Small hand of government: Trump's aim to shrink the state pleases conservatives

Ben Jacobs in Washington
Donald Trump speaks to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland in February. Photograph: Pool/Getty Images

Donald Trump may not look like a conservative, act like a conservative or sound like a conservative, but he has been governing like one.

Many Republican activists are satisfied with the first 70 days of his administration. In conversations with such figures this week, issues such as Trump’s controversial travel bans or the resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn did not come up. Instead, optimism centered around efforts to roll back Obama-era regulations and the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacant supreme court seat.

Grover Norquist, a long-time and vocal activist, leader of Americans for Tax Reform, said: “On the deregulatory front he’s been phenomenal.” Trump’s picks to staff his administration, Norquist said, were “all people who understand the costs of the regulatory burden and are committed to ruling back the over-regulations of both George W Bush and Obama”.

This was echoed by Matt Schlapp, head of the American Conservative Union. His organization, he said, was “really happy with the team [Trump has] put around himself and the executive orders he’s been rolling out”.

Norquist said that while Trump’s “background isn’t Reagan Republican” he thought the 45th president had come around to that mindset “whether by instinct or what he’s learned”.

He noted that while Trump, a former Democratic donor who has promised spending on infrastructure and health “insurance for everybody”, had come to that position by a slightly unusual path – “he talks about ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ and not ‘liberty, liberty, liberty’” – he had produced a conservative result.

“His answers were all conservative even if his phrasing appeared to be populist,” said Norquist.

It also helped, Norquist said, that Trump ran for president against Hillary Clinton, who he said was the antithesis of Reagan Republicanism. The result was that if Trump was against everything the former secretary of state was for, he had no choice but to be a Reagan Republican. This process had been amplified, Norquist said, by Trump’s rejection by “the establishment left … whose job it is to seduce you when it comes to DC”.

Schlapp argued that Trump is more conservative than he seems. In his opinion skeptics on the right have not been paying attention.

“I think they didn’t listen,” he said, “and they didn’t take Trump seriously and they didn’t spend time with him and when you spend time with him, he has conservative instincts.

“I believe Barack Obama had a big impact on him,” Schlapp added, saying that “people who were less partisan thought Obama presidency was a great chance for our country to bridge the divide”.

“A lot of Republicans who I know who voted for Obama thought that actually he might find this third way and find a way to bridge partisan divide and I think what people saw with Obama was a very aggressive liberal agenda and I think there was a backlash to Obama.”

Furthermore, Schlapp said, a robust conservative movement always provides strong guardrails on executive appointments made by Republican administrations. Trump’s selection of Gorsuch, for example, came from a list of potential supreme court picks that his campaign worked up with the Heritage Foundation, a prominent think tank that has influenced other moves by the Trump administration.

‘Legislation is harder’

Despite all the steps taken through executive orders and White House support for congressional efforts to overturn rules instituted by Obama in his final months in office, Trump is without actual legislative success. The failure of the American Health Care Act (AHCA), the proposed replacement for Obamacare, hit hard.

After the AHCA was pulled, finger-pointing ensued across the Republican party. Some blamed Speaker Paul Ryan and House leadership; others blamed the hard-right Freedom Caucus, whose refusal to back the bill was an important factor in its collapse. But no blame was cast towards Trump directly. Supporters and opponents of the bill went out of their way to praise the president’s involvement.

“Legislation is obviously a lot of work, a lot of detail, a lot of titles and a lot of legal interpretation and so it’s just harder,” said Schlapp, a veteran of the George W Bush White House, in discussing the work involved in passing a bill compared with that of naming a political appointee.

Some House Republicans, Schlapp said, were frustrated that they could not improve the process of pushing the AHCA into law.

Norquist, though, laid the blame for the AHCA’s fall on the Freedom Caucus, who he called “the Know Nothing caucus”. Such hard-right figures, he said, felt Trump was stealing their spotlight.

Their objection “appears to be the same that some conservatives had to [former speaker] Newt Gingrich”, he said: “That he sucks all the oxygen out of the room and Gingrich is always taking everyone’s ideas and massaging them and making them his own.”

Although Trump has been aggressive on Twitter towards the Freedom Caucus, they have shrugged such shots aside. One member, Justin Amash of Michigan, tweeted on Friday of the AHCA: “Didn’t vote for #Swampcare because it’s just another version of #Obamacare – and just as dysfunctional (which is pretty hard to pull off).”

Norquist said: “I’m not surprised by … the odd reactions by some people who want to be Mr Conservative if the president is always sitting in that spot.”

‘He lacks both character and judgment’

Trump’s work on appointments and deregulation have not appeased all conservatives. Bill Kristol, founder of the the Weekly Standard and former chief of staff to Vice-President Dan Quayle, told the Guardian: “Trump’s pretty much been as bad as I expected.”

Kristol, who was a “Never Trump” Republican in 2016, said that while Trump has “done some individually good things … he lacks both the character and judgment as well as the qualifications for the job and lacks most conservative policies or principles”.

While Trump had some legitimate conservative accomplishments, he said, “some of it depends on how you weight some decent policy choices … against real irresponsibility in certain respects on foreign policy and general disregard for constitutional and institutional norms”.

Furthermore, Kristol said, every move for which Trump is being praised by conservatives would have been done by any other Republican president. Trump is effectively being graded on a curve.

To Kristol, the ongoing controversies surrounding Russia and investigating claims of wiretapping were “getting into Watergate and Iran-Contra territory”. And he added, “it’s just one thing”.

However, such concerns have yet to concern many conservatives. Although Trump’s approval rating is mired at historic lows for a newly elected president, under 40%, he has loyal support among the rank and file: in one recent poll, 84% of self-identified Republicans supported him.

As Schapp pointed out, at CPAC in February, an event that was a center of disdain for Trump in 2016, attendees were almost universally happy with the president.

“They’re really happy with what they’re seeing with the Trump administration,” said Schapp, whose organization hosts the annual conservative conference. “His agenda and the president are held in high esteem.”

After all, the Trump administration is shrinking the size of government – or, as adviser Steve Bannon put it at CPAC, “deconstructing the administrative state”. Despite the troubles and controversies that dog the president, that is still what is most important to many on the right.

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