In honor of Passover, let us pose a question: Why is this president different from all other presidents? What if, in fact, he is not? After a series of flip-flops over the last week, there’s a spring bloom of takes arguing that President Trump is just like other presidents, real or hypothetical.
Jonathan Chait, for example, writes that “Donald Trump is just George W. Bush but racist.” Chait points out that Trump has dropped many of the trappings of supposed populism he adopted during the campaign:
He has oriented his domestic policy around traditional Republican priorities: deregulation, especially of the financial sector and fossil fuels, and regressive tax cuts. Report after report finds chief executive officers streaming into the White House and essentially dictating policy.
Then there’s foreign policy. As if Trump’s decision to launch missile strikes against Syria were not a dramatic enough shift, Eli Lake reports that H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, was working through plans that could put tens of thousands of American troops in Syria as well. It’s reminiscent of Bush’s hawkish interventionism, Chait writes: “The ideological distance between Trump’s economic and foreign policy and George W. Bush’s has collapsed.”
But wait, how can Trump be Bush if he’s actually the woman he defeated in November? Jack Shafer writes that Trump’s recent reversals in an interview with The Wall Street Journal show that the president has “completed his transformation into a standard chief executive of the United States by espousing many of the hallmark policies one would have associated with President Hillary Clinton.”
Shafer points out that Trump’s White House features Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, just as Chelsea and Bill would have been players in Hillary’s West Wing. She was criticized as too close to Goldman Sachs, but Trump has turned the investment bank into a farm team for his administration. He charged she’d be under FBI investigation; now he is.
But wait again! Could it be that Trump is not actually Hillary Clinton or George W. Bush, but in fact represents the third term for Barack Obama? Once, he railed against Obama’s choice for Federal Reserve chair and promised to replace her. These days, he’s got positive things to say about her, leading the Financial Times’ Alan Beattie to liken Trump to his predecessor:
Barack Obama's steady-as-she-goes third term in office continues apace. https://t.co/ruOPYbjD0p— Alan Beattie (@alanbeattie) April 12, 2017
Shafer sees an Obama comparison, too, if in a more superficial sense: “Before and during the campaign, he criticized Obama for golfing instead of tending to whatever crisis in high fermentation that moment .… He’s taken a mulligan on that pledge as president, exceeding Obama’s devotion to the links with gusto.”
And let’s not even touch Jeffrey Lord’s contention that Trump is somehow the Martin Luther King Jr. of health care.
There are some serious flaws in these comparisons. Trump cannot be Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and George W. Bush. Consider the transitive-property problems: Obama was surely not Bush, even if they did share a fondness for, say, legally dubious foreign drone strikes.
Distilled to their essence, they seem to take the fact that Trump has hired a qualified national security adviser and begun to learn the basics of economic policy, and extrapolated that to mean that he is the same as his predecessors. Trump has moved closer to U.S. policies of the past, but a certain amount of continuity is standard—by design, it takes more than a change of president to turn the entire American government upside down. Other changes are the product of collisions with reality. Trump’s decision to strike Syria looks like a reaction to domestic political outcry, and his newfound tension with Russia flows from his realization of the Kremlin’s role in Syria, rather than a deeper shift in worldview. Trump’s economic policy was always questionably populist, partnering tough rhetoric about offshoring and trade deals with fairly standard conservative, wealth-friendly proposals.
The specific examples on offer are shaky as well. Is Trump acting more hawkish than he was during the campaign? Certainly. But it’s a little early to equate internal discussions about putting troops in Syria with the large, disastrous Bush wars. Would Clinton’s economic policy have been shaped by Wall Street? Sure. Would it have included the large supply-side tax cuts that Gary Cohn, former Goldman president and current Trump economic aide, are pushing? Nope. Every president has golf or another avocation, and is criticized for it. Trump hasn’t really committed to keeping Janet Yellen on. And so on.
Drawing back a little further, there are plenty of other ways in which Trump is noticeably different from his predecessors. This is true even setting aside the policies that lead Chait to label Trump a racist Bush: “His agenda for law enforcement, immigration, and national identity has reinforced the unifying ethnonationalist theme that allowed him to prevail over his more orthodox Republican competitors.” Bush was an oilman who espoused the model of government-as-business, but he did not select a secretary of state as untutored and ineffectual as Rex Tillerson, nor a HUD secretary as unqualified as Ben Carson. Bush’s EPA infuriated environmentalists, but even his EPA administrator is appalled at Scott Pruitt’s agenda.
The press’s need to craft narratives is strong, and comparisons such as these scratch the itch nicely. Unfortunately, they don’t really hold up. The forced analogies run the risk of encouraging the impression among jaundiced voters that all politicians are really the same, despite widely different outcomes. (Just ask anyone who got a hefty tax cut from Bush or health insurance from Obama.) There’s a certain comfort in the idea that Trump’s administration can be rendered legible by analogy to previous ones: You might not like what’s going on, but at least it’s familiar. In fact, what the president’s recent flip-flops offer is not greater clarity, but far more confusion about what he wants and what policies he will pursue. Trump is not just not Obama or Clinton or Bush; he’s not even sure who Trump is, which makes it impossible for anyone else to know, either.