April is the cruellest month, said the poet. And for supporters of the president, no month has been crueler.
Donald Trump has not only foregone his skepticism toward foreign military intervention, he’s veered away from the nationalist instincts that made him a stand-out among a crowd of stilted, suited pull-string dolls that was the Republican presidential field.
For his moderation in recent days, the press has praised the businessman-cum-commander of the armed forces. But that’s only because the reality of governing has caught up, as it always does, with campaign rhetoric.
Trump was never going to be immune to the flow of administrative democracy. He only won the vote of the people by convincing them, and perhaps himself, otherwise. The shock to his fans has to be as big as the shock to himself. The Trump of a year ago would hardly believe the actions of the Trump of today.
Here’s just a sampling.
After repeated promises not to sink the U.S. in another Middle East quagmire, Trump is inching toward full engagement in Syria’s ongoing civil war. His ordered strike on the Shayrat Airfield was just the first shot fired at the isolationist hopes of his supporters. There is talk of sending additional U.S. troops to the war-torn country.
The welcoming with open arms of Montenegro into the NATO alliance was another volte-face. “I said it’s obsolete,” the elated president declared while standing next to the alliance’s secretary general. “Now it’s no longer obsolete,” he announced, with all the confidence of a dog who, after eating the dinner ham off the table, denies wrongdoing by suddenly becoming demure, even as ham skin scraps dot its maw.
Domestically, the flip-flops smack pavement even louder. After framing himself as a populist iconoclast, Trump has succumb to Goldman Sachs fever in the White House. His main economic adviser is a Goldman alumni. On trade, the fair-trade-president has done little to combat the Chinese flood of cheap goods, namely steel, to America’s shores. As for China’s currency manipulation, Trump has shied away from pointing the finger at the hyper-mercantilist nation for the sake of added leverage on North Korea.
Strangely enough, candidate Trump was an outspoken enemy of the Export-Import Bank, a government finance house that issues loans to companies in order to boost domestic exports. As a candidate, he called it a form of “featherbedding” and said it was “unnecessary.” Now the president has nominated a former Ex-Im foe to run the bank, angering free-market groups in Washington.
Why conservative think tanks thought Trump would stand strong on an issue that tugs nationalist heart strings—buy American, hire American!—I can’t comprehend. But sure enough, right wing intellectuals are up in arms over a pittance in the federal largesse.
The Ex-Im one-eighty is just another knot in a long string of the president’s unfulfilled promises. Name your issue—taxes, border wall, China—and Trump has somehow reneged on his vow. With the clock ticking on the Administration’s first 100 days, a salesman like Trump knows that his presidency’s momentum is fading fast.
This stalling out does not bode well for the next four years. The electorate is fickle. Voters have a penchant for memory loss when they enter the polls. They vote based on one question: “What have you done for me lately?”
Businessmen are more attuned to this dynamic than politicians. Hence the breakneck speed Trump is moving at to deliver on legislative prerogatives. But as the Trump Train conductor shoves more coal into the furnace, the whole thing risks the chance of going off the rails, becoming a smoldering wreck of failed dreams and outsized vision.
Will Trump voters accept the Administration’s acquiescence on the America-First campaign platform? Barack Obama left office with plenty of promises unfulfilled. Not only did the previous president fail to keep a liberal majority, he was unable to extricate American forces from the Middle East, shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison, combat economic inequality in any meaningful way, actually cut health care costs, or rein in the powers of the executive branch. In these areas and more, Obama walked back his romantic campaign assurances with little pushback from his base.
Voters may have short-term memories, but they tend to be extremely loyal to their candidate. The question before Trump is how long will this loyalty last before his people start looking elsewhere for someone who can deliver.
This gets to the prime challenge for a politician with vision who achieves power. It takes little effort to pontificate on how society should run. It takes even less effort to bitch about the various everyday wrongs we encounter. The state is a slow-moving, organic entity that can’t alter its course without enormous effort, a generous amount of time, some serendipity, and a hard-nosed acknowledgment of reality.
Contrary to what many free-market advocates say, business is tough. It’s not an Ayn Rand fantasy of grit-over-impediment. And it certainly doesn’t have room for highfalutin theories on enlightened ethics. “I’m in business, a man is in business, a hundred and twenty cracked, you’re out of business; you got a process, the process don’t work you’re out of business; you don’t know how to operate, your stuff is no good; they close you up, they tear up your contracts, what the hell’s it to them?” said Joe Keller in All My Sons.
Few feel bad for businesses that don’t deliver the goods. Companies live or die on consumer choice. And Trump knows capitalism is unforgiving. But what he’s also beginning to discover is that political careers are much the same. In politics, there’s rarely room for keeping true to your word. The nitty-gritty of statecraft demands compromise.
Donald Trump is learning that lesson faster than he probably wanted. There’s a great learning lesson in whether his supporters come to accept it as well.