opinion

Whatever Works

Independent? Populist? Trump’s Only True Ideology Is Ego-Driven Impetuosity

Is the president an independent or a right-winger? A racist or surprisingly tolerant? Pro-Putin or anti? He’s all of those things. Which may mean he’s none of them.

Donald Trump gives a speech at Trump Tower
opinion

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Donald Trump’s deal with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, over the objections of congressional Republicans, to extend the federal debt ceiling for three months has led to a spate of articles suggesting that he is no Republican but, rather, an independent who is not afraid to take ideas from both the left and right.

In support of this thesis—that Trump “is, in many ways, the first independent to hold the presidency since the advent of the current two-party system around the time of the Civil War”—Peter Baker of the New York Times points to the fact that Trump recently “has quarreled more with fellow Republicans than with the opposition, blasting his party’s congressional leaders on Twitter, ousting former party officials in his White House, embracing primary challenges to incumbent lawmakers who defied him, and blaming Republican figures for not advancing his policy agenda.” By contrast Trump seems to be at ease with his fellow New Yorker, Chuck Schumer, and reveled in the positive press coverage his across-the-aisle deal generated.

Indeed, on Wednesday, Trump invited Schumer and Pelosi back to the White House for dinner. Afterward the Democrats claimed they had reached an “agreement” to legalize “Dreamers” (the young people brought to America illegally by their parents) in return for more border security funding--but not Trump’s signature border wall. The president denied any deal had been reached, and clearly many details remain to be worked out. Nevertheless Trump’s openness to working with Democrats on immigration has disheartened his hard-line supporters (Ann Coulter tweeted: “At this point, who DOESN’T want Trump impeached?”) and cheered moderates.

But is Trump really reinventing himself as a moderate? The Trump-as-independent thesis has generated plenty of pushback. “If Trump was an independent,” tweets John Avlon of The Daily Beast, “he’d have more than 22% from independents in recent polls. He’s a celebrity conservative populist.” Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post similarly points out: “Trump ran for the GOP nomination, captured the party and now hypes every bad idea that the party’s most extreme elements have espoused — tax cuts for the rich, anti-immigrant hysteria, fear-mongering on crime, know-nothingism on climate change, anti-government animus, and bigotry toward the LGBT community (hence the totally unnecessary ban on transgender recruits to the military).”

Both sides in this debate make great points. In a sense they are both right: Trump is both an independent and a right-wing populist. In fact he is just about everything—and its opposite. Our protean president’s words and actions will support just about any thesis—and also refute it. Think I’m kidding? Here are a few examples.

Trump is a dummy: I’ve made this case myself based on evidence such as his evident ignorance about Andrew Jackson, Frederick Douglass, and even his own religious denomination (he’s not sure if Presbyterians are Christians or not).  But you could equally well make the opposite case, arguing that Trump is in fact a genius based on the ease with which he upended the rules of American politics, mobilized an unlikely populist coalition, and prevailed against heavily favored opponents such as Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.

Trump is a racist: This, too, is a case I’ve made based on evidence such as Trump’s reluctance to condemn neo-Nazis, his pardon of renegade former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, his attempts to undermine the first African-American president by claiming he wasn’t born in the United States, and his insults against Mexican-Americans. But you could also make the opposite case, based on Trump’s hiring of African-Americans such as Omarosa Manigault and Ben Carson, his friendship with prominent African-Americans such as Mike Tyson, his embrace of his Jewish son-in-law and many Jewish aides, and his expressed reluctance to deport undocumented immigrants who were brought to America as children. Naturally Trump has been on both sides of the Dreamers issue: In August 2015 he said: “They have to go.” Today he tweets: “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really!.....”

Trump is pro-Putin: Again, a case I’ve made based on his refusal to criticize the Russian dictator, to engage in more than a token retaliation for the mass Russian expulsion of American diplomatic personnel, or to provide offensive weaponry to Ukraine, and his eagerness to strike a deal with Russia over Syria and even to share top-secret intelligence with its representatives. But you can make the opposite case, too, based on the fact that Trump has, however reluctantly, endorsed NATO, has not pulled U.S. troops out of eastern Europe, and signed the Russian sanctions bill Congress passed (by a veto-proof majority) over the summer.

Trump is anti-trade: You can make this case based on his pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his desire to renegotiate NAFTA, and his threats to pull out of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. But you can also make the opposite case based on his failure to simply exit NAFTA, to brand China a currency manipulator or to impose wide-ranging tariffs on China, as he once threatened to do. Maybe, as Trump says, he really is in favor of good trade deals and against bad ones.

This ambiguity, indeed downright incoherence, makes Trump the most maddening politician anyone has ever tried to analyze. He contradicts himself constantly and unashamedly. (Trump in 1987: “The simplest approach is often the most effective.” Trump in 1997: “It’s always good to do things nice and complicated so that nobody can figure it out.”) The only constant is Trump’s egomania and impetuosity. He will say or do anything that, at that very moment, is likely to stoke his ego. The next moment he may do something entirely different. Like a small child, he seldom seems to think about the consequences of his actions or plan ahead. He just acts and hopes for the best.

You can make the case that Trump’s incoherence is his greatest strength because it allows him to appeal to all sides—and his greatest weakness because it means that no one trusts him. Because just about anything you say about him is both true and false.