Michael G. Roskin: Chameleon Trump
Wednesday, November 16, 2016 3:48 PM
Donald Trump swore to “change” Washington but now is trying, chameleon-like, to blend into the mainstream by changing both his campaign pledges and his personality before taking office. Within days of his tainted victory — Hillary outpolled him by a million votes — Trump began to walk back policy positions.
After his cordial meeting with President Obama — who called him “pragmatic,” perhaps wishfully — he said he might modify Obamacare rather than repeal it. He thanked Secretary Clinton for her years of service and made no mention of investigating her. He may add a few miles to the existing Mexico fence (a good photo op) and declare it a wall. He now says he will deport up to 3 million foreign criminals but not all 11.3 million illegal immigrants.
Changing positions is easy for Trump, because he has little knowledge and few core convictions. Most of his life he was a Democrat and is still no conservative. His campaign shouts were provocations to galvanize disgruntled voters, not policies. He doesn’t study policy — heck, he doesn’t read much of anything — and neither do his followers or the media, which posed few substantive questions, even about what he would do in the Middle East. Factual analysis and policies are for nerds. Strong personalities impose their will on problems and opponents.
This will work only if Trump delivers favorable outcomes. People who voted for Trump do not crunch numbers or ponder complexities. They respond to macho swagger, and he basks in their adulation. Trump must be given credit for connecting with the fears and resentments of a left-behind white working class. Few in either party — Bernie excepted — paid attention to the loss of factory jobs and growth of inequality.
Trump and the media feed off each other. The media created Trump, from his long-running reality show to the massive coverage of his campaign video clips. Washington Post editorials denounced Trump, but their lead stories for a year were 80 to 90 percent Trump, always with a photo. The media recognized he was a star who brought readers and viewers. Trump played the media more skillfully than Sen. Joseph McCarthy ever did. And the media amplified his every word.
Most of Trump’s “change” will be domestic, namely, cutting taxes and regulations, which shouldn’t be too hard with a Republican Congress. He will seek major investment in our crumbling infrastructure, something liberals long advocated, especially economist Paul Krugman. It was held up by Republican deficit hawks in Congress, but Trump can command them to do it. His followers will welcome the jobs boost and won’t care that it’s a “liberal budget-buster.”
Foreign policy, however, is trickier than domestic policy. Trump’s neo-isolationism updates the old America First, but he will soon find that he must support NATO, Japan and South Korea. His business friends and visiting Japanese Prime Minister Abe explain that trade pacts benefit everyone’s economy and that scuttling the Trans-Pacific Partnership effectively hands the Western Pacific to China. I bet he listens.
Neo-isolationism, which flared during Vietnam and reappeared with our endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is tempting but cannot last in a hostile world. We may heartily wish to get out of the Middle East, but the mother lode of conflict will keep drawing us in. Expect an early terrorist spectacular to goad him into another Mideast misadventure. As he says, he’s a counterpuncher; can he refrain from counterpunching in the Middle East?
Trump’s actions may change alignments in the Middle East in ways he never foresaw. He proposed a joint U.S.-Russian effort with the Damascus regime to destroy ISIS. Great, but that makes us de facto allies of Iran in Syria (we already are in Iraq). If ISIS is a bigger threat than Iran, Trump will realize that he must retain the “terrible” Iran nuclear deal. It would be a fine irony if Trump achieves the U.S.-Iran rapprochement that eluded Obama. If he signs a law letting families of 9/11 victims sue Saudi Arabia, he will alienate the Kingdom, our problematic ally.
Trump also promised to immediately move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but that could enflame anti-American Muslim violence worldwide. Congress voted overwhelmingly for it in 1995, but presidents, fearing repercussions, never implemented it. I’m betting Trump will back down on moving the embassy, which Israel and its American friends have long demanded. Will Trump honor his pledge or listen to establishment professionals who warn him of the risk? The issue is an early litmus test for Trump’s pragmatism. We should know within a month of his inauguration.
To win reelection, Trump will have to avoid scandal, deliver job growth — which ripped-up trade deals could shrivel — and get out of warfare in the Middle East. If he falters, which is highly likely, Republicans will dump Trump. He cannot restore America’s global leadership through neo-isolationism, constricting trade and abandoning allies. Americans voted for change and got a political chameleon who changes before their eyes.