With little explanation and no real denials, President Trump has flip-flopped on a dizzying array of policies in a stunningly brief period of time.
China as a currency manipulator. The future of the Export-Import Bank. NATO’s relevance. A federal hiring freeze. The Federal Reserve chair. The wisdom of low interest rates. Syria air strikes. Russia as friend or foe.
Taken individually, the reversals of just the past week seem to prove the oft-stated point that Trump is not bound by even his own past words – that even Trump does not take his words literally. A president accused of having no fixed ideology is proving it by reversing himself on core campaign promises and a range of positions that seem to have been based on gut instinct, not evidence.
But add them up and a broader portrait emerges of a president who is changing his worldview in front of the eyes of the world.
Trump came to power with nationalist sentiments that coursed through his views on the economy and foreign policy. He is using power as a more traditional globalist who is accepting nuance in a way that moves him toward the broad mainstream of American politics.
It looks like a president on a steep learning curve – one bent by world events as well as the power dynamics inside his own White House. It’s no coincidence that Trump has shunned his “America first” populism at the same time that he’s sidelined chief strategist Steve Bannon, and as several products of the Goldman Sachs international corporate structure have seen their stars rise.
It’s not clear that there’s any real policy or strategy behind the president’s rhetorical shifts. Among Trump’s recent flip-flops is his renewed insistence that a health care bill move ahead before he tackles tax reform – a push that puts him back on a path that just dead-ended for his team, inside a first 100 days that are short on legislative victories.
Moreover, a move toward a more traditional corporatist philosophy puts him inside the mainstream of Washington that Trump has derided as “the swamp.” That’s potentially unfriendly territory for a president whose political base roared in approval when Trump attacked China, to cite just one example that came up in virtually every major speech he delivered.
Trump’s political opponents, of course, are beyond skeptical of the idea that a “new” Trump is possible.
“The only thing that’s consistent about Trump’s foreign policy so far is its inconsistency,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said on MSNBC Thursday. “Just wait a few days, and it’s going to change.”
Whether it marks a maturation or a series of pragmatic reversals, a reorientation or a continuation of governance-by-instinct, the new stances are already having an impact on the world stage. The Trump administration has dropped any defense of Russia, owing to the atrocities in Syria and the president’s quick-triggered response.
The results could wind up being more dramatic regarding China. Trump seems to be linking economic measures – such as not labeling China currency manipulators – with the expectation of cooperation in alleviating the nuclear threat from North Korea.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the president shared an incredible anecdote. When meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida last week, Trump appears to have been influenced by an extended, direct history lesson on China’s relationship with North Korea.
“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump told the Journal. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power [over North Korea]. But it’s not what you would think.”
Little of what Trump has done so far has matched what one would have thought it would be. Trump has contradicted himself even on the question of his own flexibility – “I don’t change, well, I do change,” he said at a news conference last week.
But the changes are so constant that it’s too soon to tell where he will land.