With North Korea and other challenges, President Trump can succeed where others have failed, we are told, because he is so unpredictable.
In fact, he is proving to be the most predictable of presidents.
He is predictable because he makes decisions based on instincts and biases, many acquired decades ago. Advisers can delay but not dislodge him from his ruts. He is proving impervious to fact, argument or new learning of any kind.
Since his prejudices are well-known, his decisions should not surprise.
What are these predispositions? Allied nations, and especially Japan, play the United States for a chump. Dictators are strong and decisive and therefore to be admired. Immigrants and people of color are suspect. Wealthy people usually know best, while intellectuals are not to be trusted. Trade deficits are the ultimate sign of national weakness, and manufacturing is the linchpin of any economy. Anything Barack Obama did should be undone.
That canon of gut feelings can explain most of what Trump has done — and predict what he will do.
He is most predictable when his biases push in the same direction, as with the Paris climate accord. It was a multilateral agreement, so probably other nations were taking advantage of the United States. Scientists believed it was important. Obama considered it a signal achievement. In Trump’s world, the treaty did not have a chance.
The fact that it did not actually bind the United States to take any actions that Trump would not have wanted to take was not in dispute. The argument that pulling out would leave the United States isolated, dealing a major blow to U.S. leadership, was irrefutable. But the facts and arguments ran counter to Trump’s preconceived notions, and so were irrelevant.
The reality-based arguments against withdrawing from the Iran nuclear accord were, if anything, even stronger. For a time, the president’s senior advisers and his counterparts in Europe, wielding those arguments, managed to postpone the inevitable. After all, Iran was honoring the deal; it was working.
But staying in only made Trump grumpy, because again his preconceptions pushed the opposite way: It was a multilateral treaty; Obama took pride in it. Now the advisers who pushed against the inevitable are mostly gone, and Trump has pulled the United States out of the accord.
His prejudices in various combinations also can explain: A travel ban aimed at Muslims, though data showed no connection between terrorism in the United States and the countries targeted by the ban. A tax bill primarily benefiting businesses and the very rich, though Trump had campaigned on a promise to help the left-behind. A determination to destroy Obamacare, though it was helping many of those same left-behind voters. Abandonment of the mostly Hispanic “dreamers,” despite grand promises to help them, while pining for more immigrants from Norway.
Many people were surprised that Trump pivoted toward talks with North Korea after months of insulting “little rocket man” Kim Jong Un.
In fact, though, in keeping with his predilection for strongmen, he seems to admire Kim — that “pretty smart cookie” — more than he does South Korea’s elected leader. Since Obama largely ignored North Korea, under the label of “strategic patience,” striking a deal would fit Trump’s inclination to be Obama’s opposite in all things. Brushing aside the interests of our Japanese allies, if that’s what a deal requires, also would mesh with his predilections.
Admittedly, this framework can’t predict every decision. Because Trump refuses to release his tax returns or much information about his still-active enterprises, we can’t know whether or how much business interests may motivate his official decisions and override his prejudices.
In addition, his gut feelings sometimes work at cross-purposes. He hates the North American Free Trade Agreement because it’s a treaty, because he thinks it hurts U.S. manufacturers, because he has always hated NAFTA; on the other hand, a lot of wealthy American business and agricultural executives would be hurt if NAFTA blew up.
And even if Trump’s thinking is not much influenced by evidence or experience, he is fenced in by reality in other ways; the courts and Congress and the states get a say, and like most politicians, he wants to be popular, admired and, presumably, reelected. So, for example, his gut instincts (and maybe his business interests, too) push him to be friends with Vladimir Putin, but that has yet to happen.
Still, for a man who ran for office saying, “We have to be unpredictable,” Trump is proving not so hard to read. Look at whatever he has believed since the 1980s; ignore any evidence that has emerged since; and you can make a fairly educated guess where he will end up.
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