or maybe multiple rallies like a roving Phish fan), wore Trump face-paint or carried leashes with a Hillary doll on the other end. No one is going to get re-elected off this group, but they provide Trump’s foundation: packed rallies will create the illusion of strong support even when the chips are down. These devotees — and the large rallies they attend — could put the fear into wavering Republicans who don’t hoe the Trump line — especially if these supporters threaten primary challenges in 2018.

Next, appeasing traditional Republicans/conservatives broadens Trump’s support to the entire Republican Party — and moves his agenda forward. The vast majority of congressional Republicans supported someone else in the primaries; incidents like Judge Curiel, the Gold Star family, Access Hollywood tape, general ignorance at debates probably did nothing to endear Trump to this group. Nor did Trump’s heresy around Republican ideology — trade, Russia, alliances, anti-trust, large infrastructure spending, etc. — make him any more palatable.

But, Trump’s recent appointments — DeVos, Pudzer, Pruitt, etc. — and what they represent will go a long way towards appeasing these establishment/congressional Republicans. Lower corporate taxes, lighter regulations, Obamacare repeal, gutting of Dodd/Frank, fossil friendly directives, privatization of education — this all represents Christmas come early for many Republicans. And we haven’t even gotten to new Supreme Court nominees and what that will portend for abortion; already the Ohio legislature has passed the “Heartbeat” abortion law in excited anticipation of a more acquiescent Supreme Court.

Many traditional Republicans might not personally like Trump — he still might come across as gauche, disrespectful and not truly bought into their ideology. But, these same Republicans also probably harbor a lot of frustration at getting blocked from pursuing their agenda over the past 8 years. Now given free-reign to pursue their conservative agenda, these conservatives might forgive Trump’s past heresies and embrace the Trump presidency.

Now, this vast re-engineering of federal policy and dismantling of the Obama agenda might prove unsettling for a country in which Clinton actually received 2.8M+ votes. Even many Trump voters — especially the “Trump Democrats” in traditionally Democratic parts of the Rust Belt — do not really subscribe to the Club for Growth worldview. These voters most likely do not share all the conspiracy theories promoted by Trump’s core supporters either.

But, these voters do care about jobs and a return of some dignity to their lives — that is why they voted for Trump in the first place. These voters — treated to 10 years of economic decline, closed factories, perceived disrespect and general neglect — will see the Carrier factory news and suddenly see hope. Trump might embellish his role in the Carrier decision as he did with a Ford factory — but how many people will fact check? Trump’s threats of 30% tariffs or penalties for outsourcing corporations could come across as a revelation — and not “crony capitalism”. The $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending means a lot of new jobs. The occasional impolitic move — speaking to the Taiwan president, his incessant tweets, occasional break with Republican ideology — will only cement Trump’s maverick image.

Perhaps, some of these voters might feel uncomfortable with the sharp rightward thrust around immigration, regulations, social issues (e.g. abortion), the environment, taxes, criminal justice, voting rights, etc. Many of these voters did vote for Obama after all. And some liberals living from a comfortable vantage point in the Village, Silver Lake or Marin County might label these voters racist or reactionary for casting their lot with a strongman like Trump.

But, in the end, people’s livelihood and sense of dignity probably outweighs all these concerns. And worries about what Trump might do to minorities, pregnant women, the LGBT community, the environment all runs against a hard reality. Clinton’s campaign might have been predicated on a multi-ethnic population; but, today, most people in the country are still white and straight. Men are 50% of the population and many women do not face the prospect of an unwanted pregnancy. As a result, most voters will not personally feel any repercussions from the far Right policies enacted by Trump and his appointees.

More likely, these voters will directly feel an enhanced sense of well-being if they sense greater job security or attention — whether valid or not, whether caused by Trump or not. In a recent Thomas Edsall op-ed in the New York Times (Trump Voters Are Feeling It), an expert on mental health opines that Trump could “likely raise the morale of many people in the Midwest who were depressed or demoralized, which is a great risk factor for depression.” The Obama ’08 victory led to a similar feeling with minorities.

This vastly improved outlook — if attributed to Trump — could play a big part in the 2020 election. If Trump changes the outlook of these “Trump Democrats”, easy to imagine these voters will ignore the rather noxious parts of the Trump presidency that they find distasteful. Like someone at a sushi counter, they will trust Trump to look out for them.

In short, Trump will have bought off people’s support with populist rhetoric and occasional strong-arming of employers that elicits a modest # of saved jobs, but a rather immodest string of tweets. He can then hope that these voters look the other way while he enacts a hard-right agenda on everything from the environment to labor to the Supreme Court.