In the last couple of weeks, it seems that everyone has celebrated and castigated Trump, sometimes on the same day. Examining the range of opinions on Trump’s presidency so far is like looking through a kaleidoscope. No matter how gently you hold it up to your eye, you see something different than last time you looked through it. In normal times, it is easy to know where everyone stands. The Liberals think the Republican president is Hitler and they think the Democrat is Jesus. The Right adjust accordingly.
With Trump, all of the pundits are standing in the darkness, silhouetted by a wall of light and sound. We can sort of see them moving and we hear noises, but it is hard to know who is saying what about whom. Every once in a while a face from the crowd pops into view and says something good or ill about Trump. One minute Bill Kristol is sneering about Trump and then all of sudden Lindsey Graham is praising Trump. The Alt-Right is one minute hooting about Syria and then praising the new border push.
It really is exhausting, but it is part of how Trump plays the game. It is a good reminder that traditional metrics are not much use when judging Trump the politician. It’s also why he mowed down the GOP field with a cell phone and a twitter account. It was not that he broke their rules. It was that they wasted a lot of time complaining about Trump breaking their rules. Meanwhile, Trump was out giving voters a reason to support him. It is a classic form of political distraction that Trump has adopted to the modern communication age.
Similarly, Trump is wildly unpredictable, at least he seems unpredictable. That’s a big part of how he plays the game. He wants everyone to think the range of choices for him include some collection of unknown options that no one has yet to consider. That keeps foes on the defensive, making them tentative, even when they have the advantage. By appearing to have no clear strategy and routinely breaking old habits, Trump appears to be a wild man, who is capable of anything. Therefore, there’s no way to plan for him.
The big weapon Trump has in this regard is his willingness to attack unexpectedly. He always looks to attack when everyone is sure it is foolish to do so. He went to the very pro-military state of South Carolina and called John McCain a loser for getting shot down and captured by the Vietnamese. He questioned McCain’s conduct as a prisoner. The media howled about how he went too far, but his opponents suddenly got very nervous as they realized they could never relax around Trump. He could attack at any moment.
Another thing about Trump that makes him an extreme outlier in national politics is that he is not an ideologue. Most of our politicians are quite stupid. All of their intellectual energy is focused on the endless scheming and game playing that is politics. What passes for ideology in American politics is really just a laundry list of policies aimed at buying votes from interest groups. That’s why they sound like robots. They stick to the script, even in the face of a public revolt, because that’s the safe and easy way to do it.
That’s not Trump. He is not married to any policy. In the campaign, he would regularly say something one day and then take it back two days later when it proved to be unpopular. It is safe to assume, for example, that Trump has zero interest in health care. He’ll sign off on anything that is popular with the voters. He’s also willing to dump a bad policy without worrying a bit about being called a hypocrite or inconsistent. Trump is practical about these things. If it does not work, he tosses it aside and moves onto to the next thing.
This will be terribly frustrating for partisans, but Trump is a goal oriented guy. The never ending circus has a point. In the case of the Syrian attack and the blow up with the Russians, it is looking like the point of it all was to play a little domestic politics, but a whole lot of international politics. The way he handled the Chinese leader last week is looking like a game to get the Chinese to do something about North Korea, in order to save face. The “Crazy Trump” act hurling missiles at Syria is excellent cover.
It’s easy to read way too much into these accounts, but the Chinese are now saying extremely bellicose things to the North Koreans. Bush and Obama used every trick they knew to get the Chinese to address the North Koreans and failed. Suddenly, the Chinese are issuing ultimatums. It could simply a be a coincidence and China has been planning to rid themselves of the Kim family for a while, but it is hard to imagine anything like this happening under the last four presidents. They lacked the boldness to try it.
None of this is to suggest that Trump is going to be good for our team, however you interpret that. It’s just that using the old metrics to assess Trump is a category error. He’s not a regular politician and these are not regular times. No one should have imagined Trump as their white knight. At best, Trump flips over the tables and creates enough chaos to give those outside official Washington a chance to join the fight. Trump the Destroyer of Worlds is going to be exhausting for everyone. That’s just part of the deal.