After Donald Trump addressed a joint session of Congress last month—a high-water mark for the president’s popularity with elite political pundits—conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks penned a piece titled “Trumpism at Its Best, Straight Up.” Brooks attempted to define Trump’s political philosophy as an “utter repudiation of modern conservatism,” which he defined as foreign policy hawkishness, social conservatism, and fiscal hawkishness. “For the last 40 years, the Republican Party has been a coalition of [these] three tendencies,” he wrote. “Trump rejected or ignored all of them.”
Six weeks later, this analysis looks positively quaint. Trump has reversed so many positions as to prove definitively that he’s guided by no ideology. A rebuke of hawkishness? Trump is dropping bombs left and right. Social conservatism? He appointed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and is trying to defund Planned Parenthood. Fiscal hawkishness? His proposed budget is an unending series of savage cuts. On Wednesday, Trump reversed positions on Russia, China, NATO, and other policies that were central to the isolationist and populist campaign he ran last year.
No one should be surprised. “There is no wizard behind the curtain of Trumpism,” MTV News political writer Jane Coaston wrote in National Review on Tuesday, “and no governing ideology.” Trumpism was never a coherent worldview, much less a moral code that anchors the president. Trump is not so much flexible or unpredictable as rudderless, and that’s what makes him so scary. Prudence and pragmatism are political imperatives, but a complete ideological vacuum yields disorder and chaos. Trumpism is an appealing fiction because it promises predictability. It makes sense of the senseless; it suggests a plan.
National Review contributor Victor Davis Hanson wrote in January that in Trump “we can see a coherent worldview emerging, something different from both orthodox conservatism and liberalism”—a supposed combination of “tradition, populism, and American greatness.” (Indeed, American Greatness is the name of one of the pro-Trump publications trying to intellectualize his politics.) With Trump capitulating to conventional conservatism, though, talk of a consistent Trumpism looks increasingly misguided. The man who won the Republican nomination by bucking conservative orthodoxy is now proving the pull of the GOP is as strong as ever.
Before Trump even took office, there were those who predicted this transformation. In November, when the president-elect sat down with the New York Times editorial board, columnist Ross Douthat asked Trump about his ideological divergence from Republican Party:
[H]ow much do you expect to be able to both run an administration and negotiate with a Republican-led Congress as a different kind of Republican. And do you worry that you’ll wake up three years from now and go back to campaigning in the Rust Belt and people will say, well, he governed more like Paul Ryan than like Donald Trump.
Trump insisted he wouldn’t let down the Rust Belt, which had “proven ... to love Donald Trump, as opposed to the political people.” Now more than ever, though, “the political people” are steering his agenda. Chief strategist Steve Bannon—the white nationalist pushing an “America first” philosophy in the administration—is reportedly on the outs, potentially a casualty of conflict with more establishment figures like senior adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Moreover, Bannon’s waning influence coincides with Trump moving in a more establishment direction on a myriad of issues.
Increasingly, Trump is validating voices like Tamara Draut, the vice president of policy and research at the progressive group Demos Action, who published a piece in The Hill last week titled “Don’t call Trump a populist: ‘Trumpism’ is just ‘Republicanism’.” Despite his populist campaign rhetoric, Draut writes, “He’s president, and his policy decisions and proposals are, for the most part, ripped straight out of the Republican Party’s playbook of tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation and attacks on government.”
Healthcare is a perfect example. As I wrote on Wednesday morning, Trump could have pushed an infrastructure plan at the start of his presidency, pressing the populist case for putting Americans to work and rebuilding America. But he caved to House Speaker Paul Ryan, a conventional conservative, for whom repealing Obamacare was the top priority. Trump’s proposed budget is further proof that this supposed populism is nowhere to be found. And despite Trump’s fanciful claims that Mexico will ultimately pay for his proposed border wall with Mexico, he’s now asking Congress—and ultimately taxpayers—to fund it.
On Wednesday, Trump said America’s relationship with Russia, a nation he’d long supported, “may be at an all-time low.” He embraced NATO after disparaging it during his campaign. He said he wouldn’t label China a currency manipulator after famously pledging to do just that. “Trump also made a full reversal from the campaign by stating his support for the U.S. Export-Import Bank,” The Wall Street Journal observed. In an interview with the newspaper, he even changed his tune about Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, whom he’d called “obviously political” during the Obama administration. He said she’s “not toast” when her term ends in 2018, and that he does “like a low interest-rate policy” at the Fed.
These about-faces stunned the media. CNN marveled at Trump’s “extraordinary political shape-shifting,” with which he “abandoned stances that were at the bedrock of his establishment-bashing campaign.” Commentators said Trump was abandoning what distinguished him from traditional Republicans in the election. MSNBC devoted multiple segments to the topic.
But even as pundits continued to invoke “Trumpism” this week, few grasped the reality that Coaston nailed in her article: “Trumpism has still been largely defined by its observers and adherents rather than by its purported creator. Perhaps that’s because there was never any such thing as true Trumpism to begin with.” One clear-eyed conservative commentator was National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru, who wrote in Bloomberg View:
Intellectuals, whether they are for or against Trump, want to construct an “ism” into which they can fit his politics: an “ism” that includes opposition to free trade, mass immigration, foreign interventions that aren’t necessitated by attacks on us, and entitlement reform. But Trumpism doesn’t exist. The president has tendencies and impulses, some of which conflict with one another, rather than a political philosophy.
Some of Trump’s intellectual defenders say it’s refreshing that he’s not wedded to a philosophy, arguing the president isn’t imprisoned by dogma. “I think it’s better if he doesn’t become too ideological,” Julius Krein, editor of the pro-Trump journal American Affairs, told me. “I don’t think the philosophy or ideology exists,” he added. “It does need to be created.... We do need to have a vehicle and a way to think through these issues on the intellectual plain.”
For now, though, Krein acknowledges Ryanism and other conventional conservative forces are winning out on certain issues. “Healthcare was definitely a disappointment to me,” he said, “and it could be called a deviation from various suggestions Trump made during the campaign.” A supporter of universal health care, Krein sees the GOP’s failed American Health Care Act as an attempt to fulfill Trump’s campaign promise of repealing Obamacare without proper preparation. “I’m glad there is at least time to try to come up with something better and hopefully move away from the failures of Ryan conservatism,” he added, “but I would certainly admit that there’s a long way to go on that one.”
For all the talk last year of the Republican Party’s death at the hands of Trump, current evidence suggests it’s very much alive. The ultimate outsider president is already playing the insider game. When the Times’ Douthat asked Trump in November if he worried about the consequences of doing so, the president-elect replied: “No, I don’t worry about that.” For now, it seems he was right not to fear the fallout. The Times reported Friday that “many conservatives say they do not think Mr. Trump will suffer much as he abandons some of his policy stances.”
No matter how many people try to tell them they have been played for fools, much to their annoyance, that is not a conclusion they seem likely to reach before Mr. Trump even marks his 100th day in office.
They knew all along that they were not voting for a man with concrete convictions. And they continue to see that lack of rigidity—his preference for the transactional over the dogmatic—as a quality they want in a chief executive.
But it’s early yet. Trump may become more conventional, or reverse his positions anew, putting him at odds with conservative orthodoxy again. David Brooks may have been wrong about Trumpism, but he was right when he wrote, “We’re in a state of radical flux.” What Trump does next is anyone’s guess. His decisions, though, won’t be guided by a unique, coherent ideology—because it doesn’t exist. He cares only about winning, and his best hope of doing so is to continue to cave to the Republican Party.