One of the great challenges that political reporters face in covering Donald Trump is trying to get their head around Trump’s fundamental character. How can the president of the United States be so chronically dishonest and so unaware of basic policy issues? There must be another explanation for Trump’s behavior and for the constant shifts in his policy positions and the unfocused governing that has defined his first few months in office.
Take for example, the latest political meme about Trump: the triumph of the allegedly moderate Jared Kushner-Ivanka Trump-Gary Cohn triumvirate in the White House over the Steve Bannon, white nationalist faction. In recent weeks, as Trump has backtracked on some of his key campaign promises — like refusing to call China a currency manipulator and pledging to save the Export-Import bank — advisers like Cohn, a liberal Democrat and former Goldman Sachs executive, has received inordinate credit. All of this has been seen as evidence of Trump’s maturing as a statesman and the victory of White House “adults” over bomb-throwers.
According to Reuters, Cohn has been successful in “muscling aside” Trump’s hard right advisers and “push (ing) more moderate, business-friendly economic policies.”
“Moderates in the White House” writes the Washington Post are “racking up successes in a battle over ideology and control with hardcore conservatives.”
Trump’s “growing reliance on former corporate executives in his White House … helped shape [Trump’s latest] reversals,” says the Wall Street Journal.
These stories reflect a collective journalistic amnesia about the 2016 campaign. Somehow it’s been completely forgotten that Trump ran on a business-friendly agenda of cutting regulation, gutting Wall Street reform, and giving wealthy Americans a massive tax cut. Trump is a rich guy. He thinks like a rich guy. It should be of no surprise that his economic policies are focused on helping other rich guys.
Trump’s populist nods on the campaign trail and his cheap demagogic attacks on foreign trading partners were always phony. They were nothing more than shape shifting intended to convince his working class supporters that a guy with a gold-plated toilet was a man of the people.
It’s not as if Trump’s reversals have taken us by surprise. Or did everyone miss the fact that Mr. Drain the Swamp has surrounded himself with multiple Goldman Sachs executives and stocked his administration with corporate lobbyists? Have we all forgotten that Trump’s Cabinet meetings are unofficial gatherings of the Millionaire’s and Billionaire’s Club?
Remember how Trump was going to renegotiate NAFTA and America’s other “horrible trade deals,” which he spent so much time lambasting during the campaign? Yeah, not so much.
Even before his most recent reversals, it was abundantly clear that Trump’s campaign trail economic populism was like the bubbles that my young children are obsessed with. For a brief moment they flutter through the air bringing a brief spark of wonderment and applause. They evaporate and poof, they’re gone. On to the next shiny thing.
What’s even more remarkable about the notion that Trump has moderated his views is that it ignores his continued embrace of nativist, racist and bigoted policies. The White House is quickly moving to build up a deportation force to remove millions of undocumented immigrants. The White House is pushing forward with plans to devastate the Environmental Protection Agency and undermine any environmental regulation opposed by big business. Meanwhile at the Department of Justice, Jeff Sessions is working tirelessly to undermine Obama-era police reform efforts, strip away legal protections for transgender Americans and support state efforts to restrict voting rights.
So aside from all the places where Trump is not moderating his policies … somehow he’s moderating his policies.
This is the real Trump. There’s no move to the middle going on here and there is no triumph of one White House faction over another. Trump was always a guy whose primary economic focus was making rich people richer and a politician unashamed to use racist and xenophobic tropes to get elected. Reporters need to recognize this president and this White House for what it is … and stop thinking there must be a pony somewhere.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.