We’ve heard a lot from President Trump, in the past week or so, about securing our borders — the southern one from migrant Mexicans, the northern from stealthy Canadian dairy farmers — and about all the taxes he wants to lower. There’s a reason for this.
The TV-obsessed president knows that he will be endlessly judged by a report-card-obsessed media for his performance during these first 100 days. And as it happens, trade, taxes and immigration are the notable areas where Trump can claim to have demonstrated some ideological consistency, if not a ton of movement.
In most other aspects, the nascent Trump presidency is very much a work in progress, or perhaps a work in regress from the rhetoric of his campaign.
The candidate who skewered China as a currency manipulator is now the president who declared that China is not a currency manipulator. The candidate critical of intervention in Syria and of suspicion toward Russia has now launched missiles into Syria and blamed the Russians for it.
He no longer thinks that NATO or the Export-Import Bank is unnecessary. He no longer cares whether President Obama’s health care law is entirely or even mostly repealed, as long as he can pass something that doesn’t send the whole system cratering.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, this is the actual story of these first 100 days — the story of a showman stunned by his own victory and trying to figure out whom he should listen to and how he wants to govern.
Which leads me to what I think are some uncomfortable questions for Trump’s critics, particularly in my own industry. If Trump turns out to be serious about growing into the job, do we have the capacity to let him? Or, as I’ve heard from a lot of angry readers over the past few months, are we already invested in watching him fail?
To be clear, whatever presuppositions Trump now faces among most of the reporters who cover him — and among the solid majority of voters who disapprove of his job performance — are of his own making. It’s hard to suddenly start granting the benefit of the doubt to someone who so brazenly lies about things both mundane and consequential.
Trump’s also shown himself to be unserious about public policy. So when he breezily declares that “no one knew” how complicated this whole health care thing really was, it’s hard to conclude that he’s really coming to terms with what he doesn’t know, or that he’s suddenly more sober about governing than he was before.
That being said, though, Trump now finds himself in a box that’s entrapped a lot of more experienced politicians before him. On one hand, if he ignores sound advice and clings tenaciously to some of the theoretical positions he tossed out during the campaign, when he didn’t expect to win and was just sort of winging it half the time, his administration will become an experiment in reckless extremism.
If Trump were to start a trade war with China, and start deporting thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought here as kids, and tear up the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord, the results would make the Carter years look like a time of quiet stability.
You don’t want Trump to honor every one of his ill-considered promises out of some misguided sense of obligation, or because he’s afraid Steve Bannon might smuggle a cobra into his briefcase if he doesn’t.
But as soon as Trump plants a toe near sensible ground on any of these issues, he is immediately branded with that most overused epithet in American politics: flip-flopper. Invariably, when he arrives at a more nuanced position on something like Chinese currency or averting a government shutdown, the deluge of stories that follow have little to say about the policy itself and a lot to say about how Trump is either swerving erratically from his past positions or acknowledging political defeat.
In general, I’ve never been a fan of the “flip-flop” obsession in political journalism (and not only because it triggers my lethal allergy to clichés). If there’s one thing that ought to be true about both politicians and reporters, it’s that we should adjust our conclusions as the evidence changes. Ideological consistency at the expense of reason and experience isn’t a marker of integrity; it’s proof that you’ve stopped listening.
Sometimes politicians baldly sell out their convictions for political survival. (Hillary Clinton on the Trans-Pacific Partnership comes to mind.) But in a lot of other instances, it seems to me we ought to grant political leaders the same right to evolve that we celebrate in pop stars or celebrity chefs.
In Trump’s case, though, the question of how to handle this evolution is more complicated. It gets to the heart of the issue with the media and a lot of his critics, I think, which is whether we’re actually willing to let him learn on the job — assuming, of course, that he can.
You’ll frequently hear Trump’s detractors in both parties qualify their remarks by saying that of course they’d love to see him transform into a capable, successful president. That’s the right thing to say, and there are good reasons for all of us to actually mean it.
When the president succeeds, America is safer and economically sound. It’s far better for your kids and co-workers if the president you disdained as a candidate turns out to be better at the job than you might have imagined. The only thing that comes from being right is hardship.
But if I’m being honest with myself about it, I’m conflicted in Trump’s case, and I’m certain I’m not alone. That’s because Trump’s success would also validate a lot of values I find repugnant and anti-American, starting with xenophobia, misogyny and a basic contempt for accumulated wisdom or expertise of any kind.
If Trump were to become an accomplished, popular president, it would send an even more resounding message to my kids — as the election itself did — that lying and bullying carry no cost, that politics is entertainment by another name. It would mean the death, or at least the grave injury, of objective truth.
It would vindicate the dangerous idea that America is strongest not as a global leader, but as a symbol of ethnic retrenchment.
Here’s where I come down. I don’t think the chances are high that Trump can somehow evolve into a wise president who unifies the country and understands the world. I’ve been trying to play baseball a lot of my life, and I’ll never hit a 90-mile-per-hour fastball. We are who we are.
But I also don’t think we can preclude the possibility. And if, in the 100 days to come and the 100 after that, Trump’s inclined to reinvent himself as a more thoughtful statesman, we shouldn’t jump up and down screaming “flip-flopper” like a bunch of fools with severely limited vocabularies. We have to give him room to grow.
Because if we don’t, we’re only proving his point about the media — that we report only what we can stand to report, rather than the truth, and that we’re never going to give him credit for anything. And Trump will get some things right. The law of averages compels it.
Critics on the left will call this “normalizing” Trump. I call it acknowledging reality, which is that he is the president, and we don’t get to decide for people what’s normal and what isn’t.
Trump could yet find a way to be bigger than he seems. We shouldn’t ask any less of ourselves.
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