Donald Trump continues to fascinate, infuriate, and confuse. I myself have been trying to make sense of the Trump Phenomenon in variousforms for going on two years now—and have earned my share of criticism for being insufficiently enthusiastic.
In honor of the man we will be discussing tonight, who has often railed against (and, some might say, profited from) “fake news,” allow me to begin by reminding us all that we are celebrating a fake anniversary.
There is nothing magical about one hundred days, outside of our fixation on round numbers. A presidential term is roughly 1461 days, so there is much time to accomplish things, or to disappoint. One Obama official referred to the 100 day mark as “the journalistic equivalent of a Hallmark holiday,” an excuse for journalists and policy analysts and smart-aleck lecturers to comment on the administration’s relative success or failure. Gail Collins of the New York Times has even added to the glut of think pieces with a quiz about the most important events and statements of Trump’s first hundred days.
We can blame Franklin Roosevelt for this fixation; his inauguration in March 1933 (the last such long interregnum) came after such a period of economic crisis, existential worry, and political stagnation that he was compelled by circumstance as well as his temperament to burst onto the political stage with a welter of programs that became the foundation for the New Deal.
Every president since (as well as many chiefs of other organizations) has been held hostage to that arbitrary timetable, even though different presidents have entered office with different imperatives and expectations. It is true that presidents have surprisingly little time to push through significant programs before the luster of their election fades, but that can be even more difficult if the president in question is not able to provide a clear and early logic to the administration to come. In that sense, the hundred days can matter quite a bit.
Nevertheless, we should still be careful about making predictions about the future based on the first three months. It is generally better to get off to a good start than to a bad one, but history is full of examples of presidents who started slowly, for any number of reasons, and there is no direct connection between slow starts and what came later, for example:
John Kennedy’s first hundred days were marked by the debacle at the Bay of Pigs.
George H. W. Bush had to endure the embarrassing unraveling of his nominee for Secretary of Defense, Senator John Tower, whose personal peccadilloes cost him what had originally been considered automatic Senate confirmation.
Bill Clinton had to sort through two failed nominees for Attorney General and one failed CIA nominee as he assembled his team.
Not to mention that in their first hundred days, William Henry Harrison managed to die of pneumonia, and Ronald Reagan was nearly killed by an assassin. I’d say those would count as worse than a few political setbacks, but I’m not a political journalist.
President Trump has himself expressed frustration with this “fake anniversary” in recent tweets, though critics have noted that Candidate Trump had released an ambitious list of promised actions within his hundred days. The Trump team also appears to have begun to worry that there will not be enough done by April 29, which also happens to be the day that current funding for the federal government runs out. As a result, he has been pushing, for example, for a renewed offensive to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and on April 26, his administration announced the (very broad) outline of his ambitious plans for tax reform. Further contradicting his earlier contempt for the milestone, the president announced plans for a huge rally in Pennsylvania on April 29, which will also be counter-programming for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where the Trump jokes are likely to fly thick and fast.
So even if it is a fake milestone, there is a lot of real politics built around it.
The Paradoxical President
The special challenge in assessing the Trump presidency is similar to the challenges facing those who tried to make sense of the Trump campaign. We are dealing with a president who is, politically, something of a blank slate, as odd as that might sound in reference to a seventy-year-old man who has been in the public eye for more than three decades. This is not meant as a criticism, but as a statement of fact.
One of these most famous observations about Donald Trump the candidate came from journalist Salena Zito, who said that Trump’s media critics took him “literally, but not seriously,” while his admirers took him “seriously, not literally.”
What does that mean? Well, it means that while his critics attacked the (often extremely vulnerable) details of his plans to upend world trade, build a border wall, and generally make America Great again, his fans were uninterested in the details and much more focused on the feelings that he represented, reflected, and intensified. Zito’s insight is valuable as an explanation of the partisan divide over Trump, but it is also profoundly unnerving politically. Although it is true that no president does everything he promised to do on the campaign trail, does it really make sense for voters to select someone based on the assumption that they really don’t mean anything they say?
Within a month of Election Day, Charles Lane in the Washington Post noted this paradox. He worried that people might overstate the degree of flexibility within Trump’s positions. We need to take him seriously and literally, he warned—even if he does not have a fixed program, one cannot imagine that the things he said have no meaning at all. He may claim to be pragmatic, but that’s not a program. Scholar and conservative gadfly Tom Nichols pushed the thought a step further, warning that the unwillingness of Trump voters to subject their hero’s words and actions to objective scrutiny poses a significant threat to the future of American politics.
