If they gave Pulitzer Prizes for pithiness, journalist Salena Zito’s analytical couplet on the surprise winner of Campaign 2016 would get one. The press took Republican Donald Trump “literally, but not seriously,” she wrote, whereas Trump’s supporters took him “seriously, but not literally.”
Exactly. Hence it was disappointing, after a post-election week in which he had otherwise epitomized calm statesmanship, to hear that President Obama doesn’t get Zito’s point.
Of Trump, the president opined: “I don’t think he is ideological. I think ultimately he’s pragmatic in that way.”
In other words, Obama takes the president-elect neither literally nor seriously. Rather, he clings to the notion, or jumps to the conclusion, that Trump has no core policy beliefs, and therefore might be managed, or constrained, by political realities.
This is a normal and, under the circumstances, perhaps inevitable — indeed, possibly correct — assessment. But what if Obama’s take is erroneous?
It certainly was difficult to find the coherency in Trump’s utterances over the past 18 months. In the days since he won a majority of the electoral college, for example, he has expressed himself in favor of that hoary institution; four years ago, he was against.
Obama speaks for many Democrats who denounce Trump as a menace to all we hold dear in one breath, while, in the next, admitting that they could work with him on certain issues.
Bernie Sanders, for one, said he’ll fight if Trump tries to take away abortion rights, but, “on the other hand,” will be “supportive” if Trump goes big on infrastructure. An optimistic view of such remarks is that they might encourage Trump’s better angels.
The problem is that Trump does have core beliefs. To name two: He has been preaching hyperbolically against America’s international alliances since at least 1987, according to the biography, “Trump Revealed,” by Post staff writers Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher.
The same goes for his harsh, racially tinged views of “law and order,” which he expressed in a full-page newspaper ad in 1989: “I want to hate these muggers and murderers,” he wrote.
In short, Trump undoubtedly puffed and misled regarding his true governing priorities, as previous candidates did. It is highly unlikely, however, that he will be the first person in history to win political power completely indifferent — or even mostly indifferent — to his declared purposes. Even the most jaded and cynical of leaders can retain a set of nonnegotiable objectives, often for a lifetime.
As it happens, Obama judged some such men in the same or similar terms that he applied to Trump.
“I found him to be tough, smart, shrewd, very unsentimental, very pragmatic,” he said of Russia’s Vladimir Putin in July 2009. “I do see in him a big streak of pragmatism. In that sense, I don’t think he is an ideologue,” was his assessment of Cuban dictator Raúl Castro in December 2015. Once upon a time, Obama also saw Turkey’s purger-in-chief, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as a friend and moderate interlocutor with Muslim nations.
All three are undoubtedly flexible about means and methods. But none has ever wavered about long-range goals — restoring Russian and Turkish grandeur for Putin and Erdogan, respectively; retaining sole power for the Communist movement he joined as a teenager for Castro.
Do Dr. Pragmatic and Mr. Ideologue live together within Donald Trump? In May 2015, Obama said they coexisted under the skin of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: “Well, the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations.”
Looking back on the diplomatic risks Obama took with these dictators, the United States won some ground in return for concessions — precious little of it, though, on issues the other side considered essential.
Russia ceded little or nothing on Syria or Ukraine; ditto Cuba on human rights. Erdogan is consolidating a dictatorship; Iran froze its nuclear weapons program but still pursues regional power.
To repeat: It’s not clear that Obama, or anyone else, including the many Republicans who have offered far more indulgent apologia for Trump, has much of an alternative to wishful thinking. Flattery may be one of the few means left to influence Trump, who, having been undeniably legitimately elected, has the American political class over a barrel.
At the very least, though, people should avoid declaring him a tabula rasa. Let him prove his pragmatism, regarding both means and ends, instead of assuming it. Don’t imagine, say, that reinstated waterboarding, as opposed to the promised “hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” would be some kind of victory. Take our president-elect literally and seriously.