Donald Trump and Paul Ryan had their much-anticipated meeting on this morning, and while Ryan did not endorse Trump (yet), they issued a joint statement talking about their “many areas of common ground.” Speaking afterward to reporters, Ryan said, “It was important that we discussed our differences that we have, but it was also important that we discuss the core principles that tie us together,” and that “Going forward we’re going to go a little deeper in the policy weeds to make sure we have a better understanding of one another.”
This is a fool’s errand, not just for Ryan but for us in the media as well. And it poses a profound challenge to democracy itself.
Just in the last couple of days, something has changed. Perhaps it should have been evident to us before, but for whatever reason it was only partially clear. The pieces were there, but they didn’t fit together to show us how comprehensive Trump’s assault on the fundamentals of American politics truly is.
And that has left the media — whose job it is to report what’s happening and describe it to the citizenry in a coherent way that enables them to make a reasonable decision — at loose ends. We simply don’t know how to cover a candidate like this. We need to figure it out, and quickly.
The foundation of democratic debate is policy, issues, the choices we make about what we as a nation should do. That’s what the government we create does on our behalf: it confronts problems, decides between alternatives, and pursues them. That’s also the foundation of how we in the press report on politics. Yes, we spend a lot of time talking about the personalities involved, but underneath that are competing ideas about what should be done. Should we raise taxes or lower them? Spend more or spend less? Make abortions easier or harder to get? Give more people health coverage or fewer? How do we combat ISIS? How should we address climate change? How can we improve the economy? How can we reduce crime? What sort of transportation system do we want? Which areas should government involve itself in, and which should it stay out of?
We all presume that these questions (and a thousand more) are important, and that the people who run for office should take them seriously. We assume they’ll tell us where they stand, we’ll decide what we think of what they’ve said, and eventually we’ll be able to make an informed choice about who should be the leader of our country.
Donald Trump has taken these presumptions and torn them to pieces, then spat on them and laughed. And so far we seem to have no idea what to do about it.
Let me briefly give an illustration. On the question of the minimum wage, Trump has previously said he would not raise it. Then Sunday he said he did want to raise it. Then in a separate interview on the very same day he said there should be no federal minimum wage at all, that instead we should “Let the states decide.” Then yesterday he said he does want to increase the federal minimum wage.
So when you ask the question, “Where does Donald Trump stand on the minimum wage?”, the answer is: everywhere and nowhere. He has nothing resembling a position, because what he said today has no relationship to what he said yesterday or what he’ll say tomorrow. And we’re seeing it again and again. Will he release his tax returns? Yes, but then no, but then yes and no. Does he want to cut taxes for the wealthy? His plan says yes, his mouth sort of says no, but who knows? What about his promise for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” that so thrilled his supporters? Now he says it’s “only a suggestion.”
We assume that with an appropriately tough and smart interview, one or more of us in the media will eventually pin Trump down on any particular issue, and then we’ll have our answer and he can be judged accordingly. But that won’t happen.
So because we don’t know what else to do, we’re trying to hold him to the standards we use for every other candidate: what does he propose, and how reasonable are those proposals? For instance, Politico attempted to take a serious look at Trump’s policy statements, and concluded that “Trump bounces across the political spectrum,” but “Many of his proposals are either unrealistic in terms of executive power or would run into a brick wall with Congress, making a Trump administration borderline impotent on the very issues that are driving his supporters to the polls.”
We should give them credit for trying, but the problem is that if you want to evaluate Trump’s positions, you can only do so based on what they’ve been up until the moment you’re making the judgment. But if he gets asked about the same issues tomorrow, the odds that he’ll take the same position are essentially random, like a coin flip.
The problem isn’t that Trump’s positions don’t add up to a coherent ideology along the liberal-conservative spectrum, it’s that you can’t even call them “positions,” because you can never be sure which of them he’ll hold next week, much less if he eventually becomes president.
And remember, that’s really the point of the campaign: to figure out what kind of president each of the contenders would be. There’s always some measure of uncertainty, since we don’t know exactly what crises the next president will confront or what kind of manager he or she would be. But with every other person who ran this year, an informed observer could tell you 90 percent of what they would do if they eventually became president. You might love or hate Hillary Clinton, but we can all come to at least a basic agreement about the policies she’ll pursue. At this point, can anybody say what Trump would do as president? About anything?
It’s important to be clear that Trump isn’t just a “flip-flopper.” When that charge has been leveled in the past, whether against a Democrat or Republican, it was because they had one position (or set of positions) and then changed them. Even if the critique was animated by the concern that they might change again in the future, at any given moment you knew where they stood. You might judge them too opportunistic, or like their previous position more than their current one. But there was a progression and a logic to where they stood, and the assumption was that whatever their position was, they’d act on it.
This is the way we’ve tried to explain Trump, assuming that there’s some kind of linear progression to what he says about issues: he was in one place appealing to primary voters, and there are things he might change to appeal to general election voters. But it’s clear now that that was a mistake, because that’s now how this works with him.
That leaves us unable to talk about Trump and issues in the way we normally would. And this is a serious problem. The basic issue divides between the parties comprise one of the key foundations on which we build our explanations of politics. They structure the arguments and the contest for power, they give meaning to the whole game. They’re the reason all of this silliness matters, because at the end of it we’ll be choosing a new government, led by one individual who will make choices that affect all of us in profound ways.
It’s clear now that Donald Trump may be unique in American history — not just in his inexperience, not just in his ignorance, not just in his bombast, and not just in his crypto-fascist appeal. He’s unique in that he doesn’t care in the least about the the things that politics and government are all about, and he won’t even bother to pretend he does. I’ll confess that I don’t know where this leaves us in the media, and how we should approach his candidacy from this point forward in order to help the public understand it. But that may be the most important question we need to answer right now.