During last night’s Republican debate, Donald Trump seemed to be stuck on one word: “deal.” The United States, Trump said repeatedly, is bad at making deals. Donald Trump, Trump said, is good at making deals. Ergo, Donald Trump can fix the United States.
The appeal of this line to a particular sort of voter is obvious; how often do we hear that America should be “run like a business”? But, watching more closely, I think the approach helps Trump in a secondary way, too. How? Well, by allowing him to justify his routine incoherence and total lack of policy expertise. For most candidates, endless vacillation is a weakness. For most candidates, serial apostasy is fatal (see: Marco Rubio, “Gang of 8″). For most candidates, rank ignorance is a liability. But not for Trump. Why not? Because he’s a “dealmaker.” Want to know why Trump said one thing yesterday and another today? You’re an idiot who doesn’t understand that he’s articulating both his opening position and his ending position! Want to know why Trump took the opposite view on almost everything as recently as last year? What a stupid question; what matters is that he’ll fight for you in the room. Want to know why Trump doesn’t actually know anything about public affairs? Don’t worry about that, egghead, the details will come later, during the negotiations.
It’s really quite brilliant: At any given moment, Trump is able to read the mood of the room and say what people want to hear. And then, if and when he is called on it, he is able to plot his latest answer on the dealmakers’ chart. Thus he can be opposed to a 45 percent tariff and in favor of one. Thus he can be the strongest candidate on immigration and be the sort of practical, conciliatory figure who just wants to hammer out an accord. Thus he can sell himself as a hardass who won’t back down and as the compromising Ronald Reagan to a future Tip O’Neill. Throw in that his fans seem to hear only the parts of his speech that they like — consider, for a moment what would happen to any other GOP candidate who said repeatedly that he was going to compromise! — and you can see how clever the device is. In this primary season at least, maybe one can be all things to all people.