the national interest

Trump Isn’t a Pragmatist. He Doesn’t Understand Ideology.

Donald Trump. Photo: Ron Sachs - Pool/Getty Images

Amid a flurry of strange statements by President Trump, an especially peculiar one he made recently largely passed by unnoticed. Asked about his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, Trump told Bloomberg News, “Bannon’s more of a libertarian than anything else, if you want to know the truth.”

That is a bizarre description. While certain libertarian-friendly notions — lower taxes, spending, regulation — serve as baseline-level beliefs shared by every Republican, Bannon might be the least libertarian member of the party of any stature. The ideas that excite Bannon the most are opposition to immigration and trade, on which he is pushing positions diametrically opposed to libertarianism. He has excitedly proposed a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. He has publicly criticized the party for its fealty to libertarianism. (“The Republicans, it’s all this theoretical Cato Institute, Austrian economics, limited government — which just doesn’t have any depth to it. They’re not living in the real world,” he told Robert Draper recently.) And libertarians generally distrust Bannon in return.

Trump has no clear motive to miscategorize his chief strategist. Several more attractive, and also more plausible, terms are available: conservative, populist, nationalist. Trump simply does not grasp either Bannon’s thinking or libertarianism.

It is widely known that Trump — whose political profile over the decades has vacillated from liberal to conservative to moderate to populist, and supported and opposed abortion rights, higher taxes on the rich, and universal health care — does not care very much about political ideas. This explanation is true, but incomplete. The president also does not know very much about political ideas. And it is not merely the details of policy that he lacks. Trump has no context for processing ideas. He does not understand which kinds of ideas imply support for which kinds of policies, nor why political figures tend to believe what they do, nor why they agree or disagree with one another. He is capable of forming strongly held beliefs about people in politics, but he does so in entirely personal terms. Trump’s flamboyant, weird ignorance reveals a distinct pattern. He is not so much nonideological as sub-ideological.

You can find out what Trump’s scorecard is after 100 days in the video above.

It is common to attribute Trump’s protean identity as simple self-interest: He has aligned himself with whichever party seemed to benefit him at any given moment. And surely calculation plays a role. But it cannot explain all his puzzling statements about politics. Sometimes he expresses openness about unpopular policies his administration and party would never go for (like a higher tax on gasoline). Trump constantly relates questions about politics back to himself and his alleged deal-making genius not only because he’s a narcissist, but because the contest of political debate remains largely mysterious to him.

Many Americans share Trump’s lack of ideological sophistication. High-information voters tend to clump at the ends of the political spectrum. They may not have sophisticated beliefs, but their identification with one of the party coalitions is a tool they use to make sense of individual issues. Low-information voters tend to have a weak understanding of what the political parties stand for and how those positions relate to each other. These voters can be roughly categorized as “centrist” because they don’t line up neatly with one party platform or the other. But, rather than a consistently moderate outlook, they share a mishmash of extreme and frequently uninformed beliefs. Because they don’t understand the philosophical basis for disagreements, they assume the two parties ought to naturally cooperate, and tend to see partisan bickering as a failure and an indication of personal fault by politicians.

Trump thinks about politics like a low-information voter, which enabled him to speak their language naturally. His stated belief during the campaign that he could expertly craft a series of popular deals — “it’s going to be so easy” — appealed to low-information voters because it earnestly described the political world as they see it. Trump’s experience as a developer and professional celebrity have put a narcissistic gloss on Trump’s low-information worldview. He sees politics as a variation of real estate or reality television — a field where the players are sorted not so much as combatants on opposing teams (though they may compete at times) but on a hierarchy of success, with the big stars at the top sharing interests in common. His vague boasts that his presidency would create terrific things that everybody loves and is winning again is a version of how he truly sees the world.

Trump’s professed admiration for Andrew Jackson has many of the same naïve characteristics. Trump’s gestures of affinity for the seventh president appear to be an element of Bannon’s strategy to establish a populist identity for the administration. But the strategy has sprung a series of leaks, largely because Trump does not grasp the context of the debate in which Jackson was rooted. He claimed strangely that Jackson would have stopped the Civil War, even though Jackson was dedicated to the expansion of slavery, and supported measures to prohibit debating the issue in Congress or mailing abolition literature to the South. The Civil War was a failure, and Jackson was a winner, so Jackson would have won by stopping it. (“He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’”) Trump also slipped up in March and praised Henry Clay, Jackson’s blood enemy. To Trump, they are all simply a bunch of big names, and thus, in this respect, Trump-like.

Trump was not using the phrase “America First” until New York Times reporter David Sanger suggested it to him in an interview in March of last year:

SANGER: What you are describing to us, I think is something of a third category, but tell me if I have this right, which is much more of a, if not isolationist, then at least something of “America First” kind of approach, a mistrust of many foreigners, both our adversaries and some of our allies, a sense that they’ve been freeloading off of us for many years.
TRUMP: Correct. O.K.? That’s fine.
SANGER: O.K.? Am I describing this correctly here?
TRUMP: I’ll tell you — you’re getting close. Not isolationist, I’m not isolationist, but I am “America First.” So I like the expression. I’m “America First.”

At no point in the exchange, which continued on after this, did Trump show any recognition that “America First” was the slogan of an isolationist movement that has fallen into historical discredit since World War II. He was not making a bold play to revive a movement with a dark legacy. He simply liked the way the line sounded, and after the interview, began using it himself.

Politics is a strange institution that forces committed professionals who have coherent philosophical beliefs to persuade voters who mostly do not. Barack Obama accomplished this in highbrow fashion. His characteristic political style was to incorporate the values of both left and right and try to technocratically synthesize the perspectives together. (“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.”) Trump accomplishes it in lowbrow style, by literally not understanding the source of the disagreement.

Trump Isn’t a Pragmatist. He Doesn’t Understand Ideology.