by Neil H. Buchanan
As the news cycle settles into its dreary day-to-day sameness even in the face of once-unthinkable scandals and policy blunders, many commentators are still trying to figure out how Donald Trump makes decisions. It is a tempting puzzle to try to solve, not only because he wields enormous power but because he talks and texts like a simpleton and thus seems as though he should be an easy person to figure out.
I am not at all sure that it matters whether anyone finally explains how to predict Trump, but I do strongly suspect that it matters if people become convinced that an incorrect theory is the key to the puzzle. For example, during much of the 2015-16 campaign, and especially during the transition period, plenty of people said that Trump would suddenly realize how important the presidency was and thus stop acting like a petulant child when it mattered. We know how that worked out.
Ever since he took office, people have been trying to figure out what Trump would do in advance of every major decision that he has had to make. Plenty of theories have been advanced, the latest of which is that Trump does what he has always said that he would do. This theory is nonsense, and it is damaging both because it leads to false predictions and because it bestows a degree of reliability and even honesty on Trump that serves to legitimize a serial liar.
A few weeks ago, a news article (which I have not been able to find again, unfortunately) quoted a foreign diplomat saying something like this: "If you want to know what Trump will do, just look at what he said when he was campaigning. He always does that." As I searched for that quote, I found a column by a conservative writer (not a big fan of Trump, as far as I can tell), who actually proclaimed that, as the title of the piece put it, "Donald Trump Is a Man Of His Word."
I am not going to critique that particular op-ed beyond suggesting that readers glance at it and note that the author offers so many caveats and escape hatches that the title should have been, "Donald Trump Sometimes Does What He Promised, At Least When He Feels Like It." Instead, I want to explore the claim that Trump's campaign pronouncements provide a good roadmap to what he will do when he has to put up, shut up, or change the subject.
We can start with the big three, the touchstones of his campaign: "Lock her up!" "Build the Wall!" "Drain the Swamp!"
Nothing thrilled Trump's crowds quite so much as vilifying Hillary Clinton. Indeed, even in his never-ending series of post-election campaign rallies over the past year and a half, attendees reportedly still break into spontaneous chants calling on him to put his former opponent in prison for her imagined crimes.
Trump has occasionally made noises about how the FBI cannot be trusted because they failed to jail Clinton, and every now and then he muses that she should be prosecuted. However -- and I cannot stress too much that this is a good thing -- Trump and his vile Attorney General have not made any moves to prosecute Hillary Clinton.
I guess it is possible, not just for this matter but for everything that we are talking about here, that Trump will yet get back to this and do the wrong thing. And at that point, people can say, "See, I told you he was a man of his word." But for now, at least, this does not seem to be something that Trump even thinks about except when he is especially deep inside his persecution complex.
Trump has certainly put quite a bit of rhetorical (and some substantive) effort into building his pointless and wasteful (and downright stupid) wall on the Mexican border. Even leaving aside the discarded campaign promise to have the Mexican government pay for it, however, we actually have plenty of evidence that Trump is not committed to building the wall.
How do we know? Shockingly, the Democrats actually offered earlier this year to fully fund construction of the wall, but Trump rejected the offer. What a deal maker! He might argue that his xenophobic agenda would have been frustrated by the price that the Democrats demanded, which was a (very popular, even among Republicans) solution to the problem of the Dreamers, but that merely means that he views building the wall as a lesser priority than harming even people who have fully assimilated into this country and are here only because of others' decisions that were made years ago.
Does that fit into the claim that Trump is a man of his word? I suppose it is possible that building the wall could have been code for, "In every instance in which I have the opportunity to do so, I will follow the most hateful path that harms the maximum number of brown people." If so, however, that would merely mean that Trump is not a man of his word but is instead a man who -- although he is willing to say and do truly terrible things -- follows a policy rule that even he is not willing to say out loud.
And what about draining the swamp? Are you kidding? Trump named the most unqualified cabinet in history, many of whom have already departed in scandal, while the others (most prominently the EPA director, who is somehow still in office) spend every day undermining what had been an imperfect but competently managed national government.
The Education Secretary ends a program that combated fraud against low-income student/victims of for-profit pseudo-universities. The Housing secretary, another walking punch-line, bestirs himself to undermine the Fair Housing Act and to deliberately make life uncomfortable for Americans living in barely tolerable publicly subsidized housing.
Meanwhile, the budget director takes over running the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in order to run it into the ground, all the while assisting congressional Republicans in their efforts to end protections for consumers (including the Republican Senate's recent vote to kill a requirement that warns automobile lenders not to discriminate against minority borrowers).
Again, it is possible to describe a strategy that Trump is following, which is to undo everything that Barack Obama did and to repeal regulations for the sake of repealing regulations, but that is hardly the same as draining the swamp.
For all three of his big promises during the campaign and after, therefore, Trump has not proven to be a man of his word, ignoring his own words in one instance and twisting them into something completely different -- that is, not doing what he said he would do -- in the others.
But what about the non-sloganeering part of Trump's campaign? Although it is complete BS, one narrative that has taken hold even among some Democrats is that Trump is president because he connected with economically vulnerable current and former blue-collar (white) workers and offered policy ideas that would give them a better life. Is he keeping his word?
Of course not. Trump gleefully signed and tried to gaslight people about the Republicans' hugely regressive tax bill, pretending that it would be good for workers. Most incredibly, he made news this week by promising to rescue a Chinese company that had been harmed by U.S. sanctions.
During the campaign, he promised to bring jobs back from China. That was ridiculous in many, many ways; but pursuing that goal would at least seem to rule out helping China -- unless Trump has miraculously discovered that the global economy is not a zero-sum world. Again, that can be its own coherent theory about how to conduct economic policy, but it is most definitely not living up to his words on the campaign trail (or since).
What about health care? Trump complained frequently about the Affordable Care Act, and he now claims that the tax bill's provision killing the individual mandate has effectively "ended Obamacare." But on the campaign trail, he promised not to cut Medicaid (or Medicare or Social Security), only to go along with Republicans' plans to do just that. He was stopped only by 48 Democrats and three Republicans in the Senate.
To repeat, Trump unfortunately still has some amount of time during which he will be president, and one never knows whether he might come back to some of these abandoned promises. His track record, however, in no way would allow us to say, "What is he going to do? Just look at what he has promised." That predictive tool would have accurately predicted a few things -- pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord, for example -- all of which were terrible ideas about which he did not change his mind.
It is admittedly a cliche to say that a stopped clock is right twice a day, but cliches become cliches for a reason. Noting that there are times when Trump does something -- something substantively damaging, but who pays attention anymore? -- that he once promised to do does not prove that any of the things he will do in the future are predictable.
Notably, Trump contradicts himself so often that it is difficult to find an issue on which he has not publicly taken contradictory views. Public debt of 23 or 24 trillion dollars is "the number at which we become a large-scale version of
Greece"? Not so much, when tax cuts and further increases in military spending are on the table. The House Republicans' attempt to repeal the ACA is "mean, mean, mean," even though he demanded that they pass it? Never mind. And if a bill to protect the Dreamers ever comes back, Trump's enablers can remind us that he once promised to sign a "bill of love."
As I noted above, however, the issue is not merely that the "at least Trump is stubborn, because that makes him predictable" approach to understanding this White House is simply an unreliable decision rule. It also reinforces the claim that, "Love him or hate, you know where he stands." Yes, there are issues on which we truly do know where he stands, and their common theme is white supremacy. That does not make him a man of his word, because he regularly makes it impossible to know what his word is. It does, however, make him a disaster.