The president who proclaimed that he was a rock, he was an island, sure seems to be shifting a lot.
Donald Trump has now flip-flopped on Chinese currency manipulation (he no longer believes it’s happening); North Korea (he now says the Chinese don’t have the power to oust Kim Jong Un); Syria (Bashar al-Assad must now go); chemical-weapons use (Assad is now a “butcher”); the Export-Import Bank (he suddenly favors it, after a campaign spent opposing it it); NATO (it’s no longer “obsolete”); and Fed chair Janet Yellin (he once thought her a nefarious operator; now he thinks she’s great).
Okay, then. But what’s really going on? There are two theories.
The first theory: Reality hit Trump like a freight train. His campaign rhetoric simply couldn’t stand up to the light of day. It was one thing to jocularly dismiss human-rights atrocities as none of America’s business while speaking to crowds in rural Ohio, but the leader of the free world typically feels the weight of responsibility when pictures of dead children crop up on the television.
The most plausible scenario? Both theories are correct.
Unfortunately, even those who lack an ideology have a worldview, and Trump’s is essentially self-centered.
Trump doesn’t have a fully formed ideology. This was seen by his supporters as a plus: Because he wasn’t in thrall to any one notion of the world, their thinking went, he would approach each issue with an open mind, never bound by ideological rigor. He could be a freewheeling pragmatist.
Unfortunately, even those who lack an ideology have a worldview, and Trump’s is essentially self-centered: What is good for his popularity is good for the world. This, it should go without saying, leaves him subject to co-option by those with a more ideological bent. When reality hits him in the face, he reacts spontaneously — and in doing so, he aligns with movements that have long pre-existed him, and that cheer him along. Spurred by that applause, he is drawn into the orbit of those ideologues who supply it.
That’s precisely how Trump ended up in the camp of the nationalist-populists during the election cycle. He articulated a knee-jerk sentiment about illegal immigration, Steve Bannon and the Breitbart crowd cheered, and so he doubled down on that sentiment. (He admitted as much himself during the campaign, stating that he simply invoked the border wall every time crowds began to get bored.) It’s the likely reason for his the warmth he showed toward Vladimir Putin before the Syria strike once again soured U.S.–Kremlin relations: Putin had been quite warm toward him and his allies, and Trump enjoyed the approval.
This is the Trump pattern: react, wait for applause, and then cater to those clapping.
That’s apparently how he came to his decision about striking Syria. Just days before the sarin-gas attack, the official Trump-administration position was that Assad did not need to go. Then, according to Eric Trump, his sister Ivanka influenced their father into action: “Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence. I’m sure she said: ‘Listen, this is horrible stuff.’ My father will act in times like that.” The resulting decision received widespread applause, which obviously thrilled Trump, as his description of President Xi Xinping’s reaction to the news made clear:
“I was sitting at the table. We had finished dinner. We are now having dessert. And we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you have ever seen. And President Xi was enjoying it,” Trump said.
“And I was given the message from the generals that the ships are locked and loaded. What do you do? And we made a determination to do it. So the missiles were on the way.”
“And I said: ‘Mr President, let me explain something to you . . . we’ve just launched 59 missiles, heading to Iraq [sic] . . . heading toward Syria and I want you to know that.’”
“I didn’t want him to go home . . . and then they say: ‘You know the guy you just had dinner with just attacked [Syria].’”
Asked how the leader of China, which alongside Russia has repeatedly blocked UN resolutions targeting the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, had reacted, Trump said: “He paused for 10 seconds and then he asked the interpreter to please say it again — I didn’t think that was a good sign.”
“And he said to me, anybody that uses gases — you could almost say, or anything else — but anybody that was so brutal and uses gases to do that to young children and babies, it’s OK. He was OK with it. He was OK.”
To recap: Trump was awakened to reality by Ivanka, he was reassured by those who cheered the resulting decision, and he sees himself as more powerful and successful because that applause crossed international lines.
What does that mean? It means that it would be deeply naïve to suspect that Trump has turned permanently to the right. He has instead turned to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, both of whom have strong opinions about politics, and both of whom have generally lived their political lives on the mainstream left. Trump spent the campaign telling crowds of big-government nationalist-populists what they wanted to hear; now, his only feedback loop consists of his family and the media. His nationalist-populist base is outraged that he has supposedly abandoned his principles, when in reality he’s only reacted to events, and, in doing so, abandoned their principles.
Practically speaking, this means that Bannon is out while Jared and Ivanka are in. It means that nationalist populism is out while human-rights policing is in. It means that Trump will rush from issue to issue, reacting without a plan, and then looking for those who cheer him to provide an ideological framework that fills in the gaps. It means that anything can happen, from single-payer health care to a preemptive strike on North Korea.
Pragmatism is merely code for “doing whatever I want.” And what Trump wants may not be what his supporters thought they were getting.
— Ben Shapiro is the editor in chief of the Daily Wire.