Everything, in the world of Trump, is a negotiation
What we see as flip-floppery and weakness, Trump sees as flexibility and uncertainty
In the space of the last week, President Donald Trump has either altered or totally reversed his views on US involvement in Syria, Russia’s friendliness (or lack thereof), China’s currency manipulation, Fed chair Janet Yellen, the Export-Import Bank and NATO.
It’s enough to a) give you whiplash and b) raise legitimate questions about what Trump actually believes, given that many of his current positions are directly at odds with those that he staked out during the campaign. Is this a new Trump? A more centrist, realistic one? And, if so, what changed?
The answer is that nothing has really changed.
Think about what has always sat at the heart of how Donald Trump defines himself: Deal-making. He became a national figure following the success of his book, “The Art of the Deal.” The persona that made him a reality TV star was of a tough-bargaining deal-maker. He ran for president on that same idea: I’ve done big deals all of my life. None of these politicians know how to make the best deals, but I do.
“I never get too attached to one deal or one approach. For starters, I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first.”
The fact is that Trump was miscast – and willfully played into the mischaracterization – during the Republican primary fight as an ideologue. He was able to carve out a niche within the party by leading people to believe that his tough talk on things like immigration or China’s currency policies were evidence of a deep-rooted conservatism and commitment to ideology that he would bring to the White House.
Trump knew, for example, that conservatives thought then-President Barack Obama kowtowed too often to NATO, so he took a hard line stance in declaring the organization “obsolete.” On Syria, Trump knew that there was real resistance from the public to anything resembling a foreign conflict with an uncertain time commitment and a muddy definition of winning. So he came out hard against US involvement.
The point is that Trump took these positions not because they were long and deeply-held views but because they made sense for him politically at the time. Conservatives wanted a brash, tough-talking outsider. That’s what Trump gave them.
He was able to do so because he had never run for office before and so his positions on virtually every issue were unknown. Trump, unlike, say, Jeb(!) Bush, who had a long record of views on virtually every subject, could tailor his issue positions to what the voters wanted.
Once you understand that Trump views everything – up to and including where he stands on a given issue on any given day – as a sort of extended negotiation, it becomes far easier to understand how he could so quickly and totally reverse himself on major issues like the US relationship with China or whether the Export-Import Bank should exist.
The positions he once took fit that moment. But now that he is president and, in the words of White House press secretary Sean Spicer, “circumstances change,” Trump is entirely comfortable taking different views.
What we see as flip-floppery and weakness, Trump sees as flexibility and uncertainty – which he thinks are two hallmarks of any strong deal-maker. Trump doesn’t feel any allegiance to past positions or, really, past statements about issues. Those are the sorts of things that get in the way of making the best deals. And that’s what Trump believes the public wants from him, ideology or consistency be damned.