The, um, Evolution of Donald Trump
Recent tweaks and reversals of campaign statements are moves to the political center. How far can he go in that direction before he turns into what he campaigned against?
This time a year ago, Donald Trump was throwing red meat to the crowds with both hands at campaign rallies across America; their appetite as political carnivores helped power Trump into the White House. But reality has a way of intruding on fantasy -- to be expected when the fantasy depends on the reality to exist.
Now, we’re starting to see the slightest pivot toward geopolitical and economic reality – realpolitik – taking shape within House Trump. We don’t know for sure who the Donald Whisperer is: maybe Firstborn Plenipotentiary Ivanka Trump, or presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, in his emerging role as a chief personal counselor to the president, a kind of Rasputin in chief.
It sure as hell ain’t Steve Bannon.
Whoever the Oval Office Jiminy Cricket is has been whispering words of a pushback into Trump’s coiffed ear, a recognition of how the big-boy-pants world works -- of what is, finally, the difference between campaigning and governing. ... a difference that Trump has been hard-pressed to observe even before taking office in January.
That pivotal distinction never went away, and it never will. Trump is being dragged, kicking and not quite screaming, to realizing that. There’s a lot of recent evidence to show that process has already taken place.
◊ ◊ ◊
April 12th was a good day to watch the scales fall from the Donald’s eyes. The president walked back his campaign-rally shibboleth that China was “a currency manipulator.” That was a claim Trump made or threatened to make during the 2016 campaign, and years before that. But in an April 12th interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump did a volte face on one of his campaign’s more emotionally galvanizing positions.
“They’re not currency manipulators,” he told The Journal.
“I think our dollar is getting too strong, and partially that’s my fault because people have confidence in me. But that’s hurting—that will hurt ultimately,” Trump told the paper. “Look, there’s some very good things about a strong dollar, but ... it’s very, very hard to compete when you have a strong dollar and other countries are devaluing their currency.”
Paraphrasing the president, The Journal reported that “Mr. Trump said the reason he has changed his mind on one of his signature campaign promises is that China hasn’t been manipulating its currency for months and because taking the step now could jeopardize his talks with Beijing on confronting the threat of North Korea.”
◊ ◊ ◊
If you’re keeping score at home, this was the second Trump turnaround on Asia-Pacific concerns in as many months. In February, Trump formally agreed that, yes, the “one China” policy that’s been a cornerstone of Sino-American geopolitics for about 40 years would continue to be so under House Trump — despite a post-election statement to The Journal that “everything is under negotiation, including ‘one China.’”
Trump made amends for that in a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our ‘One China’ policy,” said the February statement from a White House that folded like a card table at a bingo hall.
Then there was Trump’s reversal on the value and efficacy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a body that the president has had little use for on the campaign trail last year. “I said here’s the problem with NATO: It’s obsolete,” Candidate Trump said last April at a campaign event in Wausau, Wisc., reported by The New York Times. “Big statement to make when you don’t know that much about it, but I learn quickly.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Trump’s adventures on the learning curve continued on April 12th. In a joint White House news conference alongside NATO Chairman Jens Stoltenberg, he admitted that the organization of 28 member states is “no longer obsolete.”
Trump said he and Stoltenberg had a “productive discussion about what more NATO can do to fight against terrorism. I complained about that a long time ago and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism. I said [NATO] was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete.”
The praisesong continued. “Every generation has strived to adopt the NATO alliance to meet the challenges of their times, and on my visit to Brussels this spring, which I look very much forward to, we will look together to do the same.”
Stoltenberg is reportedly still weeping with joy.
◊ ◊ ◊
Back in the campaign day, Candidate Trump also adopted a decidedly transactional, quod pro quo perspective of the United States and its financial relationship with the organization, a prime guarantor of global security since the end of World War II. Last July, in an interview with The New York Times, Trump likened it to any business deal. "You always have to be prepared to walk," he said.
Well, President Trump isn't channeling his inner Monty Hall like he was before. “We will work with our allies ... We strongly support NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two world wars that dethroned fascism, and a Cold War that defeated communism,” he said on Feb. 28, in his first address before Congress.
And Trump, completing an identity-shift trifecta, also reversed previous comments made about Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen, whom he effectively called an Obama tool while Trump was on the campaign trail. In September, Trump said Yellen “should be ashamed of herself” for keeping interest rates low.
Today? Meh. “I like her, I respect her,” Trump told The Journalon April 12th. “I do like a low-interest rate policy, I must be honest with you.”
◊ ◊ ◊
“Evolution” might be too strong and organically unpalatable a word for what appears to be in play in the House of Change Agent Orange. Many of his most ardent supporters might be tempted to call it that ... if they believed in evolution. They don’t, not for Trump or anyone else. And that could be a political problem in the future, maybe as soon as next year.
On the one hand, these 180-degree adjustments of viewpoint appear to be the beginning of Trump’s real political education, his first real comeuppance from extant political realities – and as such a welcome development. The unknown unknown is how these transitions sit with his conservative base, and what moves he or his administration will make in the coming days and weeks to reassure that base that, “no, in truth, I haven’t really changed at all.”
Because to one degree or another, these tweaks and reversals are moves to the political center. With more of them certainly on the way -- that’s what happens when presidential reality surmounts campaign fantasy -- the question is, how much of it is enough, or too much, for the conservative base that helped him and Republicans win handily, White House and down-ticket, in 2016?
By extension, the even bigger question between now and 2018, and definitely by 2020, is: How far can Trump pivot to the center before he gets close to, or becomes, what he campaigned against?
In that case ... the word “evolution” scarcely applies.