This past weekend saw abundant punditry revolving around President Trump’s multiple policy reversals.
These flip-flops included, among others, support for Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen; NATO’s spontaneous return from obsolescence; the need for military interference in Syria; China’s manipulation (or not) of its currency; and Russia’s status as an adversary of the United States.
Of course, by the time this column is published, the above flip-flops may have flop-flipped back to their earlier status. Perhaps it’s part of Trump’s war on the press to make it impossible for editors to have even a day to review their writers’ material before it becomes outdated.
On the one hand, some of the more astute observers noted that last week’s Trumpian reversals were, in fact nothing new. One is reminded of the rather clichéd, but entirely appropriate line from Casablanca, in which Captain Renault is of course “shocked, shocked, that there is gambling going on in this casino.”
Trump the candidate flip-flopped constantly; POLITICO highlighted some, along with documented citations of when candidate Trump was for things before he was against them, or against them before he was for them. (It’s hardly a comprehensive catalog of Trumpian contradictions; missing, for example, was the time he told Chris Matthews he believed women should be “punished” for seeking abortions. That flip-flop didn’t take long.)
One doesn’t have to have a very long political memory to recall how another flip-flopping candidate seemed to get the wind taken out of his (windsurfing) sails?
So, what gives? Why was candidate, and now president, Trump seemingly so much more impervious to the typical consequences from wholesale course reversals? The attacks that he was flipping long-held positions seemed to stick. And Kerry is hardly the only modern candidate to be done in by inconsistency; long before YouTube and social media, George H.W. Bush was arguably rendered a one-term president thanks to his own infamous “read my lips” tax reversal.
The distinction is simple. Trump’s constant flip-flops don’t really mean anything, because he doesn’t believe in anything. Without a baseline, there can be no deviation. If you have no core principles, there are no principles to betray. We saw this amoral reality in action last week as Trump declared, without compunction or the slightest sign of discomfort, that NATO had suddenly and without explanation ceased to be obsolete.
Trump’s utter lack of self-awareness concerning his unprincipled inconsistency is really something to behold, ranging as it does from decision about bombing other nations to punishing American women seeking an abortion and pretty much everything in-between.
In presenting something perhaps resembling an explanation for his about-face on bombing Syria, Trump declared himself “flexible.” This descriptor is both inadequate and deceptive. Flexibility implies there is some inflexible core of belief from which one is willing to deviate. As with other nice political terms like compromise and evolution, flexibility implies that one has moved away from core principles to achieve a greater goal or gradually developed new views over time. Trump’s views have been scattershot throughout his public life, let alone from one tweetstorm to the next, since his emergence as a viable candidate and now chief executive. He cannot be flexible, because he has no core principles.
One last resort of Trump’s defenders (even including a notably conciliatory President Obama, in his final days) is that he is really a “non-ideological” “pragmatist.” These terms, too, are inappropriate. Being pragmatic, like being “flexible,” still, by definition, requires that one has a larger vision for which one is willing to make concessions in order to achieve. Perhaps more so than “flexibility,” pragmatism suggests a realpolitik worldview where power, not principle, is the primary currency of trade.
The closest we have had to a genuinely non-ideological pragmatist in modern times was Richard Nixon — to whom Trump is sometimes compared and to whom he sometimes apparently compares himself. Indeed, Nixon often drew the ire of conservatives for his own perceived flip-flops on a range of topics, including his shift from strident anti-Communism to detente; the use of wage and price controls as an overtly Keynesian economic strategy; to regulation by government agencies like the EPA and OSHA.
But Nixon was pragmatic in that his flexibility on many of these policies was intended as a leveraging of power toward some political or geopolitical end. The opening to China was, arguably, a triangulation against the Soviets in the context of Vietnam; moves toward traditional liberal domestic goals were, arguably, part of a larger project to reshape the postwar liberal-conservative divide. (Whether or not these projects succeeded, failed, or backfired is not my point here.) Trump has never expressed anything resembling a coherent geopolitical vision that exceeds the space on a bumper sticker or trucker’s cap, and notions of a Trump electoral “realignment” are primarily post-facto apologies from supporters, who are seeing a forest where there is only trees. As I argued here several weeks ago, there is no “Trump coalition,” and there never was.
What observers need to accept is that Trump is sui generis. He operates outside the domain of traditional policy argument and standard political labels do not apply to him; they even provide him with a kind of legitimate cover even a flip-flopper deserves. Because you can’t really be a flip-flopper if you never believed in anything in anything to begin with; you have no flip from which to flop. You can’t be flexible when you have no central set of beliefs from which to flex. And you can’t be a pragmatist when you have no project for the realignment of power other than the increase of your own.
Jonathan Riehl is a communications consultant for campaigns and nonprofit organizations. He is a former political speechwriter and is completing a book on the modern conservative legal movement.