Donald Trump was elected last year pledging to rattle Washington’s china and throw around its crockery. The consensus that had existed in America’s capital city, with power robotically exchanged between the two parties and certain shibboleths venerated by both, was now under threat. The permanent political class, that gaggle of thinkers and “Morning Joe” animatronics, responded with vitriol, but what could they do? They’d been repudiated and Trumpism was ascendant, not just in the United States but across Europe, too.
This new brand of populist politician intended to “drain the swamp,” as Trump famously put it, meaning clean up the corruption and cronyism that had come to dominate their countries’ public spheres. Yet something funny happened. Trump has gradually descended into the brackish water, exfoliated with the lily pads, been stung by the mosquitoes. The man who threatened to dynamite the political class has now assimilated many of its ideas, which has become increasingly obvious over the past week.
Trump came to power pledging to end America’s quixotic nation-building adventures in the Middle East and leave alone dictators like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, whom he viewed as bulwarks against the sort of anarchy that incubates Islamic terrorism. Yet last Thursday, Trump launched cruise missiles at a Syrian regime airbase that had been used to deploy jets against the Islamic State and called Assad a “butcher.”
Trump came to power promising friendship with Russia and remarking quite commonsensibly that “only stupid people” would want to see tensions with Moscow heightened. Russians were present at that Syrian airbase Trump attacked (though they were given advance warning), and Russian-American relations have now been plunged to their lowest point since the Cold War. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson conceded as much on Wednesday during a cringeworthy press conference with the Russian foreign minister: “There is a low level of trust between our countries,” he said. “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”
Trump came to power calling NATO “obsolete” and offering assurances that he would hold the treaty organization accountable. At a presser with NATO head Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday, Trump pronounced that NATO was “no longer obsolete” and plundered the rhetoric of the foreign policy idealists he’d once opposed in pledging to work with “common devotion to human dignity and freedom.”
Trump came to power holding screws to the head of China, whose currency manipulation he repeatedly condemned and whose refusal to recognize Taiwan he challenged by calling the Taiwanese prime minister before his inauguration. Today Trump says of China “they’re not currency manipulators” and has agreed to back off his prior diplomacy with Taiwan.
Trump came to power with his crosshairs leveled on market-distorting government bureaucracy like the Export-Import Bank, whose subsidies to the corporate elect he denounced as “featherbedding.” This week, Trump acknowledged that the Export-Import Bank could stay.
A few asterisks hover above all this. Some of Trump’s prior positions—his challenging of “One China” comes to mind, as does the “obsolete” comment—might have been intended as tough negotiating stances from which the president always intended to triangulate in the cause of achieving more modest goals. Some of these flip-flops also aren’t necessarily bad—it’s difficult to argue that Assad isn’t an evil butcher and Trump was a bit too flippant towards NATO during the presidential campaign, even if that alliance desperately needs some fresh vision.
But is it any coincidence that all of these shifts are towards positions held unwaveringly by the political class? Washington institutionalists in both parties view Assad as intolerable, Russia as execrable, NATO as untouchable, China as a vastly lesser threat than Moscow, and crony capitalist agencies like the Export-Import Bank as invaluable to the economy. Trump now agrees with them on all of that, for better or for worse.
The cause, I think, is that for all of his supposed ideological flame-throwing, Trump is actually quite impressionable, tending to verbalize the opinions of the last person he hears, and in Washington the last dozen people you hear are usually espousing similar things, at least on certain subjects. Now, those who don’t subscribe to the groupthink are reportedly being cut apart by palace intrigue. Steve Bannon, the president’s enigmatic Rasputin and cipher for his populist revolution, is rumored to be on the outs, with Trump increasingly solicitous of more conventional advisors like son-in-law Jared Kushner.
It’s his presidency to shape. But the policy revolution he once promised does seem to be in retreat.