Nobody ever said that Donald Trump was a man of firm principle. Indeed, apart from a couple of rancid ideas about race and foreigners, one struggles to find anything Trump has consistently believed over the course of his life when it comes to political issues.
But recently Trump has racked up an unusual number of flip-flops, with some interesting implications for the rest of his presidency. To begin, let’s look at what he has changed his mind about just in the last few days:
- He now thinks NATO is no longer obsolete
- He won’t label China a currency manipulator
- He now thinks the Export-Import bank should stay
- He now likes Janet Yellen and may renominate her as Fed chair
- The federal hiring freeze he ordered has now been lifted
You can look at each of these reversals and come up with an ideological interpretation. For instance, on the economic ones, you might say they represent the ascendance of the Wall Street wing of Trump’s advisers.
But what they have more in common is the maintenance of the status quo.
Here’s how it works. Trump the candidate makes all kinds of promises about radical change, blowing up the system, sweeping into Washington and remaking it from top to bottom. Many of the things he says are substantively ridiculous and born of ignorance, but none of his aides bother to tell him. Because who really cared back then? He wasn’t going to sit down for extended policy instruction, and the campaign seemed to be working pretty well anyway.
But now he’s president, and instead of just making statements he’s making policy. So when one of these issues comes up, there’s a good chance someone will say, “Well actually sir, that could be a really bad idea.” They’ll explain why, and since Trump doesn’t really care about the substance of any of it, he’ll change his position.
In many cases, the flip-flop is a simple matter of Trump learning about something he never understood. When he tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act, he lamented that “nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” when in truth everyone except for him understood how complicated health care is. The result was the collapse of the repeal effort and the maintenance of the status quo. Something similar happened in his recent meeting with Chinese premier Xi Jinping, as he told the Wall Street Journal:
He said they hit it off during their first discussion. Mr. Trump said he told his Chinese counterpart he believed Beijing could easily take care of the North Korea threat. Mr. Xi then explained the history of China and Korea, Mr. Trump said.
“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Mr. Trump recounted. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power” over North Korea,” he said. “But it’s not what you would think.”
His eyes now opened to what any number of people in the State Department or the National Security Council staff could have told him, Trump will presumably be less likely to initiate some kind of confrontation with China in order to force them to “take care of the North Korea threat.” In other words, the status quo is maintained, even if it’s not a particularly good one, because the alternatives are worse.
There are other flip-flops that don’t actually require Trump to do anything, or even realize he’s doing nothing. For instance, during the campaign he repeatedly promised to get rid of Common Core, which he hasn’t followed up on because Common Core isn’t a federal program at all (it was an agreement among states to adopt a set of standards). Trump never understood that, but by now he has probably forgotten about the whole thing.
Does all this mean that Trump is a less radical president than we thought he’d be? Is the common rationalization for voting for him that many people offered — that the sane people around him would keep him from doing anything too crazy — turning out to be a reasonable one?
In some strictly defined areas, yes. Trump isn’t going to completely remake Washington, and there are places where his inattention or newfound understanding may keep the status quo (even if it’s imperfect) intact. But that shouldn’t convince us that radical things aren’t happening. To take just a couple of examples, the EPA is being gutted and the Justice Department under Jeff Sessions is being twisted into something ugly and malevolent. In addition to abandoning efforts to make police departments treat citizens with respect and initiating a vicious crackdown on undocumented immigrants, Sessions actually wants to bring back the War on Drugs of the 1980s and 1990s.
But as the flip-flops pile up, there are also political consequences, particularly for the 2018 midterm elections. Even if some of those reversals are in the direction of sanity, that won’t register with the people who voted for Trump. Most of them have no particular opinion about Chinese currency manipulation; they just liked the sound of sticking it to the Chicoms. The more Trump looks like just another politician or just another GOP tool of Wall Street, the more likely they are to stay home in 2018 (particularly without a Democratic presidential candidate who can be cast as a villain).
Between now and then Trump may end up disappointing almost everyone on the Republican side in one way or another. Democrats, on the other hand, will still have plenty of reasons to remain angry — and enthusiasm for the president is much more fragile than anger at the president. If Republicans fail to do the big things they promised — repeal the ACA, enact tax reform — it will only contribute to the disillusionment among Republican voters, which in some places is already happening. And that’s not to mention the promises Trump can’t possibly keep, like bringing back all the coal miner jobs.
Rest assured, there are more flip-flops to come. I wouldn’t be surprised if before long, Trump says to an interviewer, “Nobody knew that being president could be so hard.”