When President Trump held a bizarre meeting with members of Congress two weeks ago on the topic of guns, everyone immediately knew that just about everything he said could simply be ignored. When he said that the minimum age to buy a rifle should be raised from 18 to 21, and that when it comes to dangerous people authorities should “take the guns first, go through due process second,” and that unlike members of Congress he would stand up to the National Rifle Association, both his friends and his enemies had the same reaction:
Weird as it might be, it doesn’t really matter, because very soon he’ll come right back to the standard conservative position on guns.
Despite all that divides us, liberals and conservatives have come to agree that what comes out of Trump’s mouth on matters of policy is all but meaningless. In fact, it’s not just his words. Not since Edith Wilson effectively ran the government for more than a year after her husband, Woodrow, suffered a stroke in 1919 has the president of the United States been this irrelevant to the formulation of public policy.
The White House has released its proposal on guns, and like everything else that Republicans suggest, it is exactly what the NRA wants. The idea of raising the minimum age for rifle purchases is gone, as is any talk of a comprehensive effort to patch the holes in our background check system. Instead, the administration advocates putting more guns in schools in the hands of teachers and school administrators, and says it will form a commission headed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to study the issue of school safety.
DeVos’s most notable statement on the issue to date was when she was asked in her confirmation hearing about allowing guns in schools and responded that in some places you might need them “to protect from potential grizzlies.”
We should note that the administration does continue to support the “Fix NICS” bill, which is not universal background checks but does little more than remind federal and state agencies of their existing reporting obligations under the current background check system. It’s so modest a measure that the NRA doesn’t oppose it.
We’ve seen this pattern before: Trump says some surprising things that run counter to either conservative ideology or the current Republican position on an issue, then within a few days the White House makes clear that it is not taking the position he advocated. This time, you can look at the fact that Trump shifted back after meeting with the NRA and assume that they either intimidated him or talked him into changing his mind.
But that’s not really what happened, because “changing his mind” is the wrong way to think about it. In order to change your mind you have to believe one thing and then come to believe another, while in Trump’s case it’s more accurate to say that he never really believed anything in the first place. We’ve heard many times that he’s inevitably convinced by the last person he talks to, but there, too, “convinced” isn’t the right way to think about it.
Trump’s position on guns, like his position on the “dreamers” or almost anything else, is a public-policy version of Schrödinger’s cat. It exists in multiple states simultaneously, becoming one thing or another only when it is observed — or in his case, when the cameras turn on and he starts in on one of his extemporaneous riffs. But unlike Schrödinger’s cat, who becomes firmly either dead or alive when the box is opened, when you close Trump’s box, his position reverts to its former state of indeterminacy, once again neither pro nor con but both and neither.
By now, the people who work for Trump understand this quite well, and it’s obvious that they’ve decided to simply proceed in formulating policy as though he didn’t exist. With just a couple of narrow exceptions — the most notable being trade barriers — every policy that this White House has produced has adhered strictly to conservative dogma, no matter what the president might or might not have said. Trump’s shifting impulses certainly complicated things, but during the policymaking process, eventually someone will be tasked with going to the Oval Office and telling Trump what his administration’s position will be, at which point everyone will pretend that’s what he believed all along and he’ll go off to tweet about how the fact that the thing he formerly said he believed in hasn’t come to pass is all the Democrats’ fault.
As it turns out, this is good for everyone on the Republican side. Before he became president, Trump obviously thought the job was essentially a figurehead position, like being the queen of Norway or the grand marshal of the Rose Parade. Make a few speeches, shake a few hands and that’s about it. Not long after taking office, he expressed surprise that the job turned out to be more complicated than running a medium-size real estate management and brand licensing firm. “This is more work than in my previous life,” he said. “I thought it would be easier.”
At the same time, Republicans worried that the mercurial and ideologically ignorant Trump would complicate their well-laid plans with his desire to play to the crowd, particularly since so much of what they advocate is deeply unpopular. But now they’ve reached a happy accommodation: Trump says whatever he wants while he’s playing the president on TV, and his staff and GOP members of Congress ignore him and construct the policies dictated by their conservative ideology. Everybody wins.
Except for the rest of us, who have to live with the consequences.