Is Trumpism a scam? And if so, who is Donald Trump scamming?
Or is the country confronting something even more troubling: a president unhinged from any realities that get in the way of his impulses, unmoored from any driving philosophy, and willing to make everything up as he goes along, including “alternative facts”?
Of course, there’s another possibility: that there’s a method in all of this.
In his first days, Trump has been riding policy horses that seem to be moving in different directions. On the one hand, he has continued to make himself out as a populist standing up for workers by scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership and bringing verbal pressure on American companies to keep or create jobs in the United States.
On the other, he has been promising corporations the moon. He has already delivered a freeze on regulations, imposed a gag order on many federal agencies that businesses see as getting in their way (notably the Environmental Protection Agency), and promised steep tax cuts.
At a meeting with industry leaders on Monday, he sounded like a standard-issue conservative Republican on steroids, insisting that “we are going to be cutting taxes massively” and promising to cut regulations by 75 percent or “maybe more.”
Yet he also said he would impose a “very major” border tax to discourage companies from moving jobs outside the United States.
In principle, it’s possible that Trump is returning to the days of William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge. From the 1890s to the Great Depression, Republican presidents pursued policies that were simultaneously pro-business and protectionist.
McKinley won votes from industrial workers in his re-election campaign of 1900 by arguing that he had delivered “The Full Dinner Pail.” Trump could be following McKinley’s lead, as Coolidge did. “Cheap goods,” Silent Cal said, “meant cheap men.”
But it’s also possible that he will offer mostly words on one side of this equation and a lot of benefits on the other. Given the proclivities of the Republican Congress, his agenda on taxes and regulation is far more likely to sail through Washington than are his plans for moving jobs home. And so far, his announcements about jobs “kept” in the United States under his pressure have been largely symbolic, involving relatively small numbers in an economy where 152 million people are working.
The world of finance seems to be wagering that Trump’s pro-corporate side will dominate. On Wednesday, the Dow Jones industrial average broke above 20,000 for the first time.
Still, all of this assumes coherence and discipline, two words not readily associated with Trump. He has now put his presidency behind a lie, that 3 million to 5 million illegally cast ballots cost him the popular vote. He went further on Wednesday, despite widespread criticism, even from within his own party. In a morning tweet, he said he’d ask for “a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD,” using those Trumpian capital letters.
Here again, Trump set off a debate between madness and method. The most obvious conclusion is that we are confronting yet another case of his bizarre insecurity. He’s furious that even though he is president, his enemies are denying him a popular mandate because he lost to Hillary Clinton by 2.9 million votes. But voting rights advocates fear that he is laying the groundwork for voter-suppression efforts aimed at making voting more difficult for many Latinos, African Americans and others hostile to him.
Similarly, some of his executive orders on immigration, including one pledging to build the border wall that’s become his trademark, could be read as more show than substance. But his moves against sanctuary cities, along with his at-times harsh rhetoric on Wednesday at the Department of Homeland Security, had more ominous implications.
If there is any consistency here, it lies in the right-wing nationalism of senior adviser Steve Bannon. He hopes to marry broadly conservative economic policies with protectionism, restrictions on immigration, and new infrastructure and military spending.
It’s not exactly reassuring that this is the best spin that can be put on Trump’s opening days. And the president’s apparent belief that he can make up realities of his own choosing parallels the practice of authoritarian leaders, past and present. It’s no accident that George Orwell’s “1984” hit the top of Amazon’s best-seller list on Wednesday.
In his State of the State message this week, California’s Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, may have offered the thought most subversive to Trumpism. “Above all,” Brown declared, “we have to live in the truth.”
E.J. Dionne can be contacted at email@example.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.