If President Trump were starring in a new reality show -- which, of course, he is -- here’s a possible title: “The Real World.”
Washington is awash with commentary that the president is “moving to the center” and abandoning his conservative principles for a more “moderate” posture pushed by son-in-law Jared Kushner and other New Yorkers who don’t share the heartland populism of Trump’s most ardent supporters.
In recent weeks, the president has swiftly altered his position on a range of topics: the relevance of NATO, trade relations with China and Mexico, the Federal Reserve, and the value of the Export-Import Bank, which finances American companies doing business abroad.
“As he nears 100 days in the White House, Mr. Trump has demonstrated that while he won office on a populist message, he has not consistently governed that way,” reports The New York Times.
But to frame these changes as an ideological shift, from the right to the center, misunderstands this president and his approach to politics. He is not an ideologue. He has no fixed principles or goals, except to win, to make a deal, to enhance his own ego and reputation.
As he has often made clear, his business experience taught him to be a pragmatist, to consider the world as it is, not as it should be. And that practicality is emerging as a core element of his presidency.
That’s why he’s marginalizing advisers like Steve Bannon, a hard-eyed bomb-throwing nationalist who is clearly out of sync with Trump’s essential nature. And why he’s elevating business types like Kushner and former Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn, who share Trump’s basic worldview that you do what it takes to get the deal done.
The president’s pragmatic streak alarms and even enrages true believers, who thought they were promoting a kindred spirit. As one Bannon ally told The Wall Street Journal: “We didn’t elect Kushner to bring a New York establishment mentality to Washington. The reason we worked so hard and gave so much money was because we were promised a nationalist revolution. We didn’t send him there to go native once he gets to Washington, D.C.”
This is Bernieism, but on the right: the willful self-delusion that this is somehow a revolutionary country. In fact, thank goodness, this is a stable, centrist country that will celebrate the 241st anniversary of its last revolution this July.
Sure, Trump keeps employing overheated rhetoric on issues like immigration and the media, but he’s never been a revolutionary -- or even a Republican. He’s a Trumpian, and true Trumpians recognize reality.
Take China. During the campaign, Trump bashed Beijing as a bad commercial partner and threatened a trade war to set things right. Once in office, the world looks very different. The president’s discovered that he needs China, so he’s offering a bargain: You rein in North Korea, I’ll ease up on trade demands.
As Trump told the Journal after his meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping: “Now, I did say -- but you want to make a great deal? Solve the problem in North Korea. ... That’s worth having not as good a trade deal as I would normally be able to make.”
A “nationalist revolution” that’s not.
Or take NATO. Trump called it “obsolete” during the campaign, but after meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, he declared, “It’s no longer obsolete.”
Trump has now realized that for all his happy talk about Russia during the campaign, Moscow under Vladimir Putin remains an aggressive and expansionist power -- and NATO exists for a very good reason: to check and balance that power. Once more, reality reigns.
Another instructive example of Trump’s pragmatism is the Ex-Im Bank, which enjoyed bipartisan support for more than 80 years before tea party types started blasting it as an example of “crony capitalism.” Candidate Trump -- he of no fixed principles -- adopted the line as a handy way to burnish his populist credentials.
But corporate executives like Dennis Muilenburg of Boeing have told him the truth: the Ex-Im Bank is a valuable asset to America’s job-creating companies that want to compete in the global marketplace.
“So instinctively you would say it’s a ridiculous thing, but actually it’s a very good thing and it actually makes money,” Trump conceded to the Journal.
The president is still an impulsive, intemperate and unqualified leader, but his lack of fixed principles could turn out to be an advantage. He seems willing to listen and learn, at least on some issues, and that’s a positive sign.