The Curious Schism Between Trump and Trump
How is one to think of a president who is unfit for office in his rhetoric and presentation yet mainstream in his policies and actions?
I speak, of course, of Donald Trump. Who doesn’t? As an impossibility come true, the president offers a cosmic riddle to any analyst worth his salt.
Let me specify what I mean by “unfit for office.” I don’t mean that he has committed high crimes and ought to be impeached. I mean, rather, that at the time of his election candidate Trump was appallingly inexperienced in every qualification for the presidency. He also seemed ignorant of our history, incurious about our political habits and traditions, and impulsive and irresponsible in his interactions with the world.
All these terms characterize President Trump’s rhetorical style – and so, one would think, the man. In manner and attitude, his communications tend to float on the shallow waters of the news cycle and the social media shitstorm, untethered to precedent. In substance, the president’s rhetoric often relies on propositions that are false, offensive, thoughtless, and framed to incite a strong reaction rather than to explain or persuade. The two drivers of Trump utterances seem to be an insatiable hunger for attention and the itch to get even with anyone who has criticized him.
I take it for granted that the evidence in support of this characterization is vast and redundant, and makes citing cases unnecessary.
From the first, however, I nursed a suspicion that Trump-in-action seemed like a much less outlandish character than Trump-in-words. We now have 12 months of incumbency behind us. The evidence on this, too, is clear. The actions and policies of the Trump administration are little different from what, say, a Ted Cruz or even a Jeb Bush administration would have implemented. From a Republican and conservative perspective, such actions and policies appear to be perfectly mainstream.
The Grudging Evidence of NeverTrump Conservatives
In what follows, I am not endorsing or “resisting” Donald Trump. I’m performing analysis. I want to compare the president’s policies to his rhetoric, on the one hand, and to mainstream Republican and conservative ideas on the other. Note that I’m also not endorsing or resisting these ideas. What I’m after is a thesis that explains how a president can be rhetorically unfit for office yet mainstream in his policies. Finally, I’ll try to make sense of it all from the larger perspective of the revolt of the public.
If style really is the man, it’s difficult to see how the rhetorical failings that make Trump unfit for office – ignorance, impulsiveness, love of the limelight – would not spill over, disastrously, to his policy decisions. Mostly, that hasn’t happened. From immigration to tax reform, from his judicial appointments to his anti-regulation zeal, the president has followed prescriptions habitually endorsed by Republicans and conservatives before him.
Much the same can be said of foreign policy. Except for a slight tilt to protectionism, the Trump way on, say, NATO and the UN, or China and Afghanistan, adheres pretty closely to regular Republican practice. He has been less interventionist than George W. Bush but more aggressive – with ISIS, Iran, and North Korea, for example – than Barack Obama. And for all the conspiracy theories, he may well be tougher on Russia than his immediate predecessor.
The schism between person and policy is reflected in the grudging acknowledgements of “NeverTrump” conservatives, who despise the man’s character. Noah Rothman has written of the “damage done by Trump’s big mouth,” yet accepts that the president is governing “not as a populist firebrand but a conventional Republican.” Ross Douthat observes with some surprise that the administration’s Middle East policy is “close to what I would have hoped for from a normal Republican president.” Yet another member of the NeverTrump tribe, Rich Lowry, concedes: “It’s hard to see how a conventional Republican president would have done much better.”
The words “normal” and “conventional” are never, ever used to characterize Donald Trump the man – not by anyone, of any persuasion. Yet, in a conservative, Republican context, they keep cropping up with regard to his policies. It’s the political version of William James‘ “divided self.”
So what’s going on?
The Theory That Trump Is Really What He Appears To Be
One explanation may be that President Trump and his unfit rhetoric have been squeezed into a mainstream straightjacket by the institutions of the Federal government. On this account, a combination of reality and institutional pressure has compelled an outlandish character into conventional policy behavior – “malevolence tempered by incompetence,” as one anti-Trump commentator phrased it.
The thesis has a shred of truth to it. Ferocious opposition to the president’s policies has inspired a constant stream of legal challenges. Some of these have been successful, forcing the administration into a more cautious, conventional approach. The fate of the first travel ban is a case in point
However, I believe this explanation rests on flawed assumptions. It also begs the big question. If an ignorant, irresponsible president can appoint competent, responsible officials who steer him toward mainstream policies, we are back to our original dilemma: how is this possible? If an unfit character can recognize reality and adapt his actions to it – if pressure produces moderation rather than delusion or aggression – then the explanation, let me suggest, is itself in need of explaining.
Another possibility is that Trump is only interested in rhetoric and presentation, and leaves the actual business of governing to others. But this retains many of the contradictions of the straightjacket thesis, and smacks of a cheap shot besides. Everything wrong or outrageous can be blamed on Trump, and nothing successful or normal can be credited to him. No doubt, this is possible. Certainly, it’s attractive to the feverishly partisan anti-Trump camp. But the evidence, in my opinion, points in the opposite direction. One of the president’s least attractive traits is his constant public berating of his own people. For better or worse, he seems engaged in government.
Because of the tremendous polarizing power of Donald Trump’s personality, the simplest explanation may be hardest to accept. Suppose that the president’s predilections in policy run, in fact, toward the mainstream. Suppose his rhetorical gift is to frame these mainstream positions in outrageous, irresponsible language. Once again we must ask how this is possible – but now the answer leaps out of the record at us. Instead of “control the borders,” you say “build a wall and send the president of Mexico the check.” Instead of “protect against Islamist violence,” you say “Muslim ban.” Examples, I imagine, can be multiplied at some length.
