It’s the oldest story in politics: candidate makes promise during the campaign then breaks it in office. But President Trump seems to be aiming for some kind of record, having recently abandoned a legion of a longstanding positions — on everything from his favored aides to his favored nations, plus his core economic plans.
It’s not a pivot, exactly. More like a spinning — because on each issue it’s hard to say where exactly Trump is going to end up. But the cumulative change is dramatic, and the question of the moment is: What’s behind all this flip-flopping? Has Trump been tempered by the Oval Office? Is he listening to new advisers? Or is it merely a reflection of Trump’s mercurial mind?
Every day the list of flip-flops seems to grow. Among other things, Trump has:
• Launched an attack on Syria, despite railing against such an intervention during the campaign
• Dropped his pledge to label China a currency manipulator
• Declined to impose any substantial new tariffs, while appointing several free trade champions to his economic team
• Embraced NATO, insisting that it has rapidly gone from “obsolete” to “no longer obsolete”
• Waffled on a bunch of smaller issues, including support for Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen and the Export-Import Bank
What’s behind all this? One possibility is that Trump has slowly come to appreciate the full power of his office. This bull — once praised for his willingness to “drain the swamp” and “kick over the table” — has suddenly realized that the china shop he was set to smash is full of treasures vital for the success of America.
Trump himself said something like this the other day, when asked how the presidency has changed him: “The magnitude of everything is so big, and also the decisions are so big. You know, you’re talking about life and death. You’re not talking about, ‘You’re going to make a good deal.’ ”
That’s enough to give anyone pause. It could explain why Trump has grown reluctant to impose tariffs, lest he stoke a trade war — or why he won’t call China a currency manipulator, for fear of undermining negotiations on North Korea.
Yet, there’s a problem with this line of thinking. On many issues, Trump seems to be moving in the other direction: taking riskier stances, not humbler ones, like bombing a Syrian air base and then chastising Russia for its alliance with an “evil person,” Bashar al-Assad. This is a definite escalation compared with Trump’s prior stance — which was to keep out of Syria and pursue detente with Putin.
In cases like this, the better explanation for Trump’s change-of-mind (or heart) might be that he’s listening to different voices. One by one, the more Russophilic figures on Trump’s team have been sidelined: Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and now Steve Bannon. In their place, Trump has assembled a more conventional policy team, whose members might be nudging Trump toward more aggressive interventions.
Finally, there’s one last possibility. Perhaps Trump is changing his positions because he’s particularly changeable. He drew fire for his ideological slipperiness during the campaign and again during the transition. Why would it stop now?
Trump’s own communications director seemed to confess as much last week, when he told aides they had to be flexible to accommodate their president’s shifting foreign policy goals. “There is no Trump doctrine,” were his exact words — and that basic sentiment seems to hold on a lot of issues.
Trump isn’t a conventional politician, and he doesn’t have a well-formed set of political preferences. That might sound good or bad, depending on your perspective. Either Trump is flexible, open to changing his mind when introduced to new arguments, or he’s erratic and prone to impulsive action.
But one thing Trump’s ideological flexibility surely means is that there are more curves ahead. Next week, next month, and in the years to come, the really surprising thing would be if Trump stopped shedding positions and started following a fixed script.
Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.