POLITICS
01/20/2017 05:32 pm ET

Behind Trump's Dark Rhetoric Was A Populist Agenda He's Unlikely To Deliver On

The big clue could be found in the people sitting near him.

Forget, just for a moment, about the quality of the prose in President Donald Trump’s inaugural address. Don’t get caught up in the idealism, or lack thereof. And put aside whether its dark portrait of “American carnage” resembles the reality of America today.

Focus instead on some of the promises Trump made to the American people ― to smash the business and political establishments, to rebuild America’s manufacturing economy, to fix schools, to stop crime and even to fight poverty.

“Today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another,” Trump said. “We are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American people.”

There are many reasons to be skeptical that’s how Trump will actually govern.

Some of the best ones were right up there on the stage with him.

One was GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who had a prime seat near the front row and the Trump family. After the ceremony, Adelson joined members of Congress and other dignitaries for the Capitol Hill luncheon ― which left reporters scratching their heads, trying to remember if a political financier had attended the exclusive event before.

In his speech, Trump warned, “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.” But Adelson’s presence was a reminder that the self-interested elite will carry plenty of influence in Trump’s Washington.

Trump himself has seen to it by filling his administration with moguls, donors and representatives of the very Wall Street firm, Goldman Sachs, that he vilified on the campaign trail. The new president wants to turn the Education Department over to Betsy DeVos, who appears unfamiliar with some basic education policy issues but just happens to be among the GOP’s biggest donors. He wants to hand the Commerce Department over to Wilbur Ross, an investor who specializes in corporate restructuring and was also a major GOP donor.

And that’s to say nothing of Trump’s own conflicts of interest now that he’s decided to maintain ownership of his business empire ― a decision that has drawn public condemnation from the Office of Government Ethics, among others.

Another reason to doubt that Trump can deliver on his promises were a group of people sitting right near Adelson at the inauguration: House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republican leaders from Congress.

They’re already hard at work on an agenda that will feature massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, coupled with the slashing of social programs that benefit the poor and the middle class. Congress is starting with repeal of the Affordable Care Act, through which something like 20 million people get health insurance.

What these initiatives have in common is that they would tend to concentrate wealth at the top, among the elite, rather than distributing it more broadly ― in short, the opposite of what Trump promised in his speech.

Of course, Trump didn’t mention those congressional efforts in his inaugural address, preferring to focus on the importance of enacting a new infrastructure program ― an idea that, properly constructed, could genuinely lift wages and, over the long term, improve productivity.  

But unlike congressional Democrats, who would happily support such an initiative, Ryan, McConnell and the rest of the Republican leadership have been conspicuously less enthusiastic. Meanwhile, many of the conservative groups these GOP leaders heed have been downright hostile.

It’s always possible that appearances are misleading, that over the next four years Trump will actually deliver the policies and changes he promised from the stage on Friday.  But the odds seem long.

Either way, the challenge for the next four years will be keeping those promises in mind ― and holding Trump accountable for them.

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