So much for Donald Trump, the “America First” populist champion of the forgotten working class. The president now sounds pretty much like a garden-variety globalist, defending the “rigged” system he denounced during the campaign.
Then again, who knows how he’ll sound next week? He hasn’t even been in office for three full months, and Trump may already be the most erratic president we’ve ever seen. We have no idea where he really stands because, well, neither does he.
Remember when Russia was good and President Vladimir Putin was a potential partner in fighting the Islamic State? Now Russia is bad because it continues to support Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, who killed civilians, including “beautiful babies,” with chemical weapons. Russia’s support of Assad, of course, is nothing new. But Putin, who no longer compliments Trump, kept Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cooling his heels before deigning to meet with him. Horrible!
Remember when China was bad because it was “eating our lunch” in trade deals? Now, after Trump established personal chemistry with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a summit at Mar-a-Lago, Trump declines to repeat his long-standing allegation that China manipulates its currency. And as for the North Korea threat, which Trump once said China could easily resolve, the president now realizes it’s complicated. There’s a historical context for the relationship between China and the Koreas. Who knew?
We’re “not going into Syria,” Trump told the New York Post. Those on the receiving end of the 59 cruise missiles launched last week might be puzzled. There are roughly 1,000 U.S. personnel inside the war-torn country and the number is inching up. Trump used to believe in nonintervention. Now he’s being cheered by those who want the United States to take a much larger role in the Syrian civil war.
Similar confusion abounds in domestic policy. First it was vital that Congress tackle health care before moving on to tax reform and other initiatives. Then after the debacle of the ill-fated American Health Care Act – which Trump decided to avidly support, despite the fact that it reneged on his campaign promise of insurance for “everybody” – Trump was ready to move on to other issues. But now, maybe health care is back as a priority.
Both parties support corporate tax reform, so it wouldn’t require much “Art of the Deal” magic to make it happen. Why hasn’t Trump moved in this direction, which could give him an actual accomplishment to brag about? I have no idea, and I doubt Trump knows, either.
It was inevitable that a rookie president with no experience in government at any level, much less the highest, would have a ridiculously steep learning curve to climb. It was also inevitable that Trump’s lack of focus and his tendency to be distracted by whatever cable news is yammering about at a given moment would hamper his ability to get anything done.
A truly first-rate staff could help. Instead, however, Trump populated his West Wing with a group of warring factions that battle one another with a ruthlessness the characters in “Game of Thrones” might find excessive. Currently on the outs is Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, the “economic nationalist” who wants to sharply curtail immigration, erect trade barriers, reduce U.S. commitments overseas and destroy what he calls the “administrative state.”
Bannon, who used to run Breitbart News, would be the scariest character in the administration if he were better at bureaucratic infighting. He was seen as the motivating force behind the attempts to impose a Muslim travel ban, which were stalled by the courts. He urged all-out support of a health care bill that Trump reportedly had doubts about – and went to Capitol Hill to order GOP House members to support the measure, which just stiffened their opposition.
Bannon was recently removed from the National Security Council, a position he never should have been given in the first place. Trump this week said he actually serves as his own strategist, describing Bannon tepidly as “a guy who works for me.” Trump is reported to have said privately that Bannon “is not a team player.” If this were a slasher movie, the audience would be screaming at the screen, “Steve, don’t go into that basement!”
If Bannon is toast, that’s good for the nation and the world. But Trump still lacks a White House team capable of executing his vision, or any vision. The answer to Casey Stengel’s question – “Can’t anybody here play this game?” – is an unambiguous no.
Eugene Robinson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.