Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and the editor of “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment,” a new book that Princeton University Press plans to publish this March. He’s also the co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Despite what many are saying, it is possible to see the political logic beneath the Trumpian chaos that unfolded in the last few days. Even while many pundits have labeled this the “craziest week” in the Trump presidency — maybe in all of American history, if you listen to some experts — most of the moves that President Trump has made fit into a rather consistent strategy that he has pursued since 2016.
Indeed, this is the thing about Trump. The more that you watch what he does over time, rather than focusing on the heat of the moment, the more that you can see how he is trying to position himself for the 2020 election.
The most dramatic decision in the past few days came with news that Trump promised to raise tariffs on steel and aluminum. This sent the stock market falling by 1.7% with the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal crying foul. It was his “biggest policy blunder,” the prophets of the marketplace warned.
Trump’s vow seemed to be a genuine in-your-face moment of defiance delivered from center stage and it had conservative Republicans like Senator Ben Sasse warning of damaging trade wars. But was this as unpredictable as it seemed? Not really.
The President desperately wants to shore up his support with Rust Belt voters who voted for him based on his promise to fight for their jobs. This has become especially important as his support is now, as Axios noted, falling with nearly all demographic groups, including those who backed him until now.
Other than lashing out against immigrants, Trump thus far has done nothing to fulfill his promise beyond coasting on the growing economy that he inherited. This tariff proposal offers an important action symbolically that the President and Republicans in depressed areas can point to as evidence that his campaign commitments are credible.
Even if the tariffs don’t have the promised effect, as most economists agree they won’t, and even if there is some economic turbulence in the short-term, the promise is something concrete that he can talk about in states like Michigan and Wisconsin.
And since Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama raised tariffs and were re-elected, some of the president’s advisors might very well be whispering in his ear that he can survive this. Sandwiched between the juicy corporate tax cut and next week’s congressional effort to dismantle the Dodd-Frank regulations on Wall Street, Trump might just be betting that corporate America will forgive him for his sins since he has been showing them a lot of love.
If the market stabilizes and a trade war does not ensue, this decision might work in his favor. And with so many Democrats critical of free trade, as Senator Bernie Sanders’ primary run revealed, their party is somewhat boxed in: how vehement can their criticism be?
And what about the televised gun control moment, when President Trump confronted a Republican Senator for being scared of the NRA with Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein practically jumping for joy as the president seemed to be pivoting on this issue? This, too, was not surprising.
Remember when the President indicated he favored a bipartisan immigration reform plan in front of the cameras but then talked about “s-hole” countries behind closed doors?
Here we go again, as the news of his recent meeting with NRA officials suggests. Giving the outraged suburbanites a soundbite to show that he cares, but then counting on the broken political process to make sure that a real gun control bill never reaches his desk for a signature, would be a win-win politically.
But how about all the internal White House tensions we are hearing about? The “Mooch” – former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci – told Chris Cuomo on CNN that morale is at an “all-time low.” The news keeps coming: Jared and Ivanka Kushner are both under fire, Chief of Staff John Kelly may be a goner, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster might be on his way out (or not, just like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson), and Hope Hicks is gone. This, too, is all classic Trump.
The President constantly fuels parlor intrigue in a soap opera style nurtured by his days on reality television. Keep things interesting, adding fuel, then dampen the tensions so that the show doesn’t get too boring for viewers.
By doing so, Trump ensures there is constant, incessant media coverage of the ins and outs of the White House. It also guarantees that the coverage is about personnel rather than policy. As Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation intensifies and creeps closer to the President himself, this is a welcome relief.
Better to have news about some kind of fight among advisors than about political corruption. With these kinds of stories, President Trump also asserts that the buck stops with him – since nobody in the White House feels totally secure that he or she won’t be the next person to be voted off the island.
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The biggest surprise these days is not what happens in the White House but the way that this presidency is covered. Despite the fact that there has never been a period of “normalcy” since January 2017, other than a few days here and there of quiet, everyone keeps expressing surprise at discovering the turbulent state that the administration is in.
It’s time to abandon the talk of “unprecedented,” the speculation about the turning point and pivot, and the shock every time more of the same happens. Instead, it would be better to step back and take a long-term view of the possible political method behind the madness.