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Trump's Platform Remains Unclear As President Reaches 100 Days


Donald Trump promised something new in American politics. His strategists said his brash America First approach would bust up the old party identities. He'd remake the Republican Party as a populist workers party. Now as the president approaches his 100th day in office, NPR's Mara Liasson looks at the evolving definition of Trumpism.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: There were always two theories about Trumpism. On the one hand, says former Republican strategist Dan Schnur, Trumpism was economic populism combined with social conservatism and a dash of isolationism.

DAN SCHNUR: The other school of thought on Trumpism is that Donald Trump really did not believe in anything except endless confidence in himself. He was going to show up, make the decisions that he could based on his own impulse and instinct and see what happened.

LIASSON: So Dan Schnur, which is it?

SCHNUR: Here we are almost a hundred days later, and we really don't know which of those two is actually his approach to governance.

LIASSON: Trumpism is a moving target. On foreign policy, Trump is morphing into a more conventional Republican. His policy choices on China, NATO, Iran, the EU and Syria have earned him praise from the foreign policy establishment he used to call stupid. On domestic policy, Trump is also moving away from his populist campaign rhetoric. He's stocked his cabinet with billionaires and CEOs, and he's been tilting toward the Wall Street wing of his White House staff, signing executive orders helpful to the big banks. And he embraced an Obamacare replacement plan that would have cut entitlements, something candidate Trump promised never to do.

All that confusion worries pollster Pat Caddell who 40 years ago helped elect another candidate who ran against the elites.

PAT CADDELL: I've been here down this road before when you had an outsider elected. His name was Jimmy Carter. And the problem is that what the White House lacks, as we did in Carter, is an organizing principle that can drive even your own people toward, what is your ultimate purpose here?

Look; Donald Trump is the man who I've known for many years who operates on instincts. His instincts are legitimate. They're populist. They are nationalist. They are anti-establishment. But I don't think he understands the government he's putting in place.

LIASSON: One of the problems President Trump has had turning Trumpism into a governing agenda is that there aren't a lot of Trumpists in Congress. Even the House Freedom Caucus who were brought into power by the same anti-establishment forces that helped elect Donald Trump broke with him on the Obamacare bill. Republican strategist Ed Rollins runs one of the pro-Trump super PACs.

ED ROLLINS: This was not a Congress that got elected on his coattails. It wasn't like in 1980 when 33 members got elected on Reagan's coattails. So we need more Trump people, and that will obviously happen over time or not happen. If it doesn't happen, then obviously it's going to be a hard time moving the ball forward.

LIASSON: Trump may not have a base of Trumpists in Congress, but he does have a base of voters. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway says Donald Trump knows who sent him to Washington and what they expect from him.

KELLYANNE CONWAY: He's well aware of the promises he's made, of how Americans responded to his platform which he came up with himself. And he will continue to do that. But Trumpism is really a broadening of a party that had little sclerosis for a while. And he gave working-class voters, particularly white, working-class voters, a reason to believe that the party included them.

LIASSON: These white, working-class voters may not care if Trump abandons his populist promises on the Export-Import Bank or Chinese currency manipulation as long as he stays true to his positions on trade and immigration. On those two issues, Trump has stayed focused on the economic and cultural anxieties he stoked during the campaign. Dan Schnur...

SCHNUR: More than anything, these issues of trade and immigration really were the key to his political appeal, particularly to this working-class vote that fueled his rise during the campaign. On both of these fronts, he's still moving forward very aggressively and very confrontationally.

LIASSON: Already Trump's message on immigration is being heard loud and clear. Without passing any laws, illegal border crossings - already slow - have slowed even more. H1B1 visa applications are down. So are applications from foreign students to U.S. universities. Even tourism to the U.S. is off. But other issues will soon be putting Trumpism to the test. On Wednesday, President Trump says he's going to announce his plan for massive tax cuts. Every tax bill has winners and losers, and, says Ed Rollins, designing a tax plan could be full of potholes for Trumpism.

ROLLINS: If the end of the day, the Wal-Mart shoppers feel like they've been screwed and the Goldman Sachs people get more benefits out of a tax reform, then that basically can be some alienation.

LIASSON: Wal-Mart shoppers are Trump's base, and so far they are not alienated. A hundred days in, and most polls show Trump voters satisfied with his performance. That's the good news. But Trump hasn't expanded his base at all. His approval ratings are at historic lows for a new president, and Trumpism remains a mystery. Is it just a nativist version of what a Mitt Romney administration would look like, or is it up for grabs, waiting for the next impulsive decision of a president who prides himself on being transactional, flexible and unpredictable? Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.