Politics & Policy

Trump’s Normality Problem

(Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
As Trump’s administration struggles on, he seems to do more harm than good.

White House official Steve Bannon is off the National Security Council, in a reversal of what had been an eyebrow-raising decision to put the president’s top political adviser on the NSC.

It is a step toward normality in a White House that has struggled with it, especially in the Oval Office.

One would have thought the sweet spot for President Donald Trump would be enough policy heterodoxy to convince marginal working-class voters that he’s a different kind of Republican, coupled with enough conventional behavior to take the edge off his radioactive image.

Instead, after about 75 days, it’s been the opposite on both counts. With some exceptions (banging on companies on Twitter for outsourcing, the heavy emphasis on immigration enforcement), the substance has been conventionally Republican, while the behavior has been outlandishly Trump.

The two are related. Since Trump is undisciplined, doesn’t have well-formulated policy views, and will change his mind based on the last person he’s talked to, he’s not well-suited to driving an agenda.

The result could well be a Republican president with the kind of policy platform that leads people to believe the party is out of touch, presented in the most off-putting and needlessly combative way possible.

Consider: If there is one issue that Trump has been consistent on for decades, it is attacking free trade. His jeremiads on trade clearly played a role in his breach of the Democrats’ blue wall in November. Yet, according to news reports, Trump’s team is having arguments about the fundamental direction of his trade policy.

How is this for priorities? The administration apparently doesn’t know whether it is protectionist or not, but is utterly committed to defending every Saturday-morning tweet from the president. In other words, the only thing that is an unquestioned constant is Trump’s demeanor. Or to put it another way, Trump’s content may be subject to change, but never his style.

When all is said and done, the residue of distinctiveness of the Trump phenomenon could well be Trump himself, namely his ramshackle management, willingness to say anything, and propensity for feeling slighted and hurling insults.

Tellingly, the president has sunk beneath 40 percent in a couple of polls without anything major having gone wrong. The initial travel-ban rollout was a fiasco, but the policy has essentially been on hold since, blocked by the courts. The defeat of the health-care bill was a blow, but it could still be revived. Otherwise, there’s been no foreign blowup, the job market is reasonably strong, and every indicator of business and consumer sentiment is pointing in the right direction.

The drag on Trump has to be Trump himself. You might have thought he’d have learned a lesson from the positive reaction to his selection of Neil Gorsuch — a normal pick, arrived at through a normal process, who may be the biggest success of the first year — and to his almost entirely conventional speech to the joint session of Congress. Instead, they represented brief wanderings onto script from an otherwise improvisational actor.

Trump feels like he’s still up for grabs. Will he end up accommodating the GOP establishment, going hard populist, or throwing in with the New York moderates in his White House? Regardless, how he conducts himself will remain equally a problem.

Perpetual warfare on all fronts doesn’t mean you’re winning, just that you have a lot of enemies. Counterpunching doesn’t always mean you’re hurting your adversary, just that you may be fighting on his terrain. Chaos doesn’t mean you’re draining the swamp, just that you’re wasting political capital.

The adage is that if you’re taking flak, it means you’re over the target. In Trump’s case, it may mean that he decided on a whim to change the flight plan in the middle of the mission to divebomb some out-of-the-way, well-defended target.

Normality won’t mean anything until it reaches all the way to the top.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2017 King Features Syndicate

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