Donald Trump's conservative credentials have been disputed by all sides from the moment that he emerged as a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination in the summer of 2015. The editors of the National Review denounced him as a "philosophically unmoored political opportunist" in a special anti-Trump issue early last year, while both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama characterized Trump as unfaithful to conservative principles during the 2016 general election. Trump's success in capturing the Republican nomination and then the White House prompted some observant analysts on both the left and the right to conclude that the Republican Party is no longer the party of conservatism and that a realignment of the entire American party system is now underway.
We are now two months past the presidential inauguration—and while there have been a number of surprises and unprecedented acts both large and small, the actual policies and personnel of the Trump administration have emerged with some clarity. What they add up to, at least so far, is as conservative a presidency as any in modern history. Trump has endorsed an orthodox conservative legislative agenda on taxes, regulation, and health care (including a major cut to Medicaid)—and has even apparently pressured Paul Ryan to revise the House health care bill in order to address objections from hard-line conservatives. His budget proposal calls for shifting billions of dollars from domestic discretionary programs to national defense, prompting opposition even from some conservative members of Congress. On foreign policy and immigration, Trump only differs from other Republicans to the extent that he has staked out positions further to their ideological right.
Trump's hiring and appointment record tells a similar story. His cabinet is filled with conservative stalwarts like Jeff Sessions, Tom Price, Ben Carson, and Betsy DeVos. Prior to his selection as Trump's budget director, Mick Mulvaney helped to depose John Boehner as Speaker of the House because he viewed Boehner as insufficiently devoted to conservatism. Neil Gorsuch, Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court, is a Federalist Society-style conservative jurist. Top Trump aides Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller are likewise firmly on the right end of the ideological spectrum, and palace-intrigue accounts of the Trump White House indicate that Bannon, Miller, and their allies nearly always prevail in internal disputes.
One reason for the strong right-wing character of the Trump administration is that a party, and even a presidency, is much bigger than one person. The Republican Party is increasingly controlled by ideologically-oriented politicians, activists, and media outlets, and Trump needs to work with, and maintain support from, his fellow partisans in order to govern. During the 2016 campaign, Trump sometimes promised to address policy goals that didn't fit within conservative doctrine—increasing public infrastructure spending, renegotiating trade deals, providing childcare assistance, lowering prescription drug costs—but few other Republicans, in Congress or elsewhere, share these priorities. Declining either to pressure his fellow partisans to modify their views or to build a bipartisan coalition with Democrats, Trump has yet to emphasize any of these issues since taking office.
Another explanation lies with Trump himself. There is little reason to believe that Trump is unshakably devoted to the tenets of conservative political philosophy as a personal value system. But Trump demonstrates two other characteristics that attract him to the pursuit of ambitious conservative policies: (1) a desire to project strength, decisiveness, and success by achieving large-scale—one might say "big-league"—political change; and (2) an eight-year-long resentful preoccupation with Barack Obama that has continued without abatement into the new administration, perhaps suggesting to the current president that any dramatic reversal of a policy supported by his predecessor is by definition a worthy and politically advisable act.
The gap between Trump's own public statements and his administration's actual issue positions is sufficiently large that some people are starting to wonder if Trump even understands the content of the legislation that he has endorsed and is pushing through Congress. Reporters are fanning out to the hamlets and hollows of Middle America to find Trump supporters of modest means who would be disadvantaged by the president's budget and health care proposals. How, wonders the Washington pundit class, can Trump possibly reconcile his populist appeal with his efforts to simultaneously enact a upper-income tax cut and revoke health insurance from millions of less fortunate Americans?
Trump might bet that voters will reward bold policy change for its own sake, regardless of its specific consequences. Or, perhaps, he retains confidence in his ability to successfully sell anything he does to a segment of the electorate that he once claimed was so loyal that it would still support him even if he shot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue. It's also quite possible that he will deny responsibility for any unpopular provisions of the policies that he endorses, instructing voters to direct their blame toward Congress, the courts, or the federal bureaucracy.
Trump may be trapped between campaign rhetoric on one side and political realities on the other, but the entire Republican Party is in a similar predicament. The congressional GOP has also been forced to grapple with the challenge of suddenly fulfilling years of breezy promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act (and to replace it with an unspecified better, cheaper alternative) without spurring a popular backlash that could endanger its control of the legislative branch in next year's midterm elections. Today's health care debate is merely one example of a larger political problem that Republican leaders have faced for the better part of a century. Perennial conservative pledges to implement significant reductions in the scope of federal power are often frustrated by the inconvenient complication that even voters who say they don't like the government do like most of the specific things that the government actually does.
Trump the candidate was shrewd enough to recognize this fact, which is why he committed himself to maintaining current Social Security and Medicare spending levels while guaranteeing all sorts of other government-provided goodies to his supporters. But Trump the president will need to be even shrewder in order to escape voter anger for seeking to cut popular federal programs and benefits in contravention of his campaign-trail promises. The current occupant of the White House may be a newcomer to the conservative cause, but he has adopted its central ambitions as his own. Now he must reckon with the most formidable obstacles to its success.