Donald Trump’s recent policy reversals, and reports that he’s exasperated with right-wing advisers like chief strategist Steve Bannon in favor of moderates like son-in-law Jared Kushner, have given rise to a media depiction of the president as a burgeoning centrist. By declining to label China a “currency manipulator,” to shutter the Export-Import Bank, or to replace Janet Yellen when her Federal Reserve chairmanship expires, Trump has moved “toward the economic policies of more centrist Republicans,” according to The Washington Post. “Trump is, if not behaving normally, at least adopting normal positions,” writes Post columnist Ruth Marcus, who cites Trump’s declaration that NATO is “no longer obsolete” in addition to other flip-flops.
Because these reversals are real and meaningful, it is important to be precise when we describe the transformation, and to think carefully about why it happened and whether Trump deserves to be praised for it.
It is strange, for instance, to describe the combined law enforcement policy of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, economic policy of adviser Gary Cohn, and foreign policy of Trump’s Twitter feed and the military generals in his good graces as “centrism.” Trump has instead taken the three-pronged fusionism of standard movement conservatism—pro-corporate economic policy, religious right-wing social policy, and hawkish foreign policy—and stripped away any pretense of concern for racial equality and inclusiveness. Describing that kind of platform as “centrist” is both inaccurate and a gift to reactionary forces in society.
It is also strange to reflexively applaud a president for serially violating campaign promises—or to assume that the new positions are good, simply because the old ones were bad. The instinctual feeling of relief overtaking the political establishment is understandable—even appropriate—but the reasons are being misdescribed, and wrongly attributed to a rational process supposedly happening in Trump’s mind.
What we are really seeing is the consequence of the fact that Trump’s efforts to corrupt and degrade governing institutions that threaten his power are failing. That is genuinely good news, and worth celebrating, but it should not blind us to the ways in which the institutions Trump is now co-opting are themselves flawed, and potentially dangerous in Trump’s hands.
Trump really seemed to believe that the presidency was essentially omnipotent, and that, once inaugurated, he could mow over all obstacles to unfettered rule. His hubris has been answered in humiliating fashion.
A review by The Los Angeles Times found that fewer than half of Trump’s 39 executive actions changed federal policy in any meaningful way. Two of the orders—the Muslim ban and Muslim ban redux—have been enjoined nationwide, notwithstanding Trump’s attempts to smear the judges who enjoined them. Trump was likewise forced to withdraw a federal hiring freeze because it exacerbated backlogs at Veterans Affairs hospitals and Social Security offices, and to reverse his politicization of the National Security Council by demoting Bannon.
Where Trump has asked Congress to expedite controversial aspects of his agenda—Trumpcare, and funding for a wall along the southern border—Congress has responded by not doing them. Republicans in Congress have largely abetted Trump’s efforts to cover up the corruption that pervaded his campaign and now pervades his administration. But Trump has been unable to stymie a Senate investigation of ties between his advisers and the Russian intelligence elements that sabotaged Hillary Clinton’s campaign. When the White House attempted to conscript Congress into turning its investigative powers on his enemies, it boomeranged on them. Republicans and Democrats condemned Trump, and their partner in crime, Congressman Devin Nunes, had to relinquish control over the House Intelligence Committee’s own Russia investigation.
Trump told Fox Business Network that “it’s not too late” for him to fire FBI Director James Comey, who is conducting a third investigation of the Russian subversion operation. While this is true in a narrow technical sense, what Trump may not realize is that for all practical purposes it is almost certainly false—unless the White House believes that mass FBI resignations, or the appointment of a special prosecutor, or impeachment for obstruction, or some combination thereof, would be an improvement on the status quo.
Trump is also learning that while it is technically his prerogative to unthinkingly abuse U.S. allies and antagonize rival powers, the consequences of doing so are immensely constraining. The inherent power of institutions like NATO, combined with path dependency, loss aversion, and other inertial forces are for better or worse stronger than any president; the good news is, that includes Trump. Most presidents wouldn’t threaten to intentionally mismanage the Affordable Care Act in order to bring about its failure, but when Trump did, no less a player in Republican politics than the Chamber of Commerce warned him that he would be making a grave mistake.
Trump’s “pivot” is really an outgrowth of the fact that he keeps bouncing off of these institutional constraints. Trump’s power-mad political instincts, reflected in Bannon’s central role in the administration’s early days, served him very poorly, so he has delegated governing to different people with different agendas. His economic adviser Gary Cohn—until recently the president of Goldman Sachs—is reportedly gaining clout, while the generals Trump placed in charge of the Defense Department and the NSC have taken the reins of foreign policy.
Insofar as Trump’s strongman tendencies, and his erratic, id-driven decision-making process have been sources of widespread sleeplessness, this is a welcome development, and I believe some of the enthusiasm for Trump’s supposed “centrism” is really an expression of gratitude that his authoritarian inclinations are giving way to something more considered.
But there is a lot of damage a praise-seeking president can do short of blundering us into World War III via Twitter. Trump ran afoul of the foreign policy consensus in Washington, only to win over the keepers of that consensus by bombing Syria. The problem is that the consensus itself is unwise, forged by corrupted institutions, dangerous even when someone like Barack Obama—a deeply deliberate, reluctant interventionist—is at the helm. I think the decision was a moral and strategic error, but even those who supported it shouldn’t take any comfort from the fact that Trump did something they liked. Yes, Clinton might have made the same decision—but not on a lark, and not in pursuit of cable news plaudits. It is frankly bizarre how many people are of the view that Trump is a dangerously erratic man, unfit for the presidency, but are thrilled to give him positive reinforcement for launching cruise missiles.
It makes more sense to view Trump’s apparent change of heart over Yellen favorably, insofar as it means he won’t replace her with a Fed chairman with reactionary policy views; but it is easier to imagine the newer, more globalist Trump replacing Yellen with an Alan Greenspan–like ideologue who neglects the Fed’s regulatory role than it is to imagine him keeping her or replacing her with someone more committed to improving the economic lot of his struggling supporters.
The whole story is less appealing than the parts observers have focused on in the hope of restoring normalcy. Unable to delegitimize competing institutions, Trump is seeking to empower them at the expense of his central campaign promises. This is an inherently stabilizing development, but praising Trump for it confronts us with a new set of problems. This especially true if, in our relief, we reinforce incentives for him and future presidents to lie to their supporters and encourage complacency with institutions that failed to stop Trump from becoming president in the first place.