Call it the Mannerist Theory of Trump: nothing proposed is particularly outrageous for a conservative or a Republican – but the manner of proposing it is.
The implications are interesting. That strange shadowy figure, the populist, would come into focus as the embodiment of a political style rather than a set of policy choices. The populist is whoever tramples on elite proprieties, tastes, and taboos, without regard for ideology. We should not be surprised, then, to find that one sort of populist is also a Marxist (Alexis Tsipras of Greece), while another is a right-wing nationalist (Hungary’s Viktor Orban).
I find the theory plausible, on the evidence. It moves the question about Trump’s schizoid style of governance from the how to the why. To answer this second puzzle, we must look beyond the buzz of US politics to that global uprising against the institutions and elites, of which Donald Trump is both a product and a vector.
How the Trump Style Surfs the Zeitgeist
The revolt of the public is no longer a new or startling development. Everywhere, patterns of action and reaction have hardened to an almost ritual precision. The public has been mobilized by the force of its negations and the repudiation of the status quo, while remaining uninterested in a positive program of reform. Because the impulse to revolt was born in the turbulent digital universe, it has inherited the style peculiar to the web. Rather than deal in finely-tuned arguments or meticulously researched studies, the public prefers the language of outrage. It speaks in rant.
Trump’s character and rhetorical style appear remarkably in tune with this environment. He has attacked the political and media elites – naming names – without restraint. He perceives only his own side to every question, and hurls crude insults at those with different perspectives. He plays fast and loose with the truth – all that matters is settling scores and winning the argument. He tweets impulsively, compulsively, first president to place social media at the heart of his rhetorical arsenal.
Many of the qualities that make Trump seemingly unfit for the presidency in fact increase his attractiveness as a weapon in the hands of a mutinous public: his utter lack of experience, for example, his disdain for history and tradition, even his vulgarity. The people who voted for Trump expect him to humble the elites and break a lot of institutional crockery in the process. They demand different.
In this context, a preference for mainstream policies becomes a liability.
The Sectarian Dilemma and the Question of Fitness
Politicians swept into office by the anti-establishment flood face an immediate dilemma. Once in government, they can continue to smash away at the institutions – but this will damage the economy and consequently their popularity. Alternatively, they can move to the mainstream and compromise with the elites – but this will damage their credibility and alienate their base of support. Few have found a way out of the labyrinth. Alexis Tsipras, to cite one example, tried each approach in turn and failed at both.
Barack Obama evaded the dilemma by removing himself rhetorically an immense distance from the government over which he presided. He felt free to condemn and repudiate the evils of the system, such as economic inequality, while accepting no responsibility for ending them. (That the former president’s personal success did not extend to his governing coalition or the Democratic Party suggests that the forces of negation exacted their punishment nonetheless.)
The bizarre schizoid style of the Trump administration becomes intelligible as an attempt to escape this dilemma. Elected as an agent of negation, President Trump must now promote positive policies and programs. Any direction he takes will alienate some of his supporters, who were bound together largely on the strength of their repudiations. A predilection for the mainstream will alienate most of them.
Against this background, the loud and vulgar sound of the president’s voice becomes the signal for a mustering of the political war-bands. The subject at hand is often elite behavior unrelated to policy: “fake news” in the media, say, or an NFL star kneeling during the National Anthem. Those who oppose Trump can’t resist the lure of outrage. Their responses tend to be no less loud or vulgar, and are sometimes more violent, than the offending message. Groups on the other side of the spectrum, now stoked to full-throated rant mode, rally reflexively to the president’s defense.
I have described this process elsewhere. It’s a zero-sum struggle for attention that rewards the most immoderate voices – and, without question, Donald Trump is a master of the game. His unbridled language mobilizes his anti-elite followers, even as his policies appeal to more conventional Republicans and conservatives.
The political risks, I would think, are extreme. Trump was never a popular candidate. He is not a popular president. To retain his base, he must provoke his opposition into a frenzy of loathing and condemnation. Many Americans of all denominations still expect the chief executive to behave with a minimum of decorum. That’s unlikely to happen in this administration. The maneuvers performed by the president resemble a high-wire act without a net: one false step and the game is over.
The question I first posed was what to make of a president who is rhetorically unfit yet mainstream in policy. The answer very much depends on one’s perspective. Mine is that of a simple defender of liberal democracy – of the “system” now under attack along so many fronts by so many angry factions.
Among the latter the opinion can be found that President Trump’s verbal aggressions make him a new Hitler or a new Mussolini – certainly an “aspiring dictator” of some sort. To the extent that the Mannerist Theory holds true, he can’t be any of these things. In one avatar, instead, he is a totally mainstream policy-maker. In another, he’s a man propelled to the heights by forces he neither controls nor understands, which at any moment may fling him down to earth again.
Words have an impact, however. The nihilist style of social media, when wielded by the president, is destructive of trust in government and makes a mockery of democratic debate. Basic principles of liberal democracy are sometimes trashed by the extravagant rhetoric. To the extent that this throws open the doors of legitimacy to truly anti-democratic players – nihilists in action as well as words – I would consider Donald Trump an unworthy successor to Washington and Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan.