The empty president
Donald Trump is an empty vessel. What does it mean when the president has no core beliefs?
When Donald Trump announced his campaign for the presidency and quickly rocketed to the front of the Republican pack, serious conservatives were aghast. And what had them really upset was that Trump was unreliable, not a true conservative who could be trusted to govern according to the iron pillars of their ideology. He had been a Democrat, switched his opinions on core issues like guns and abortion, and obviously neither knew nor cared about policy much at all.
Most conservatives got over it, of course. With a few #NeverTrump exceptions, most everyone on the right rallied around Trump. And now as his presidency is taking shape, we're beginning to see what it's going to be like to have a president who has no beliefs about anything.
I exaggerate slightly; there are some things Trump genuinely believes in. He believes that America is losing, that foreigners are trying to take advantage of us, that no criticism should be brushed off, that women should be judged on their physical attractiveness, and that there's no room that can't be classed up with generous application of gold leaf. But when it comes to policy and his decisions as president, it's all up for grabs.
Consider his recent decision — after months of leading crowds in chants of "Lock her up!" — that there's no reason Hillary Clinton should be prosecuted for her emails (the same conclusion the FBI came to). "I'm not looking to hurt them...it's just not something that I feel very strongly about," he told The New York Times. Set aside the fact that the president doesn't get to decide who does and doesn't get prosecuted based on how merciful he's feeling. His supporters, whom he spent so much time convincing of Clinton's limitless criminality, might be a bit taken aback.
But that's not all he has changed his mind on. In that interview he backed away from his support of torture — something he repeatedly and forcefully advocated on the campaign trail — because retired Gen. James Mattis, whom he is considering naming as secretary of defense, told him it wasn't useful. "I met with him at length and I asked him that question. I said, what do you think of waterboarding? He said — I was surprised — he said, 'I've never found it to be useful.' He said, 'I've always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.' And I was very impressed by that answer. I was surprised, because he's known as being like the toughest guy."
So after spending months talking about how important it is that we start torturing prisoners again, all it took was one conversation with a former general to turn him around. He's also suggested he might stick to the Paris climate accord, which he had previously promised to walk away from. It seems that anything might be on the table, depending on who Trump talked to on a given day.
That's not to mention the fact that while he promised in the campaign that he would completely separate himself from his business, he's already apparently trying to profit from the presidency, doing things like holding a meeting with Indian businessmen with whom he has a deal on a Trump-branded apartment complex, encouraging foreign diplomats to stay at his D.C. hotel, pressing a British politician to oppose a proposed wind farm he says mars the view from a golf course he owns in Scotland, and possibly urging the president of Argentina to clear bureaucratic hurdles to the building of a Trump tower in Buenos Aires.
Political scientists have found that despite what most people think, presidents keep the overwhelming majority of the promises they make during the campaign, and when they don't, it's usually because they tried and failed, like Barack Obama not being able to overcome Republican resistance to closing the prison at Guantanamo. They're constrained by their history and their commitments, both to people and ideas. But on this score as on so many others, Trump looks to be unique.
That isn't to say that conservatives really have a great deal to worry about with him. He'll appoint the judges they tell him to, and most of the policy work will be done by Congress anyway: they'll send him bills and he'll sign them, without bothering too much about what they contain (Trump, who has a notoriously short attention span and has apparently not read an entire book since he was a child, isn't exactly going to be poring over policy briefs).
But there's a deep irony at work. Trump was the ultimate anti-politician. He had never held office or even run for office before, talked in ways that were unlike any politician, and heaped contempt on Washington and the supposedly corrupt establishment one finds there. Yet he is coming to embody the caricature so many voters have of how politicians act.
In that caricature, the politician tells you what he thinks you want to hear, and then does something different. He doesn't care about the little guy. He's a complete phony. He's only out for himself, trying to get rich off of public office. And he has an inordinate concern for his hair.
Donald Trump is all those things, to an utterly unprecedented degree. He may not sound like a politician, but he takes the worst things people believe about politicians and cranks them up to 11. And in doing so, he's accomplishing something extraordinary: making ordinary politicians look good by comparison.