After listening to Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address, in which the newly minted 45th president spoke in apocalyptic tones about “American carnage” and declared an imminent return to economic nationalism, his Republican predecessor George W. Bush turned to Hillary Clinton and said, “That was some weird shit.” On that rain-soaked morning in January 2017, the contrast couldn’t have been clearer between the ascendant force of American populism and the humbled pride of the nation’s ruling oligarchy: One era had ended and another was being born—or so it seemed.

Nearly six years later, the swamp remains undrained, contrary to the hopes of many of Trump’s followers. Nor has he become president-for-life of an authoritarian state, as his many enemies feared (or claimed to fear). Although Trump announced his 2024 presidential bid after several of the most prominent candidates he promoted during the midterm elections went down to defeat, his heart hasn’t seemed in it. His next major announcement, about a month later, turned out to be a sales pitch for his new line of NFT “trading cards.”

On many fronts, though, Trump had already surrendered, while still in office, to the establishment he had vowed to oppose. His administration’s great legislative achievement was a corporate tax cut designed by Paul Ryan, which primarily benefited large multinationals and enabled more stock buybacks. Though his tariffs remain in place, Trump’s trade deal with China fell far short of its objectives. Even on his signature issue of immigration, Trump’s administration made scant progress even by its own standards: The largely symbolic border wall was not built. More important, no comprehensive solutions (like mandatory E-Verify) were ever pursued, despite Republican control of Congress for two years. Indeed, what proposals were put forward to fund a wall or to institute E-Verify were defeated by the Republican majority, and the very suggestion of E-Verify was dismissed by Trump himself. Meanwhile, deportations under Trump “remained below the levels recorded during much of the Obama administration,” according to data compiled by Pew Research. From the perspective of economic nationalism, his administration was a bust.

The contrast between Trump’s rhetoric and his record reveals the broader paradox of populism today: The more radical-sounding the candidates, the less credible and effective they turn out to be once in office. In miniature, the same phenomenon can be observed with the most MAGA-fied legislators: Reps. Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Madison Cawthorn, the last of whom, now out of office, gave expression to the self-consciously performative character of this kind of politics when he admitted to building staff “around comms rather than legislation.”

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