Raising money and dodging questions may be the two core duties of any presidential candidate — after all, in a two-party system, you can’t assemble winning coalitions in both the primary and general elections without tiptoeing around those subjects that divide your supporters. But Donald Trump may be the first politician to ever make question-dodging an official plank in a presidential platform.
On Monday night, Bill O’Reilly asked the billionaire mogul turned GOP front-runner, “If you’re elected president, and you don’t like the [Iranian nuclear] deal, are you gonna bomb their nuclear facilities?”
“Bill, I’m gonna do what’s right,” Trump said. “I want to be unpredictable.”
This response was itself fairly predictable, and O’Reilly had a follow-up prepared: “Don’t the voters have a right to know how far you’re gonna go?”
“No, they don’t,” Trump replied. “The voters want unpredictability.”
At first impression, Trump might appear simply a less graceful dodger than the career politicians he’s up against. After all, the stock response to the Iran question, given at various points by everyone from Barack Obama to Ted Cruz, is simply “All options are on the table.” But while Trump’s appeal to the virtues of unpredictability may have begun as a clumsy means of ducking questions, it has evolved into a pillar of his platform. At a recent rally in New Hampshire, Trump promised his supporters a foreign policy that neither they nor America’s enemies could ever anticipate. “I want to be unpredictable,” Trump declared. “We want to go in, we don’t want them to know what the hell we’re doing. We have to go in, and people love it when I say that.”
Unpredictability isn’t just a pillar of Trump’s foreign-policy doctrine, though — it’s also key to his domestic strategy. The former reality star has vowed to never let voters know whether he would veto legislation that raises the debt ceiling. He has assured the American people that he will never tell them whether he would be willing to shut down the government to defund Planned Parenthood. He’s even promised that if he’s elected, Americans won’t ever be able to tell when their president is carrying a gun.
One of the popular explanations for Trump’s polling strength is that, in a moment of economic and cultural anxiety, many Americans are grateful for the candidate’s often-impolitic “straight talk.” As one Trump supporter memorably put it in an interview with the Associated Press, “At least we know where he stands.”
It may seem like there’s a tension between that assessment and Trump’s refusal to take a stand on a variety of pressing policy questions. But in a way, Trump’s refusal to take such stances is his boldest stance of all. Every politician dodges questions, but only Trump will actually brag about doing so.
And while voters may doubt the campaign pledges of other politicians, Trump’s vow to pursue unpredictable policies is a truly novel political innovation — the self-fulfilling campaign promise.