Early in the presidency of Richard Nixon, Attorney General John Mitchell responded to a reporter’s question with these words: “Pay attention to what we do, not what we say.” That’s incredibly good advice for those trying to make sense of the presidency of Donald Trump. His words, particularly when they come in the form of a tweet, are at best a distraction and frequently false or misleading.
Even his supporters acknowledge that he uses words in ways that confound the expectations of normal people. We have been told to consider some of his statements as alternative facts. When the evidence of a falsehood becomes overwhelming, Trump sometimes claims that he was joking. We have been told over and over again to take his words figuratively, not literally. Then there’s the problem that he keeps changing what he has to say about any particular topic.
Take his State of the Union speech as a case in point. The fact checkers had a field day, as they always do, but I’m talking about something much more fundamental than a string of lies. The very essence of the speech was dishonest.
Some observers got all excited about his “proposal” for a $1.5 trillion infrastructure program to rebuild roads, bridges, sewer and water systems and other vital parts of America’s backbone. That section of the speech was total nonsense, just a distraction that Trump did not mean seriously. He knew that Republicans, having just given away the store in their tax bill, are not about to approve a massive spending initiative. Additionally, the price tag is a bit of fraud. Later reports reveal that he was talking about $200 billion in federal spending to be leveraged toward state, local and private contributions. Not going to happen, but the Trump “squirrel” got lots of media attention. Pay no attention to what he says.
Could anyone make sense of what the President really wants to do about immigration? He’s been all over the place in the last month. He rejected a bipartisan initiative after having said that he would sign any bill brought to him by Congress. The substance of his most recent position–to the extent you can fathom it from the State of the Union–is a jumble of contradictory and inconsistent pieces that has no whole to it.
Important parts of the problem are that Trump doesn’t understand policy, is almost impossible to brief on issues and often makes up things as he speaks. Recall promises he made during the presidential campaign that are long-forgotten. It’s honestly really hard to know what he thinks and his words offer few clues.
Critics seem puzzled that his supporters haven’t abandoned him as he has failed to deliver on bringing back coal and manufacturing jobs, hasn’t gone after Wall Street and hasn’t yet succeeded in implementing a Muslim ban. Part of the explanation for why the political base continues to support him is that they respond to the “red meat” rhetoric he throws to them. His loyalists seem to take the words without the deeds.
Those critics also make the mistake of believing that Trump supporters are primarily motivated by economic self-interest. Many of them are not. J.D. Vance fundamentally missed the point. In their anger, fear and disaffection, his backers rely on symbolic victories and rhetorical attacks on government and elites. They are misled by Trump’s words in the same way that his critics are.
Trump has no real ideology, no core set of beliefs with respect to government. He is the ultimate transactional person. His presidency has been driven by two primary factors.
First – and this is deeply, deeply troubling – Trump is determined to erase as much of Barack Obama’s legacy as he can. That goal, however, is not motivated by policy or ideological preference. Rather, it is his endless and insatiable need to stroke his own ego by tearing down anyone he sees as a rival.
There is more though. Trump has demonstrated in ways big and small that he is a racist. Going after Obama satisfies his racist impulses as well as playing to that part of his base that shares his attitudes.
Trump is also motivated by his desire for power. He knew little or nothing about government when he was elected, but has discovered that the office comes with lots of perks. He is now a national and international figure rather than just someone covered by the New York tabloids. Playing nice with conservative Congressional Republicans isn’t the product of like-mindedness; it’s a cold hard calculation of how to stay in power.
That’s why he got on board with a tax plan that contradicted much of what he said on the campaign trail. That’s why he can’t really decide what he thinks about immigration. That’s why he’s made the most feeble of efforts to move an infrastructure plan forward. And it’s why he’s turned over the nomination of federal judges to ideologues who care deeply about restricting a woman’s right to choice, an issue Trump has vacillated on over the years.
There is another aspect of Trump’s desire for power that accounts for much of what he has done as president. As the wealthy head of a private business, he had absolute authority. Sycophants were everywhere. The rules were whatever he wanted them to be.
As he has learned a little about government and the Constitution, he has discovered that he doesn’t like the limitations imposed upon him. Thus, the most striking characteristic of the Trump presidency has been his disregard for norms, rules and law. He has tried to undermine freedom of the press. He has sought to interfere in independent investigations as well as judicial proceedings. Just this week, he announced that he was going to disregard a law passed almost unanimously by Congress that would require him to impose new sanctions on Russia.
John Mitchell was right. If you watch what Trump has done rather than spend time listening to what he says, the picture is very clear. Trump poses a clear and present danger to American democracy. That’s not because he is crude or uninformed or a bully, although he is all of those things. Rather, he has no respect for our constitutional system and will always put himself–not even party–before country.