Donald Trump campaigned as an unpredictable outsider. He let an R hang next to his name, but he was clear: he was not a normal Republican. He cared for working people more than traditional Republicans, he cared less for foreign adventurism, and wasn’t constrained by an overly-idealistic vision of the free-market. He was concerned with results, not the party line.
During his first hundred days, though, Trump hasn’t governed as an unpredictable outsider; he’s governed as a typical Republican. What’s more, he staffed his administration with typical Republicans who harbor typical Republican views.
Many Republicans voters who supported Trump reluctantly will be pleased with this turn. Other than Trump himself, what made mainstream Republicans (many of the writers at the National Review, say) queasy about him was his lack of adherence to conservative orthodoxy. On a number of issues, Trump staked out positions that were to the left of mainstream Republican thinking. Like most Republicans, Trump said he wanted to repeal Obamacare, but also said he wanted to replace it with something that would cover everyone. He said he wanted to cut taxes on the middle class, but he also said he would raise taxes on the wealthy. He said he would de-regulate the coal industry and would approve new pipelines, but he also said he would punish companies who sent jobs overseas or used foreign imports. He said he wanted to tear up free trade deals, which most Republicans liked. He indicated he was less than committed to NATO, and would align with Russia and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, policies that are about as far from Ronald Reagan as a Republican could conceivably get.
It’s difficult to say how much Trump’s heterodoxy helped him win in November. A more salient factor, surely, was the fact that Republicans put aside their worries and voted for him. At the very least, though, Trump’s lack of adherence to the party line was a significant driver in the peculiar enthusiasm among Trump’s core supporters. It’s difficult to imagine a Jeb Bush or a Marco Rubio eliciting anything like the excitement Trump created. What role this excitement played in November is difficult to say, but because the Republican party fell in line behind him, the enthusiasm among his most ardent supporters probably helped him on the margins (where he ultimately won). It’s the one thing he had in common with Barack Obama. Many voters ultimately supported Trump because they thought he was different.
Trump campaigned as a tough guy who delivered on his promises. He told voters that he would change Washington by force of will. Most politicians make similar pledges, and most fail. Keeping your promises is difficult when you don’t have much in the way of unilateral power, and Washington is much larger than the White House. Trump, though, hasn’t even tried. He has taken none of the steps one would take if he were trying to accomplish those goals.
During his first hundred days, Trump has made a full transition into an orthodox Republican on every issue except for immigration, where he sits just outside the mainstream of the party. This didn’t happen gradually, as the realities of governing set in; it happened immediately. He didn’t staff his administration with “economic nationalists” or populists, but instead installed a group of anti-regulation supply-siders – several of them from Goldman Sachs, whose supposed influence over Hillary Clinton Trump had highlighted incessantly. He didn’t come out with a populist healthcare plan, but rather signed onto the first thing Paul Ryan put in front of him. We have yet to see what he will do with tax reform, but we have every reason to believe he will endorse a typical Republican bill with large tax cuts for top-earners and corporations. He has not re-negotiated NAFTA or slapped protectionist tariffs on anything. He hasn’t declared China a currency manipulator or done anything to reduce the trade deficit. He has sent out a few inflammatory tweets about NATO, but his subordinates have gone to great lengths to re-assert our nation’s commitments to the treaty. And while he has possibly shifted course in Syria, he hasn’t buddied up with Putin to fight ISIS like he suggested he would do.
So what gives?
I think, for one, that Trump is more comfortable with lying than any president we’ve had. All presidents break some promises, but most presidents try to keep most of their promises. I don’t think Trump thinks it’s important to stick to his word. If he thinks he has to tell people he wants insurance for everyone to get their votes, he will. Trump doesn’t seem to particularly care whether or not he can accomplish something, as long as it sounds good in the pitch. What’s most important to him is not truth, but sealing the win.
On top of this, the gap between Trump’s rhetoric and his practice is exacerbated by his general lack of relevant knowledge. He cannot sit down and select a strategy for achieving his promises, because he doesn’t know how to achieve them. He told coal miners, steel workers, and car factory workers that he would bring back their jobs, but he never said so in such a way that indicated he had spent a lot of time thinking about how to actually do those things. He said he would re-negotiate NAFTA, but hasn’t, in large part (I suspect) due to his complete lack of interest in details. Does he even know what provisions of NAFTA he’d like to scrap? Does he have a basic idea of what he wants to replace them with? I have my doubts.
Again, many Republicans will be heartened by the rapid about-face into a conventional Republican administration (albeit, a slightly less professional, slightly more racist one). They shouldn’t be. Beyond the basic issues of integrity (how do you justify supporting a pathologically ignorant, serial liar?), there are the issues of Trump’s unpredictability and lack of principles. He based a large portion of his campaign on a kind of barn-burning economic populism that he then discarded, apparently without a second thought. Why would any Republican believe he had any loyalty to Republican orthodoxy that would survive a shift in public opinion or the influence of ascendant outsiders? Trump has betrayed a lot of people throughout his life (it’s a large part of how he got rich). What would stop him from betraying Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell? He has already turned on the marginal voters who pushed him over the top in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. What’s to stop him from turning on average Republican voters?