This past week, Trump has done 180s on many of the positions he took during the campaign: China, NATO, the Federal Reserve, Syria, and Russia (sort of), and Gabriel Schoenfeld attempts to make sense of them (“President Trump’s flip-flops make sense in a way,” USA Today, 4/14/2017):
Here is how to understand the turnabouts and tergiversation (“to continue ambiguously arguing your point even though you know you are incorrect”) of his first 100 days in office. They all lead away from the limited confines of his populist base and toward approval from the broad American center, and they stem not from any rethinking of means and ends, of principles and objectives. The Donald Trump who is heaving his campaign promises overboard one by one is not a statesman toiling to perfect our union. He is, rather, an intuitive creature, avoiding shocks and seeking rewards, turning this way and that as he attempts to master the routes of a labyrinth he strove mightily to enter but still comprehends only dimly.
Schoenfeld and others make a few mistakes when they take positions like this, although Schoenfeld is a bit closer to getting it than others.
The first thing is to understand that in Tump’s lizard brain, these aren’t policy reversals at all. With NATO, Trump isn’t admitting that it’s an alliance more important than he originally thought. No, NATO, in his own words, was “Obsolete. Now it’s no longer obsolete,” meaning he hasn’t changed his mind; it’s simply that NATO has miraculously become relevant again. It’s the same with health care reform. It’s not that Trump’s plan was nonexistent, it’s that health care reform is so complicated that nobody could have anticipated the difficulty of drafting a bill. For the rest of us, the circumstances regarding these issues hasn’t changed, but to Trump they have simply because he knows .01% more about it than he did five minutes ago. Therefore, it’s not a policy change. That’s crazy enough in and of itself.
Schoenfeld is more or less correct as to why Trump is changing course, though he says it more abstractly than need be. The reality is that Trump would have charged full steam ahead with his authoritarian agenda had there been a pre-established plan already in existence waiting to be enacted. But it didn’t. Instead, the only thing that the Republican party had ready for him was a military force ready to round up illegal immigrants, a plan to cut taxes for the wealthy, and perhaps a more conventional neoconservative foreign policy. That’s it.
Yes, Trump likes rewards, which is why he constantly golfs and goes to Mar-A-Lago every weekend and still has rock-concert-like rallies. But his change in course isn’t attributable to “intuition”—it’s because to pursue the original promises he’d have to do work. A lot of work. And he’s neither willing nor capable to do that, because he doesn’t believe in anything. It’s not a smart move. It’s just the easiest.