Perhaps we should be thankful this week for Donald Trump’s insincerity. In a breathtaking fortnight of flip-flopping, he has reversed many of his most reckless and damaging campaign positions.
The new Trump professes sympathy for people and ideas he disdained during the “vicious” campaign. He now admires President Obama, doesn’t want to harm (let alone lock up) Hillary Clinton, is waffling on climate change and thinks waterboarding might not work. Maybe he’ll even decide that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a great trade deal. I hope so.
In advertising, this approach is known as “bait and switch.” You hook the prospective buyer with claims that can’t (and in Trump’s case, shouldn’t) be delivered. Then you substitute something more realistic. A scriptural version of a belated conversion (after the wild rumpus is over) is the prayer of the wastrel young St. Augustine: “Lord, make me pure, but not yet.”
Will these changes of position hurt Trump? I doubt it. Moderates will be relieved that he has softened his line on key issues. And true believers probably always knew that Trump’s views were pliable. So much about Trump is like the professional wrestling matches he adores: Everyone knows they’re fake, but fans love the noisy showmanship and phony gut punches all the more.
Some of his reported and rumored Cabinet picks are reassuring, too. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley would bring the richness of her Indian American immigrant experience to the job of U.N. ambassador. Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis would be a fine secretary of defense and the first in memory who keeps Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius for bedside reading. Mitt Romney would be a strong exponent of American interests as secretary of state. With Trump, you’re grateful for every decision and appointment that’s less bad than you feared.
Trump’s interview Tuesday with the New York Times offered a head-spinning summary of the president-elect’s revisionism.
Of Obama, whom he had castigated and sought to undermine for years, he said, “I really liked him a lot” after a White House visit. Of Clinton, for whom his campaign prescription had been a special prosecutor and imprisonment, he said, “She went through a lot. And suffered greatly in many different ways. And I am not looking to hurt [the Clintons] at all.”
On the Paris agreement to reduce climate change, which he had threatened to tear up, Trump said he now has an “open mind” and sees “some connectivity” between climate change and human activity. About waterboarding, which he had advocated, he suddenly discovered Mattis’s wisdom that “a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers” work better in getting information.
We know what’s going on here: Trump took inflammatory positions during the campaign, which appealed to people’s basest instincts and fears, because he thought they would help him get elected. He’s hardly the first modern politician to discover the utility of lying. Lyndon B. Johnson was a master at it. Bill Clinton wasn’t bad at it, either, even in front of a grand jury. Hillary Clinton could bend the truth, too, though hardly by Trumpian proportions.
Maybe there’s even something “American” about this form of upbeat dishonesty. River City believed in the ability of “Professor” Harold Hill, “the music man,” to lead a marching band even though he couldn’t read music. Herman Melville, perhaps our greatest novelist, painted a dark picture in “The Confidence Man” of a gambler who boards a riverboat on April Fools’ Day and fleeces his fellow passengers.
What’s jarring here is that Trump’s wildly polarizing rhetoric put the nation through a nightmarish campaign. He took raw wounds of race, class and gender and tore at them until they bled. He created the equivalent of a national panic attack. America is a strong country, but it’s a fragile one, too. Trump says he wants to put it back together, but the job will be harder because of the damage he did himself.
We’re watching a new season of the Trump reality-TV show — the one in which he realizes that the job he wanted is much bigger than he imagined and that he needs to heal wounds, rather than keep them festering. The job is bigger than the man, even this one, with his oversize ego.
What should he do? Trump put it just right in his comments to the Times: “We want to bring the country together, because the country is very, very divided.” If he means that, he needs to be a wise, careful steward — two qualities we’d all love to see more of from our next president.
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