One of the most cynical quotations in history is also one of the most widely attributed. Let’s ponder the version associated with Groucho Marx: “Sincerity is the key to success. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
From the moment Donald Trump opened his quest for the presidency, this idea has defined him and served as an organizing principle of his politics.
He presented himself as the guy who said whatever was on his mind, who didn’t talk like a politician, who didn’t care what others thought, and who railed against “political correctness.”
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In fact, just about everything that comes out of his mouth or appears on his Twitter feed is calculated for its political and dramatic effect. Trump is the exact opposite of what he tries to project: The thing he cares about is what others think of him. So he’ll adjust his views again and again to serve his ends as circumstances change. He’s not Mr. Fearless. He’s Mr. Insecure.
Putting aside the catastrophe of his presidency, this approach has worked remarkably well for Trump. But when the input on which he bases his calculations is garbled or contradictory, he doesn’t know which way to go. Lacking any deep instincts or convictions, he tries to move in several directions at once, an awkward maneuver even for an especially gifted politician. In these situations, Trump offers us a glimpse behind the curtain, and we see there is nothing there.
This is the most straightforward explanation for the fiasco created by the president’s mean-spirited decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. Trump was trying to square incompatible desires: to look super-tough on immigrants to his dwindling band of loyal supporters, and to live up to his expressions of “love” (you have to wonder why Trump throws this word around so much) for the 800,000 residents who were brought to the United States illegally as children, conduct productive lives, and are as “American” as any of the rest of us.
His solution is a non-solution. First, Trump showed how little he believes in his policy – of ending DACA but delaying its death sentence by six months – by having Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the administration’s ad hoc director of nativist initiatives, make the announcement.
Trump shifted responsibility for his impossible political dilemma to Congress. It’s true that Congress should have acted on this long ago, but Trump undercut his claim by not telling his allies what he wanted done. He was simply tossing the choices down Pennsylvania Avenue in the way a lousy neighbor might hurl unwanted debris into the yard next door.
And then, when the bad reviews poured in, Trump backed away from even his muddle of a policy. He tweeted that if Congress didn’t act, “I will revisit this issue!” So a six-month delay might not really be a six-month delay. It might be extended. Or maybe not. Who knows? Adding an exclamation point to your waffling doesn’t help.
The improvised character of the Trump presidency owes to his inclination to see politics as entirely about public performance. He cares above all about the reactions he arouses day to day and even hour to hour.
There is no strategic vision of what a Trump administration should look like because he doesn’t have any clear objectives of his own. On some days, he buys into the Sessions-Steve Bannon-Stephen Miller nationalist worldview. On others, he goes with his practical generals or his business-friendly Wall Street advisers. He doesn’t resolve the philosophical tensions because they don’t matter to him.
All this underscores what a waste this presidency is. Trump’s campaign was irresponsible in many ways but it did highlight problems our country needs to grapple with, particularly the vast gap in opportunity and hope between the country’s prosperous metropolitan areas and its economically ailing smaller towns and cities. We are doing nothing to ease this divide, and the policies Trump does embrace by default (he goes with conservatives in Congress on many issues as the path of least resistance) may worsen it. Stasis also rules on health care and infrastructure.
Those who condemn the fundamental cruelty of using Dreamers to make a political point are right to do so. The mobilization for decency in reaction to Trump has already altered the direction of his weather vane. But there is a larger lesson here: It is a genuinely bad idea to elect a president who worries far more about how his actions look than what they actually are.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.