Even if all readers may not share Nichols’ concerns, Trump’s paradoxes are indeed fascinating and unnerving, for both his supporters and his opponents. His internal contradictions came to mind when I read the following passage in Joseph Roth’s appropriately titled novel about Napoleon, The Hundred Days:
He promised people liberty and dignity—but whoever entered into his service surrendered their freedom and gave themselves completely to him. He held the people and the nations in low regard, yet nonetheless he courted their favor. He despised those who were born kings but desired their friendship and recognition. . . . He has no use for love but wanted to have women. He did not believe in loyalty and friendship yet searched tirelessly for friends. He scorned the world but wanted to conquer it anyway.
The unmoored nature of Trump’s politics has been a source of both hope and fear. Otherwise sober writers such as the Atlantic’s David Frum greeted the new administration with a cover story entitled, “How to Build an Autocracy,” viewing Trump’s disdain for traditional norms as a harbinger of great threats to the constitutional order. One does not have to look very far for those who have compared Trump and Trumpism—with their combination of economic protectionism, nationalism, and hostility to immigration and the media—to baleful examples from the past, including both fascist rulers of interwar Europe and various South American caudillos. For those analysts, and many who have taken to the streets in protest marches, Trump is a threat to the Republic, and they reject any effort to work within existing constitutional order for fear of “normalizing” him.
Speaking of paradoxes, it is interesting to charge a political leader with wanting to destroy the constitutional order while also rejecting the comforts of that order. But there are historical reasons at play there, as many sensible people worry that conventional liberal political norms and structures may not be strong enough to stop populist authoritarianism, at home or abroad.
Even as some critical observers worry that Trump represents a creeping fascism, many others mock him and his administration for their bumbling performance. Those perspectives are not mutually exclusive, of course, as Benjamin Wittes noted in his now-famous analysis of President Trump’s first attempt at a travel ban by executive order that the administration was displaying “malevolence tempered by incompetence.”
Trump’s polarizing presence has influenced the reporting on his policy struggles. After the collapse of Republican health care plans, for example, some columnists such as Charles Blow of the New York Times, quoting the villain in Iron Man II, announced that his Republican rivals had “made the God of Chaos bleed,” puncturing his image as a deal maker. He followed those hard words with another column denouncing the president as “a fake and a fraud.” Douglas Brinkley, who has published biographies of such presidents as Gerald Ford, Franklin Roosevelt, and Theodore Roosevelt, declared sometime around day 65: “This is the most failed first 100 days of any president.” Other presidential historians have echoed that sentiment.
More sympathetic writers for their part cite such things as Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court and the military response to Syrian chemical weapons use to say that the first hundred days have been “better than you think.” Even if they admit the stumbles out of the gate, they hold to the idea that the president is learning. As Mark Thiessen writes in the Washington Post, “he has done plenty of big things and has plenty of time to get more big things done.”
The second part is certainly true, but the first is in question. Let’s take a quick look at some specific accomplishments of the past three months.
The Trump Foreign Policy
Foreign policy is an area which caused many traditional Republicans deep concern about Trump. Trump excoriated the Republican foreign policy establishment for their mistakes in Iraq and elsewhere, and most experienced foreign policy hands returned the contempt. Trump’s evident lack of deep knowledge of world affairs and his penchant for hair-trigger tweeting made many nervous, and his campaign’s deep estrangement from traditional sources of expert staff added to the concern. The selection of James Mattis as Secretary of Defense calmed many nerves, as did the eventual selection of H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser after the brief, disastrous tenure of Gen. Michael Flynn. Even the unconventional choice of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State was taken as a positive sign, since Tillerson came recommended by such heavy hitters as Robert Gates and Condoleezza Rice.
For all the hope that the “adults” will rein in an inexperienced president, however, the American foreign and security establishment remains woefully, even dangerously, understaffed. The president has not even nominated officials at key posts in the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom, not to mention ambassadors. Ironically, this means that many key positions right now are being held by holdovers from the Obama administration or by career civil servants with no particular attachment to the president’s agenda, whatever that may be. Even Republicans, such as former chair of the House Intelligence committee Mike Rogers, have expressed concern, saying that the State Department needs to be “streamlined, not starved.”
Trump has backed away from many of his more radical foreign policy statements. This is perhaps all to the good, and has led to some praise. But we still lack any clear sense of a strategy or a vision. Stephen Sestanovich has recently discussed the “Brilliant Incoherence of Trump’s Foreign Policy,” noting that he promised both more and less engagement with the world—an approach that won him an election, but will be virtually impossible to put into successful practice.
That has turned out to be true.
One would perhaps feel better about the rapid about-faces if the president were to admit that he had done so, or even if he were to admit his need to learn more. But we get none of that—only worrisome comments that ten minute-long conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping made him realize that China did not have unlimited power to influence North Korea, and that China was not necessarily a currency manipulator.
A somewhat longer discussion with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in early April convinced the president that NATO is not obsolete after all. He tried to make this decision sound like the result of his critique, claiming that decisions by NATO members to address their defense spending shortfalls and become interested in terrorism were the reasons for his change of mind. But in a subsequent interview with the Associated Press, the president confessed that he had never thought much about NATO at all before declaring it obsolete in the first place.
