Hannity to Trump: What are you hoping to achieve in your second term?

It may be that his train of thought got derailed here when Hannity interrupted him. Either way, he doesn’t answer the question.

It’s an important question too, and not just Trump critics think so. Hours before this interview with Hannity aired, the normally Trump-friendly Wall Street Journal dropped this editorial on him:

As of now Mr. Trump has no second-term agenda, or even a message beyond four more years of himself. His recent events in Tulsa and Arizona were dominated by personal grievances. He resorted to his familiar themes from 2016 like reducing immigration and denouncing the press, but he offered nothing for those who aren’t already persuaded.

Mr. Trump’s advisers have an agenda that would speak to opportunity for Americans of all races—school choice for K-12, vocational education as an alternative to college, expanded health-care choice, building on the opportunity zones in tax reform, and more. The one issue on which voters now give him an edge over Mr. Biden is the economy. An agenda to revive the economy after the pandemic, and restore the gains for workers of his first three years, would appeal to millions.

Perhaps Mr. Trump lacks the self-awareness and discipline to make this case. He may be so thrown off by his falling polls that he simply can’t do it. If that’s true he should understand that he is headed for a defeat that will reward all of those who schemed against him in 2016.

Those suggestions couldn’t hurt, although they’re hallmarks of the sort of old-guard Republicanism that fared poorly in recent presidential elections before the GOP switched to Trumpism in 2016. WaPo notes that Trump’s campaign page doesn’t even have a section on a second-term agenda. Rather, it has a “Promises Kept” page where you can view his accomplishments. (Listed among them: Making school choice a priority.) The “Promises Kept” page is misleading in one sense, though: Virtually all of the promises Trump made in 2016 that got populists excited about him remain momentarily unkept.

The wall? Still in progress. Withdrawal of U.S. troops abroad? Working on it. ObamaCare repeal? Got close, but McCain killed it. Judges? Many solid wins there, although his prize pony, Neil Gorsuch, is less prized lately. Crackdown on China? Partially achieved, although POTUS’s desperation to undo his trade war with a deal that would juice the economy before Election Day may have led him to go softer on Beijing over the pandemic and human rights than a different Republican might have.

He did get tax cuts done. That’s the most unambiguous policy victory from his first term. But ironically, that was more a vestige of Paul Ryan Republicanism than Trumpism. Populists typically don’t cry about taxes on the rich. The rich are “elites,” their sworn enemy.

His unspoken second-term agenda is simply to let him finish trying to do the stuff he wanted to do in 2016 but couldn’t accomplish. He’ll build the wall. He’ll bring the troops home. He’ll repeal O-Care. He’ll bring China to its knees. He’ll appoint phenomenal judges to the Supreme Court, not like that squishy Gorsuch character. “Trump 2020: It’ll work this time.”

Is that enough for 270 electoral votes? It got him 306 four years ago but that was against a deeply unlikable opponent and after a campaign that presented Trump as a man of action who’d bulldoze right through Washington to achieve his agenda via sheer force of will. Four years later, he’s stuck having to explain why the bulldozer broke down. His half-answer to Hannity in the clip is that he has “experience” in governing now, replete with many relationships on Capitol Hill which, he implies, he’ll be able to leverage to fulfill his priorities. But that’s sort of the opposite of what made Trump appealing in 2016. He had no experience in government then. He was an outsider untainted by the system and could “shake things up.” Now he’s running as an old pro?

And the “experience” logic works only if he ends up with the GOP in total control of government again, which was a long longshot even before his recent poll slide and seems unthinkable now. His relationship with Democrats is so utterly poisoned that if they control either chamber of Congress he’ll accomplish nothing until at least 2022 (and probably 2024 since midterms tend to favor the out-party). He won’t even be able to get a judge confirmed if Schumer takes over the Senate — although, admittedly, the scenario in which Dems end up with 51 seats while Trump gets reelected is remote. If he insists at the debates that he can get his policy wish list through if only voters will give him a Republican Congress, Biden’s going to turn to him and remind him that he had that for two years and all he managed was tax cuts. What will he say?

Part of me thinks it’s silly to analyze Trump’s appeal in terms of policy agendas, though. The GOP is more of a cultural coalition now than a political party that seeks to achieve substantive change through federal power. For many righties, the reason to elect Republicans is to keep Democrats out of power, plain and simple. Trump isn’t just the leader of that coalition, he’s a creation of it, so naturally he’d believe that a second-term agenda is largely beside the point. Relatedly, Jonathan Last is baffled by this Peggy Noonan column today and so am I:

He doesn’t understand his own base. I’ve never seen that in national politics.

Some of them, maybe half, are amused by his nonsense decisions and statements—let’s ban all Muslims; let’s end this deadbeat alliance; we have the biggest, best tests. But they are half of 40%, and they would stick with him no matter what. He doesn’t have to entertain them! He had to impress and create a bond with others.

The other half of his base is mortified by his antics and shallowness. I hear from them often. They used to say yes, he’s rough and uncouth and unpolished, but only a rough man can defeat the swamp. Now they say I hate him and what he represents but I’ll vote for him because of the courts, etc. How a lot of Trump supporters feel about the president has changed. The real picture at the Tulsa rally was not the empty seats so much as the empty faces—the bored looks, the yawning and phone checking, as if everyone was re-enacting something, hearing some old song and trying to remember how it felt a few years ago, when you heard it the first time.

Trump understands his base a lot better than Noonan does, says Last, correctly. Despite the terrible numbers he’s had in polling lately, his support among Republicans remains remarkably strong. There’s a small but significant number that momentarily prefer Biden to him in horse-race surveys but there’s no evidence that a large share of Republicans are “mortified by his antics and shallowness.” Rather, says Last, the antics and shallowness — the “cathartic performance of perpetual grievance” — are what the base likes about him. His skepticism about masks and testing, his disinterest in racial reconciliation amid the George Floyd protests and flirtation with using troops against looters, his wild roundhousing at political enemies, that’s the stuff that helped him capture the party.

It may be true that that’s only 40 percent of the electorate and that he needs something like 48 percent to win, but it’s silly to expect him to become a policy-minded politician now (“school choice!”) in hopes of winning that last eight percent. The sense of grievance that he thrives on will inevitably lead him to try to get that eight percent by turning Biden into the greater of two evils. That’s a much harder task than it was with Hillary, but if he ends up winning, that’s how he’ll do it. Noonan herself admits in the excerpt that all of the Republicans who are supposedly telling her they loathe Trump now will vote for him anyway on lesser-of-two-evil grounds (“because of the courts”). They don’t really have a problem with how he behaves apart from some light pearl-clutching. So why should he offer them anything, including a second-term agenda? All he needs to do is identify the eight percent out there susceptible to believing that Biden is the devil and make that case.