Donald Trump's policy surrealism
Anyone familiar with American presidential campaigns knows that there are few worse things to be than a flip-flopper. The voters plainly want candidates who know what they believe and have always believed the same things, who won't waver or adapt to changing circumstances, whose opinions on policy will be fixed in place forevermore.
It makes a certain degree of sense. What if you elect someone, only to find him changing his views wholesale and governing in a completely different way than the voters intended? That's why so many candidates accuse their opponents of being that low-down dirty cur known as the "flip-flopper." One popular early TV ad format was to portray your opponent on a weather vane, shifting with the wind: Here's a Hubert Humphrey ad in 1968 with Richard Nixon as the weather vane, and here's one four years later where Nixon put George McGovern on the weather vane. Then there's the famous Michael Dukakis ad showing a guy in a suit (representing primary opponent Richard Gephardt) doing back-flips, and of course George W. Bush's ad with John Kerry windsurfing this way and that.
But all those flip-floppers pale in comparison to the man who is about to be the Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump. It isn't just that Trump made his positions more conservative in order to run for president as a Republican, though he certainly did, on everything from abortion to gun rights. Rather, Trump has pioneered something new that goes far beyond flip-flopping. His positions on issues not only aren't the same as they were at earlier stages in his career, they change and morph as the campaign goes along, sometimes from one day to the next. For lack of a better term, I'd call it "policy surrealism." In Trump's world, deeply held beliefs are constantly shifting and the laws governing ordinary reality don't apply.
At times, Trump will take some position — saying, for instance, that women who have abortions should be punished — then switch to another after being informed that he has alienated a key constituency. But even more telling are the times when he simply contradicts his prior self without even the barest hint of hesitation or shame. So for instance, he has a tax plan, which you can still read on his website, that lavishes enormous tax cuts on the wealthy. Yet when he was asked about it on Thursday, he said, "I am not necessarily a huge fan of that," because, he said, he's so concerned about the middle class. Trump also changed his position on increasing the minimum wage; he used to oppose it, now he favors it. He may change his mind again tomorrow.
Given that his supporters regularly say that they're behind Trump because "he tells it like it is," this is curious, to say the least. But Trump's positions seem to reside somewhere outside of ordinary space-time. Perhaps he's a kind of quantum candidate, existing in multiple states simultaneously. Does Trump truly support increasing the minimum wage? The answer is that he both supports it and opposes it; it is only when an interviewer asks him the question, like Dr. Schrödinger opening the box to discover his cat's fate, that Trump will assume one or the other position. But once the interview is over, he will immediately revert back to his state of for/against, simultaneously both and neither.
This is possible because Trump has, as far as we can tell, no actual beliefs about policy whatsoever. He does have sincerely held beliefs — about how much gold a properly decorated apartment displays (more than whatever you were thinking), or about whether a woman without large breasts can be truly beautiful (no)— but not about what government does.
But what about the things he has consistently advocated throughout the campaign, like his border wall? Surely that's important to him, and he won't waver on it, right? Well, maybe. Except he's also someone who has employed foreign workers despite his passionate anger on the scourge of immigrant labor, so you never know.
This all presents a problem for Democrats, since Trump shifts positions so quickly and so often that calling him a flip-flopper doesn't begin to capture what he really is. But the ones feeling really nervous are Republicans, who don't think they can count on him to govern as a conservative in the unlikely event that he actually becomes president.
But they may not have to worry so much. That's because Trump doesn't care about policy at all. And if he's elected, that will almost certainly mean that Republicans have held on to both houses of Congress. So they can pass all the conservative bills they want, and Trump is likely to say, "Whatever, fellas, sure" and sign the bills they send him. Does anyone picture Trump staying up late nights to carefully craft a replacement plan for the Affordable Care Act, insisting on including some provisions and excluding others until he gets exactly the bill he wants? Of course not.
If he does become president and continues the kind of rapidly cycling flip-floppery he has shown during the campaign, it would be a first among American presidents. In our history to this point, ideological transformations in the Oval Office have never happened. You can find a broken pledge here or there (like George H.W. Bush saying "Read my lips: No new taxes," then accepting a tax increase as part of a budget deal), but not only do presidents keep or at least try to keep the overwhelming majority of the promises they make, they don't undergo ideological reassignment surgery when in office. The costs are just too high even if they wanted to, which they don't. So the person you elect is going to be pretty much the person who governs, even if there are some accommodations and compromises along the way.
None of us can really have any idea what kind of person Donald Trump would be if he actually became president. Perhaps he'd be sobered by the power he held, and become a serious, thoughtful leader. Now that would be a flip-flop.