In both cases, it is certainly possible for the president to claim that his criticisms had moved others to change, justifying his own turnabout. But we have to ask whether we think that it is acceptable for the president to advertise his previous lack of interest or knowledge in complex questions. Would it not have been better, for example, to have found ten spare minutes between November and January to study actual Chinese policy?
Recent events have led some to praise Trump’s return to more familiar consensus positions. The decision to launch missiles on Syria won bipartisan plaudits. Fareed Zakaria said the action “made Donald Trump President of the United States,” repeating his colleague Van Jones’ comments from February after the president’s speech to Congress. Whether we would really want to make the launching of military strikes a requirement for presidential status is, however, a question that does not long stand up to moral or intellectual scrutiny.
Even if one can praise his decisiveness, or just think that it is important that President Trump behaved differently than Barack Obama—neither of which alone appears sufficient on its own to justify the strikes—there is still a worrying lack of strategic clarity. There has been no military or diplomatic follow up. Syria drove this point home by launching more aerial attacks (though without using chemical weapons) from the same base the very day after the tomahawk strikes.
Liberals of course have been hammering on Trump’s inconsistency, but conservatives are nervous as well. Trump’s former friends at The American Conservative now lament his “woeful lack of preparedness on foreign policy,” and have despaired to see him get involved in Syria when they thought he was going to be the person who finally broke with the “neocon” obsession in the Middle East. “This is not the Foreign Policy Trump campaigned on,” noted an agitated Robert Merry. A recent article in the National Interest by John Glaser of the Cato Institute (hardly a part of anyone’s vision of the liberal echo chamber) worried that Trump’s policy is based on “status and prestige,” which are notoriously dangerous elements of any foreign policy. Glaser’s concerns are becoming especially common on the right, where many paleocons, realists, and critics of internationalism had thought they had found a kindred spirit in Donald Trump and his “America First” slogan.
Those conservatives, however, tended to ignore the multiple implications of Trump’s allegedly “Jacksonian” approach to foreign affairs. As Walter Russell Mead and others have described it, Jacksonianism eschews international commitments, but does not reject the use of force if the leader feels national honor demands it.
The Whig in me would say that Jacksonianism combines the irresponsibility of isolationism with the impulsiveness of liberal internationalism, making it the worst of all possible alternatives. But even a more sympathetic observer than I would prefer to see president pursue a policy based on an explicit and sensible strategic vision.
The Company He Keeps
Related to foreign policy is the question of how the administration is run, and the company President Trump has chosen to keep.
Trump has run the administration unconventionally. He has traveled almost weekly between Washington and Mar-A-Lago, but has made no overseas trips. He has met with foreign leaders in both places, with mixed results. The first lady has stayed in New York. The White House staff, like the staffs of the executive departments, is skeletal, and still the site of intense jockeying between staff members who struggle for his favor with little clear direction. He is relying increasingly on his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, which mollifies those who fear ideological bomb-throwers such as Steve Bannon, but raises uncomfortable questions of nepotism and self-dealing.
Trump is sufficiently unmoored from conventional political ideologies that many people have pinned their hopes on his pragmatism. But pragmatism disconnected from any particular goals is indistinguishable from cynicism, and policies pursued solely based on immediate utility can easily be abandoned when the going gets tough, as we saw in President Trump’s frustrated comments after the collapse of the American Health Care Act.
When joined with a reflexive desire to lash out at opponents, a lack of clear principles can be even worse. Trump may indeed want to build new coalitions, but he has not made a single significant concrete gesture toward reconciliation with those who did not vote for him. If anything, his penchant for denouncing fake news and his contempt for the “sore losers” on the Democratic side have made any such rapprochement less likely. Burned bridges don’t make for a particularly solid infrastructure program.
Then, there is the Russia question. There is no doubt that President Trump has praised Vladimir Putin, and that he actually encouraged Russians to hack Hilary Clinton (joking or not). There is also no doubt that members of his team have some close and not completely transparent dealing with the Russians. Does this mean Trump is a “Siberian Candidate?” Not at all. Indeed, there is a case to be made for improving relations with Russia, as Stephen Walt has argued repeatedly.
But it is worrisome that his administration has not been able to offer a clear explanation for their secretive meetings, and has relied on defensive dribbles of information. There may not be a fire, but Trump and his team are blowing an inordinate amount of smoke. This may be more an example of bad management than bad intentions, but that doesn’t make it any less bad.
Is Trump a canny businessman who knows how to bring people together and make deals, and will bring sensible pragmatism to the management of the government, or is he the politically incorrect force of nature who will disregard traditional norms, shake up Washington, and drain the swamp?
