The presidency is an educational experience for everyone who assumes the office, since there is no other job like it. “For any new occupant of the White House, the early months are like a graduate seminar in policy crammed into every half-hour meeting,” Peter Baker wrote in The New York Times on Thursday. “What made sense on the campaign trail may have little bearing on reality in the Oval Office, and the education of a president can be rocky even for former governors or senators. For Mr. Trump, the first president in American history never to have served in government or the military, the learning curve is especially steep.” CNN’s Chris Cillizza put it more simply: “If Donald Trump has learned any big lesson in his 84 days as President, it’s this: The job is way harder than it looks.”
This is a reasonable analysis given the president’s explanations for his many recent reversals of campaign positions: He has developed a telling rhetorical tic where he announces that some subject he had pontificated on with confidence is actually much more complex than the thought.
Kevin Drum, writing in Mother Jones, has collected some choice examples. “I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject,” Trump said, in February, of health care reform. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” The same underlying formulation recurred this week. After meeting with Xi Jinping, he told The Wall Street Journal that China’s president “went into the history of China and Korea. Not North Korea, Korea. And you know, you’re talking about thousands of years … and many wars. And Korea actually used to be a part of China. And after listening for 10 minutes I realized that not—it’s not so easy. You know I felt pretty strongly ... that they had a tremendous power over China.... But it’s not what you would think.” He also told the paper, “I was very much opposed to Ex-Im Bank ... but actually it’s a very good thing and it actually makes money. You know, it actually could make a lot of money.”
These confessions of ignorance are startling, but can create a tempting, optimistic narrative: Trump is learning! He’s filling up the vast emptiness of his mind with new knowledge, replacing pat simplicities with a more nuanced engagement with reality. Perhaps over time, Trump could learn enough to do his job properly.
“As he governs, he is realizing that the campaign talk doesn’t fit neatly into governing and he needs a different approach, one that gets results,” Christopher Ruddy, the Newsmax Media CEO who is close to the president, told Baker. “So he will discard things and people that don’t work out, and those that do work, he will magnify. That’s how he became successful in business and entertainment.”
Alas, this hope is based on a mistaken understanding of how Trump operates. His approach to knowledge is not cumulative—to gather new information, have a better understand the world, and make more informed decisions—but rather situational. Trump is at heart a salesman, so the only knowledge he’s truly interested in retaining is that which he needs to know to close a deal. Trump’s real skill is figuring out what people want to hear so he can get them to do what he wants, whether it’s buying his products or voting for him. That is how he became a successful businessman and entertainer.
It’s also how Trump became a successful presidential candidate. He watched Fox News and listened to talk radio to gauge what the average Republicans wanted. He then echoed back to the Right what they wanted to hear. Other Republican politicians do this, of course, but not so brazenly; they try to balance the red meat for the GOP base with semi-coherent policy prescriptions aimed at donors and the media. Trump’s shrewdness was realizing that in order to get the Republican nomination, he didn’t need to water down his message. He could offer undiluted wish-fulfillment fantasies.
Now that he’s president, Trump has a wider audience beyond the “forgotten Americans” he indulged at rallies. He’s meeting with world leaders like Xi, former Boeing CEO Jim McNerney, and military generals like Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Trump listens to them and, again, echoes back what he hears. He does so because his attitude towards truth is situational. He’ll say whatever the moment requires. Right now, the moment doesn’t require winning over more white working class voters, but working with fellow members of the elite.
What this means is that when the situation changes, Trump will unlearn all he has claimed to learn. Currently, his position on health care reform is based on what he’s been told by House Speaker Paul Ryan, whom he has to work with. But if these efforts fail, Trump will find a new, completely different political ally to echo. The same goes with China. Right now, Trump sees an advantage in having good relations, but if that changes he’ll forget everything Xi taught him. This is what Trump really means when he says, as he did before last week’s bombing of a Syrian airfield, “I like to think of myself as a very flexible person. I don’t have to have one specific way, and if the world changes, I go the same way, I don’t change, well, I do change, and I am flexible, and I’m proud of that flexibility.”
Note the obvious confusion of his political messaging: “I don’t change, well, I do change.” There is no learning curve with Trump, no gradual accrual of knowledge. He’s a remarkably consistent actor who only seems like he’s capable of growth because he alters his language in new situations. What Trump calls “flexibility,” and the media calls “unpredictability,” is in fact a sign of his rhetorical opportunism. “Mr. Trump sometimes cloaks his evolving positions by declaring victory before retreating,” notes Baker, of the Times. Baker is wrong that Trump is “evolving”—we’re witnessing the same old Trump, as uninterested in knowledge and unprincipled as ever—but right about one thing: It’s all about winning.