The most striking aspect of this initial chapter of Donald Trump’s presidency is how thoroughly it has exposed his protean political character. This should not come entirely as a surprise. In his prior lives and careers as a real estate developer, a playboy, a reality TV star, Trump transmogrified himself on multiple occasions. And over the past several decades in the political realm, he switched parties more often than he switched mistresses and wives. But as we approach the 100-day mark of his presidency, Trump has begun to jettison campaign stances and promises at a pace that, even by the standards of his own past, is frantic.
To Trump the candidate, China was “raping” the United States. Now, after a dessert of exquisite chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago with President Xi Jinping, the Chinese are no longer even “currency manipulators,” not to mention rapists. On NATO: “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.” The Export-Import Bank, yesterday slated for elimination by conservatives as a piggy bank for Wall Street elites, is today totally amazing. Federal Reserve Board head Janet Yellen, whom candidate Trump wanted to can, is now a great gal. President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has abruptly gone from good to bad. The candidate who opposed a humanitarian intervention in Syria is now engaged in one. The list of Trump’s abrupt and unexpected reversals grows longer by the hour.
The Bloomberg columnist Ramesh Ponnuru is plainly correct when he points to the absence of ideology as an explanation for all the shifts: “Trumpism doesn’t exist.” The president has tendencies and impulses, some of which conflict with one another, rather than a political philosophy.” Without intellectual buoys, pulled by currents and buffeted by winds, Trump will always be searching somewhat randomly for direction.
Whether this represents progress or regression depends, of course, on one’s political point of view. But it raises a fascinating question about the quality and character of the mind of the man at our nation’s helm. With his administration suffering one humiliating defeat after another in Congress and the courts, is the 70-year-old Trump showing that, contrary to expectations, he is capable of learning?
If by learning, we mean that Trump has thrown himself into the hard work of understanding the intricacies and nuances of managing our sprawling federal government, the answer must be decidedly no. Trump remains as incurious and ignorant as ever. “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” he pronounced as his health care bill went down the drain. Even with the immense resources of the CIA and the National Security Agency at his disposal, the “shows” — preeminently Fox News — appear to remain his principal source of intelligence.
But there are modes of learning quite different from the arduous labor of investigating a subject, examining it from all angles, and thinking it through. Trump may be unusually adept at one of those alternative modes. Given the right kind of punishments and rewards, rodents can learn to navigate a maze flawlessly. They may wholly lack an understanding of the layout of the system in which they are entrapped, but responding on a primitive neural level to stimuli, they figure it out.
“I’m an intuitive person. I didn’t read books,” Trump told Time last year in a discussion of how he had answered a question about NATO and how he makes policy decisions (“off the cuff”). Over the course of his entire life, the man who is now our president has been a single-minded (and uniquely successful) seeker of publicity and an equally single-minded (if not always so successful) seeker of adulation. With his approval numbers at historic lows, in changing direction Trump is doing what he has always done and what he does best.
Here is how to understand the turnabouts and tergiversation (“to continue ambiguously arguing your point even though you know you are incorrect”) of his first 100 days in office. They all lead away from the limited confines of his populist base and toward approval from the broad American center, and they stem not from any rethinking of means and ends, of principles and objectives. The Trump who is heaving his campaign promises overboard one by one is not a statesman toiling to perfect our union. He is, rather, an intuitive creature, avoiding shocks and seeking rewards, turning this way and that as he attempts to master the routes of a labyrinth he strove mightily to enter but still comprehends only dimly.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law, was a senior adviser to the 2012 Romney for President campaign. Follow him on Twitter @gabeschoenfeld