President Donald Trump’s abrupt changes of heart and mind were appraised at length on this weekend’s public-affairs TV interview shows. The conventional wisdom that emerged was that Trump is turning toward responsible positions on domestic and foreign policy.
That’s wishful thinking by the Washington chattering class (of which I’m a longstanding member). The chatterers flatter themselves with the thought that the president is listening more to people like them, favouring mature, global-minded advisers boosted by his son-in-law Jared Kushner over the coterie of nationalists led by White House strategist Steve Bannon. In that narrative, Trump is growing toward mainstream Republicanism as he begins to appreciate the grave responsibilities of his office.
If you look at the way that he has been moving, despite all of the talk about broken campaign promises, he’s actually moving closer to the mainstream of the Republican Party. Maybe even the broader, bipartisan mainstream about America’s role in the world. That heartens a whole bunch of Capitol Hill Republicans.
There’s a more plausible explanation for his 180-degree turns last week on whether China is a currency manipulator, the value of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the future of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and the Export-Import Bank, and reappointing Janet Yellen as chairman of the Federal Reserve.
It’s that he never had real beliefs or core convictions other than his commercial interests and personal self-regard. Which means, of course, that his policy reversals of last week could be reversed again next week.
Is the Trump national-security doctrine more assertive and aggressive in the Middle East, Asia and Europe than the America-first isolationist pronouncements of the inaugural address three months ago? Does Trumponomics now reflect the Wall Street preferences of the Goldman Sachs alums now ascendant in the administration, rather than the populist ideas that dominated his 2016 campaign speeches? Are the appeals to racism marked by outrageous charges that President Barack Obama wasn’t really born in America gone or just forgotten?
No one can say where Trump will be tomorrow. Beyond his philosophical vacuum, he doesn’t know much. As the healthcare overhaul was faltering he said, “Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated.” (Actually, pretty much everybody else did.) Last week Chinese president Xi Jinping gave him a 10-minute seminar on the complexities of the Korean peninsula, which he said taught him that it’s “not so easy” to constrain North Korea’s aggression.
Radical changes of positions have always come easily to Trump. He complains today that Obamacare involves too much government control of healthcare. But he once called for a Canadian-style, government-run healthcare system for all. He frets about excessive taxes on productive Americans. But he once advocated a 14.25% tax on all individual wealth and trusts over $10 million. In 2002, he said he favoured going to war in Iraq and then, after the US invasion the following year, he said he opposed it. He mocked a reporter with physical disabilities and then said he didn’t know him.
Other reversals that the White House doesn’t like to acknowledge entail ethics and transparency. Remember when Trump used to assail Obama and Hillary Clinton for lack of transparency? Now his administration has stopped releasing records tracking visitors to the White House and explanations of what they are seeking. He’s also reneged on a commitment to release his tax returns.
And remember his big promise to drain the Washington ethical swamp? Trump’s Washington, stocked with officials making policies affecting special interests they worked for just months before, looks more like the Atchafalaya Basin. That’s one of the biggest swamps in America. Bloomberg