In the Washington Post, Paul Musgrave describes President Trump as the “what you see is what you get president.” “Seeking hidden plots misses the point,” Musgrave submits, for “there is no real distinction between the onstage and offstage Trump. He is not acting.” As such, he concludes, “the search for meaning in Trumpism reflects the desire of both his supporters and opponents for Trump to be what he is not: profound, larger-than-life, grandiose.”
This strikes me as being correct. But I’m not sure that many of us have accepted it yet. Occasionally, we see periods of lucidity and of calm, and we begin to wonder: Has Trump given his phone to an adult? Was he shocked into sobriety by the loss in Alabama? Is the weight of his office finally pressing upon his shoulders? But he has, he wasn’t, and it is not — at least not enough to alter him in any meaningful way. In all probability, nothing is. Trump behaves as he does because he is who he is. When he declines to take shots at Omarosa, when he graciously congratulates Doug Jones, when he sounds sensible after a train crash, he is doing so because in that moment he wishes to. There is no masterplan being executed, nor brilliant game being played. When he’s outrageous he’s outrageous; when he’s ignorant, he’s ignorant; when he’s mellow, he’s mellow; when he’s good, he’s good. This is the man, and he is capricious. He’s not going to change.
The question this raises is, “How should we treat such a man?” And the answer, I’d venture, is “In full.” Not as a genius, but not as a cartoon, either. And certainly not with an eye to vindicating our incorrect predictions. For both good and for ill, Trump has defied an awful lot of augury hitherto. He won the election, when it was widely assumed he would lose. He refused to “pivot,” when it was widely assumed that he’d have to. He has declined to leave Twitter, or to cease dominating the news with it. He has made no steps toward becoming an authoritarian, and has in practice weakened his branch. His agenda has been set by Mitch McConnell rather than by Chuck Schumer or Steve Bannon. He has not put his sister on the U.S. Supreme Court, and he will not try. He is a strange man, and these are strange times. But there is no need here for a retcon. If we still expect a press conference at which the president tells us we’ve been punked, we ought to grow up. That conference is not coming. This is it.
Unable to accept this, some have taken to bullying those members of the commentariat who do not subscribe to their preferred Unified Theory of Trump. In his piece, Musgrave proposes that the search for “Trumpism reflects the desire of both his supporters and opponents for Trump to be what he is not.” Indeed it does, which is why, from both the Left and Right, we are witnessing a deliberate and ongoing attempt to raise the social cost of free thought, and to ensure thereby that the president is cast always in one dimension. The MAGA types seem never to stop demanding that Trump’s critics fall down and repent. “Admit it! Admit it! Admit it!” they say, their lips curling like Mao’s. Their antagonists, alas, are not much better. From them we see the branding of anyone less zealous than they as a contemptible sell-out, or as a colluder, or, worst of all, as a turncoat traitor to the cause of exposing the conspiracy. On people who are weak — or who are scared that they might lose the respect of their social caste — the ploy works rather well. On others – Alan Dershowitz, say – it quite clearly does not. Either way, it is an insecure and destructive exercise that ensures we will understand less and panic more. Extremism is still extremism when your heart’s in the right place.
To observe this is in no way to suggest that Trump exhibits no consistent tendencies, nor to insist that one can draw no conclusions from his behavior. In the realm of political analysis, the man who cannot spot patterns is a useless one. But even more useless is the man who begins all examination with his preferred patterns, and then forces all his data into acquiescence. More so than with most presidents, Donald Trump has brought such men to the foreground of our conversations. “Can’t you see,” his acolytes ask, “how brilliant is his scheme?” “Can’t you see,” his unyielding critics ask, “how pernicious is his scheme?” Both are spinning ideology from chaos. Both are making the same mistake.
They should stop. One can render one’s verdict on the man without pretending that every fear is being realized – or, indeed, that none of them is. As Ramesh Ponnuru proposed last week, it is possible for people to disagree about the merits and demerits of this president without descending into absolutism or recasting the available evidence. As he was last month, and last year, and last decade, Trump is a peculiar figure, almost singularly lacking in guile. For the next few years, we’re all going to have to live with that.