Who is his constituency? Conservatives who focused on his promises to cut taxes, speak boldly about the dangers of Radical Islamic Terrorism, raise the defense budget, and appoint appropriate Supreme Court Justices; or frustrated white Obama voters in the heartland, the “forgotten Americans” he claims to speak for, and who apparently expect him to do many of those things while also protecting their entitlements and bringing back their mining and manufacturing jobs?
Is it possible, at the same time, to bring multiple partners to the table and make deals, while also engaging in constant personal criticism of the players? Or to manage complicated negotiations when the main negotiator has no interest in specific details and also has alienated most of the expert community whom he would expect to fill in the blanks?
Perhaps, but probably not.
Trump’s contorted relationship to details (or, as his critics would put it less charitably, to the truth), and his unwillingness to admit his errors when he makes them, are part of his career as a real estate tycoon, and may draw on the lessons he learned from legendary New York fixer Roy Cohn. This has led to an uncomfortable debate about whether to call his statements “lies,” or to debate the meaning of “fake news,” which has turned an epistemological debate into a political litmus test. Those already disposed to believe in him are unmoved by his tergiversations; those who are not already on the Trump Train are further repelled by them. Daniel Drezner says that there is no theory to explain any of this because Trump is himself sui generis.
Trump does not appear to believe in much of anything besides the immediate comfort and success of Donald Trump. This can be considered a virtue by those who hope he doesn’t believe all of the things that he says because that means he will change his position when it suits him, and might lead him to striking creative deals. But when can we be sure he has decided on anything? He may disappoint Steve Bannon today, but whom will he disappoint next?
Room to Grow?
As I wrote in a recent blog post on President Trump’s NATO conversion, presidents often have difficult rollouts:
A president being forced by circumstance to walk back confident campaign declarations is not unprecedented—consider Bill Clinton’s denunciations of the ‘Butchers of Beijing,’ George W. Bush’s disdain for nation building, or even Barack Obama’s rejection of the individual mandate for health insurance. In the case of President Trump, the phenomenon is so notable both because the original statements were so categorical and because the pirouettes have come in such rapid succession so early in his term. Being willing to learn and change positions based on new information is certainly better than closing one’s eyes to reality. The challenge comes when the president has to stop swinging between extremes and settle down to the steady realities of governing. Then, we will see whether the new positions are built on a firmer foundation of understanding than the old.
Even taking this criticism into account, we need to remember that Donald Trump is President of the United States; the Republicans control both houses of Congress, so one should not expect them to turn on him any time soon; and the overwhelming majority of Trump voters would not change their votes, and are still happy with their choice. For the foreseeable future, the issue is not whether but how the Republic will deal with Donald Trump as president.
Thus, after this discussion of Trump’s divergences from traditional politics, all of us should face up to a long-term puzzle: How did a man who showed so little interest in preparing himself for government get elected in the first place, and what does it say about how Americans deal with their responsibilities as citizens, now and into the future?
To answer that question means we have to dig deeper than the surface responses—the weaknesses of Hillary Clinton as a candidate, the socioeconomic resentments of the heartland, the persistence of racial division and fear, Russian hacking, or the FBI. Donald Trump did not drop from outer space. He is as American as a cherry blintz. His combination of hucksterism and hyper-capitalism, and his embrace of anti-intellectualism, connect him to a line of politicians and pundits going back to the nation’s founding. Leaving aside the usual comparisons to other countries and other eras, we must recognize that American politics and society have produced plenty of candidates who have claimed to speak for the real people against the elites, and who suggested that a lack of detailed policy—especially on foreign affairs—was a strength and not a weakness. We are merely being reminded again of how damaging those assumptions can be.
Trump is the apotheosis of a particular American type—he’s one of Walter McDougall’s “hustlers,” and he appealed to a significant portion of the country that feels so frustrated with the establishment that they are willing to try just about anything. As I wrote back in the summer of 2015:
We all have had moments in our lives when a game is particularly difficult, and we imagine standing up and overthrowing the table rather than continuing. Or when we become so frustrated with the real or imagined transgressions of our opponents that we decide the rules simply should not matter anymore and do not care whether our scorched earth tactics will set any dangerous precedents.
We speak of the need for “adults” to be in charge. That, however, will require us to be adults ourselves—to confront complexity, embrace the hard work of learning about the world rather than assume easy solutions, and abandon partisanship in pursuit of common goals. It is ironic that so many people justified their vote for Trump as a vote for pragmatism, but now are seeing that pragmatism without a definite vision is a recipe for chaos.
Since we started with a discussion of the fake holiday, let’s remember that there is a very real historical connection to the term. The original cent jours were the end, not the beginning, of a political saga. They began on Elba and ended at St. Helena, with a stop in Waterloo. As with so many analogies, American writers have modified the original example to serve its purposes.
It remains to be seen whether we will be returning to the traditional version.