The not-so-radical Trump presidency

Matt Bai
·National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty
Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty

In the end, President Trump didn’t “tear up” that deal with Iran that he’s called so disastrous for the country, the one his predecessor negotiated in hopes of containing its nuclear program long enough to see a regime change. Trump huffed and puffed and complained bitterly about the unfairness of it all, but this week he deferred to the saner voices in his inner circle, agreeing to stay the course for the time being.

Which seems to fit the emerging pattern of Trump’s young and confounding presidency. He didn’t want to curtail his sweeping travel ban on Muslim countries, but aides talked him into it. He’s an acid critic of America’s military adventurism, but he’s staying in Afghanistan and Syria.

He’s all set to show the North Koreans what’s what, except so far all he’s done in the face of escalating provocation is to lean on the Chinese, much like the last three presidents.

To this point, there’s a strange duality to Trump’s brand of leadership, a gulf between perception and reality. When it comes to standards of behavior, like attacking critics in the media and running the government like a family-owned hardware store, Trump represents as radical a departure from convention as any of us have seen.

But in substance, it seems to me that Trumpism is turning out to be something less remarkable than that: a mostly cautious brand of conservatism that, to the president’s credit, pulls up well short of upending the established order.

Oh, I know, Trump’s most vociferous critics will scream that his radical agenda has only begun to reveal itself. They’ll point out that he’s already withdrawn from the Paris climate accord, and launched an unprecedented siege on federal regulations, and is on the verge of making health care unattainable for millions of Americans who have it.

That all sounds pretty radical, I’ll grant you.

Except that it’s unclear how much of a practical difference it will really make if we’re formally in or out of the Paris pact, since it basically codifies a bunch of goals that industrialized countries were headed for anyway. (If you ask me, Trump’s withdrawal from the Pacific trade partnership is probably a bigger deal, but you won’t hear anyone on the left complaining about that, since there they actually agree with him.)

And while it’s true that Trump and his party’s congressional leaders have used an arcane legislative rule to roll back more federal regulations, by a lot, than any other president, it’s also true that every one of those regulatory rules — 14 so far — was issued by edict in the last several months of the Obama administration. So it’s really not as if Trump and his party are overturning decades of hard-won progress.

If you’re going to conduct government by fiat on your way out the door, you can’t really call it some kind of crazy radicalism when the next guy decides to reverse it.

As for “letting Obamacare fail,” as Trump put it this week, he’s only threatening to follow through on what the Republican House has now voted more than 50 times to do. Callous and politically foolish? Yes. Radical? Not really.

To this point, in fact, Trump’s policy agenda, to the extent you can discern one, seems considerably less extreme than those of other recent presidents. I recently watched a documentary called “The Reagan Show,” which was mostly just a montage of compelling footage left over from the 1980s, but which reminded me of just how existential our politics were back then.

Ronald Reagan had come to power with the idea of rapidly accelerating, rather than winding down, the nuclear arms race that transfixed and terrified the entire world at that time — mainly by expanding American weaponry into outer space. Next to that, rolling back a federal rule on ergonomics doesn’t seem so maniacal.

A year into office, George W. Bush was bent on remaking the entire globe by forcibly exporting democracy to Arab countries on the brink of revolution. At this time in 2009, Barack Obama was preparing to add the largest single expansion of government social programs since the Great Society.

Trump’s most transformational proposal to this point involves building an imaginary wall. He’s made a lot of noise about reshaping NATO or other global alliances, but so far all he’s really done is irritate a few European leaders and rudely shove one.

He’s raised the specter of getting us into some calamitous trade war with new protectionist policies, but he rejected the idea — championed by Speaker Ryan — for a transfer tax on products made overseas. The only move he seems likely to take soon involves penalizing Chinese competitors to American steel, which is an industry his last two predecessors tried to protect in much the same way.

His standout achievement in these first six months was to nominate and quickly seat Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, which went smoothly mainly because Gorsuch represented a thoroughly conventional choice for a Republican president.

Why isn’t Trumpism proving to be as radically disruptive as the man himself? Well, for one thing, it doesn’t seem to exist. Before your governing philosophy can remake the country, you have to have one, and Trump seems mainly guided by theatrical instinct instead.

(Remember, this is a man who, when asked for his views on the nuclear triad during a presidential debate, answered: “I think, for me, nuclear is just — the power, the devastation is very important to me.” Talk about campaigning in poetry.)

It’s also true that Trump’s administration still lacks the bureaucratic capacity to do much more than keep the train on the tracks — and that might not change anytime soon. Just look at the State Department, where Rex Tillerson (that still sounds like the name of a 1970s detective show to me) has just gotten around to hiring two consulting firms in his quest to reorganize the entire department before fully staffing up.

At this rate, from what little I know of the management consulting racket, the radical restructuring of the country’s diplomatic corps should be unveiled in a PowerPoint sometime in 2020, by which time Trump’s third secretary of state will probably just scrap it and start again.

Finally, it turns out that, where Trump’s policies actually do push past the boundaries of political normalcy, the institutions of government are plenty strong enough to resist him. Federal courts have put a check on his immigration orders. States have pushed back against his bizarre commission on voter fraud, refusing to hand over the private data of their citizens.

I’m not saying Trump won’t yet be a consequential president, or one who challenges the governing ethos of both parties. As I’ve written before, all presidents evolve in the office; even a one-term presidency unfolds more like a limited series than a made-for-TV movie.

But with Trump, more than with any politician I’ve ever seen, it’s important to separate the premise of the show from the reality itself, the noisy tweets from the mundane business of policy. Trump may cast himself as the villain of the governing establishment, but to this point, anyway, he isn’t doing much to defy it.

To put this in Trumpian terms, we should count that as a win.

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