During the first months of the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump was clearly operating by the seat of his pants. Because of that, many a jaded pundit declared Trump the flavor of the week and said he was no different than earlier fads like Herman Cain in 2012 -- or maybe, if he was lucky, Fred Thompson in 2008, another TV star (but one who at least had political experience). Elite reporters literally laughed out loud at the suggestion Trump might win.
When Trump began amassing delegates, everyone began to take him more seriously, and a new narrative emerged: Media pros anxiously waited for what they assumed would be an inevitable "pivot" to recognizable presidential behavior. They seemed to believe that his bizarre antics were a sideshow that he was cleverly deploying to set himself apart from his staid, more experienced rivals.
It wasn't as if Trump had a set of issues that differed wildly from the pack. He took a different tack on "free trade" than the standard Republican position, and he promised not to cut Social Security and Medicare, which wasn't much of a stretch since the others didn't place their usual emphasis on "deficits" and "entitlements" in that campaign either. He was notably soft on Russia, but most of his agenda was standard GOP dogma -- he just didn't bother with the dog whistle. Trump spoke like a right-wing radio pundit instead of a politician trying to cover up the fundamental authoritarianism, racism, xenophobia, gun fetishism and plutocratic protectionism -- which after all have been the basis of the Republican agenda for decades.
His voters loved it. Because those voters were heavily drawn from the white working class, the press saw him as "populist" even though only his trade policy and his vague promises to bring back manufacturing jobs from overseas fit that definition.
Trump has never made that pivot to normal, presidential behavior, but the mainstream media has declared one every couple of months, whenever he behaved in some way that seemed recognizably "presidential," like ordering air strikes or giving a State of the Union address that didn't include stories of mass executions with bullets dipped in pig's blood. And the media still clings to the notion that Trump is a "populist."
It's simply untrue. With the exception of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump's major cabinet picks are all conservative movement zealots. And for every so-called mainstream adviser in the White House, there are at least two from the recesses of the fever swamps.
A partial list of Trump proposals so far includes the deportation and withdrawal of legalization for immigrants and blanket denial of entrance to the U.S. for citizens from a long list of Muslim countries, repeal of the Affordable Care Act, gutting energy and environmental regulations, backing out of the Paris climate accords, installing a Supreme Court justice to the right of the departed Antonin Scalia, tax cuts for millionaires like himself and deep cuts to domestic programs. He's even said to be in discussions about using "mini-nukes" in a limited, tactical nuclear war.
On social issues generally, Trump is a vicious demagogue who feeds his core followers' grievances and anger at the rising status of people of color, immigrants and feminist
That brings us to the Big Bipartisan Deal of last week that has the mainstream media exclaiming once again that Trump has made a pivot, this time to being an "independent" in the mode of Teddy Roosevelt. This is all because he agreed to raise the debt ceiling and pass an emergency relief package with the help of Democrats. This is seen as Trump cleverly deploying the "Art of the Deal" to Get Things Done.
It's utter nonsense. In fact, when the history of this period is written, I won't be surprised to learn that the GOP leadership and the Democratic leadership cooked the whole thing up, and Trump bought into it because he was mad at Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and thought it would make them squirm. Even if this wasn't orchestrated between the party leaders, it's clearly kabuki theater on the GOP side.
The Republicans faced a major pileup of must-pass legislation in September, including the debt limit, disaster relief after Harvey (and now Irma as well) along with routine FEMA funding, a budget resolution, funding of the ACA exchanges and the CHIP program for kids and their Holy Grail: "tax reform," also known as tax cuts for rich folks. They had dawdled so long over their repeated attempts to kill Obamacare (which the "populist" Trump administration is now crudely trying to sabotage) that they'd left their most important work to the last minute.
At the same time, the House Freedom Caucus was up to its usual mischief, ready to throw the country into default and deny emergency disaster aid in order to make a political point. So Ryan was supposedly making noises that he wanted a temporary hike in the debt ceiling for several months, while the White House was insisting on tying it to disaster relief. What to do? Our hero Trump saved the day by agreeing to the Democrats' "demand" that instead of a four-month hike in the debt ceiling, they would sign on to three months, and disaster relief had to pass at the same time. Ryan and McConnell -- in this telling of the story -- were so bowled over by our maverick president's macho boldness they had no choice but to bring this package to the floor and let the Democrats have their day. Please.
In the end, the Republican leadership got some much-needed breathing room, the Freedom Caucus got to rail against Ryan as usual without having to do anything about it, Democrats got to smirk and wink and Trump got his massive ego stroked once again by the mainstream media, upon which he heaps contempt on a daily basis. Win-win.
But let's not lose sight of the fact that all Trump actually accomplished was agreeing to sign a bill that would lift the debt ceiling for three months, something that used to be considered a nonpartisan routine procedure, and an appropriation for disaster relief. These are bills any president in U.S. history would have signed, no matter who held the majority in Congress. The media turning this mundane agreement into the passage of the bipartisan Civil Rights Act is more than a bit much.
Trump may not act like a Republican president. But he doesn't act like a Democratic or an Independent president either. He doesn't act like a president at all. It's long past time for the media to stop trying to fit him into some familiar groove that they can understand. While he's busy with his weird demagogic performance art, his administration is working as quickly as possible to enact the most racist, most right-wing Republican agenda in history. He is fine with that, as long as he gets the credit.