Trump is both too populist and not populist enough. His populism is largely, although not entirely, a matter of style — combative, lacerating, emotive, unpredictable and grandiose.
This sensibility is a central part of Trump's appeal. It also puts the accent on his personality, which is a double-edged sword, at best.
For every Trump voter that it lights up, it reminds a suburban woman why she hates his guts. If Trump's populism is always based foremost on Rally Trump and Twitter Trump, i.e., on the behavior pushing the suburbs away from him, there is no way for him to try to tamp down the yawning geographic and demographic vulnerability underlined by the midterms.
Other than on trade and immigration, Trump has governed as a fairly typical Republican. His biggest legislative accomplishment during the first two years was a tax cut out of Republican Central Casting.
Trump knew that it didn't resonate as a campaign issue. "Hey, did you hear that I created a 20 percent deduction for pass-through income?" wasn't the messaging he was looking for.
He showed an instinctual sense that he needed a genuine middle-class agenda. He talked of a fantastical, imminent middle-class tax cut. And he insisted that Republicans would do a better job dealing with the problem of pre-existing conditions than Democrats, without offering any supporting policy.
In the absence of any populist substance, Trump was thrown back on the caravan, and more caravan, and his usual mediagenic provocations. This pushed both his supporters and opponents to the polls, and — with the exception of some key red-state Senate races -- more of the latter than the former.
Going into 2020, he needs a populism that is less stylistic and more substantive, and one that has crossover appeal to Trump's working-class voters and suburbanites.
It's easy to see a rough outline. One focus should be work. Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute has written a new book, "The Once and Future Worker," that is a guide to new conservative thinking on how to support a healthy labor market. The Trump team should crib from it freely.
Another broad category should be the cost of living, especially health care and college. Although you wouldn't know it from the midterm campaign, conservatives do have proposals to deal with pre-existing conditions. The thrust of the GOP health care agenda is to reduce costs to consumers, a theme Trump should emphasize.
It should be natural to take on the costs of higher education, driven in part by the unintended consequences of federal programs, and explore alternative means of training and accreditation besides four-year college. Trump, of all politicians, should want to promote the interests of young people entering the workforce without a four-year degree.
As for Trump's signature issue of immigration, it would go down easier in the suburbs if he began talking about E-Verify, which puts the focus on the employers who hire undocumented immigrants rather than the immigrants themselves.
The problem is that these are relatively small-bore ideas that don't lend themselves to Trump's rhetoric of large claims and easy-to-understand villains. Taken together, it can be an agenda larger than its parts, but it will need to be thought through and can't just be grabbed off the shelf.
Even if last week's results weren't as encouraging to Trump as they first appeared, he is still very much in the game. But unless some exogenous event boosts Trump's standing to another level, he is dependent on Democrats once again nominating a candidate unacceptable to the white working class (and not particularly popular in the suburbs, either).
Even then, it could be a near-run thing. Best to deepen and widen his populism in advance of another effort to thread the electoral needle.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: [email protected]
(c) 2018 by King Features Syndicate.