Although Donald Trump's presidency is beginning to show recurring patterns, which is not to say that he is becoming normal, but merely that some of the abnormality is now feeling drearily familiar, we still know surprisingly little about what he really wants from being president.
Many of us have assumed all along that this is the ultimate ego trip for the world's most insecure narcissist. There is still plenty of evidence to support that theory, of course, but lately I have begun to wonder if Trump is starting to show that he has an agenda that he truly cares about.
Or perhaps he is even more incompetent than he seemed to be all along. He is supporting a regressive agenda, to be sure, but the surprise is that he is spending political capital on things that have so little upside for him politically or personally. For a man who is all about being seen as a winner, he is picking some very foolish fights.
The most obvious current example is Trump's embrace of the Republicans' shockingly cruel and ill-conceived attempt to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Even before the Congressional Budget Office's released its analysis showing how many people would be harmed by the Republicans' bill, it was obvious that this was going to be a political mess.
During the campaign, of course, Trump had gleefully joined with all other Republicans in savaging the ACA. He knows an applause line and how to raise the volume, but it never seemed that the issue was important to Trump other than as a way to call Barack Obama the worst president ever. Trump is the perfect vehicle to level nonspecific and opportunistic complaints about the imperfections in the ACA.
As Republicans in Congress are learning, however, it is much more difficult to devise and defend specific legislation than to throw rocks through windows. Trump's entire political persona is about throwing rocks through windows, of course, so it is unsurprising that he piled on when it was fun. But why stick with it now?
Trump, after months of being notably distant from the health care debate, has suddenly decided that he is a huge fan of the Republicans' bill, and he is urging his supporters to get behind it. Even if Trump honestly was the last person on earth to discover that "health care could be so complicated," he knows now. Yet he is throwing his weight behind his party's unpopular leaders' new, terrible bill.
What makes this surprising, and the reason I am calling this an unforced error, is that Trump could easily have continued to stay on the sidelines. Even Barack Obama, after all, stayed largely out of the legislative process when the ACA was being formulated.
Although he eventually embraced the bill as his own, his supporters were frequently frustrated during the process by his unwillingness to get involved in the fight. For example, the so-called Public Option went down essentially with little more than a whimper.
Trump could, in fact, have used his previous over-the-top hype about the ACA replacement as an excuse to step aside. He could have simply said that he promised to support a bill that provided better coverage to everyone at a lower price. "When Congress sends me that bill, I'll sign it." He could even have tried to blame Democrats for somehow being the reason that the Republicans' magical bill never came into existence.
This unforced error raises a number of possibilities, as noted above. He might be revealing that he cares about something other than his own self-importance. Maybe he has concluded that, as a policy matter, the Republicans' bill is a fine piece of work. We certainly have plenty of reason to believe that he does not care at all about the people who would be harmed by the bill, and he likes tax cuts for rich people.
But again, why put his own credibility on the line with a bill that is obviously a train wreck? He will either be tarred by its ugly demise, or perhaps worse for Trump politically, he will be left to defend a terrible bill that somehow emerges from the food fight among Republicans and carries his name. This suggests incompetence, not evidence of sincere belief in a proposed policy change.
Similarly, what is Trump thinking with his renewed enthusiasm for actually building the ridiculous "big beautiful wall" on the Mexican border? He is requesting serious money in his new budget to begin building the wall. What madness is this?
To be clear, I am not expecting Trump to admit that the idea of keeping out non-white people from the United States is an immoral position to hold. I am simply saying—as many, many people have said over the last few months—that there are plenty of easy ways for Trump to finesse this situation in a way that spares him political damage.
Trump might well worry that this, unlike health care, is an issue that is already truly his own. His campaign was organized around The Wall, and he could be forgiven for imagining that his credibility with his supporters is on the line. If that is what he is thinking, however, then his critics have actually been too generous in their assessment of him as a political fool.
Even during the campaign, various Trump supporters were preparing the way for Trump to declare victory without actually building his wall. He could have said that, now that he is president, he has seen that he can achieve his objectives by getting the Border Patrol to be more aggressive. (Blame Obama for being too shy about law enforcement.)
Famously, Trump's supporters have said that they do not take his statements as literal truth. Now that Trump and his people have said that the term "wire tapped" is not to be taken literally because it could mean a lot of surveillance-related things, we know that they are capable of walking back even the most specific blunders, no matter how silly it makes them look.
And even though Trump spent a lot of time during the campaign talking about the wall, his other big applause line was that he would put Hillary Clinton in jail. None of his supporters seem to care that he was not serious about that. ("Draining the swamp" is also long gone.)
In short, Trump is making himself look like a fool. More importantly, he is doing this when it is absolutely unnecessary to do so. Trump might believe that he has unlimited political capital—and with most of his supporters, he might well be right—but he does not, and it makes no sense for him to make this unforced political error.
It makes no sense, that is, unless he has drawn one of two conclusions: (1) Going through with building the wall will actually become popular with people who currently do not support it, or (2) He is willing to lose political popularity over this issue, because the substantive advantages of building a wall are worth it.
If he believes explanation No. 1, he is fooling himself. If it is No. 2, he simply does not understand how border protection works. (See also his travel bans.) It could be both, and I am betting that it is.
The reason that this is all so odd is that Trump seemed to have figured out a way to glide through his presidency without actually doing anything important. He has created such a distorted political atmosphere that he can, for example, both confirm and deny that a 2005 tax form was accurate, leaving everyone to wonder whether the "leak" of that shred of information was planted by the White House.
Watching the press chase every crazy thing coming from his Administration was turning out to be a seriously plausible survival strategy. All Trump had to do was say something bizarre every time anything serious came up, and he could skate along to the next news cycle.
Would it matter that nothing ever happened under Trump's presidency? Not really. Trump could blame the Democrats, the Republicans (especially his chew toy, Paul Ryan), and pretty much anyone else for not getting it right. More importantly, he would not have to put his name on anything that would be open to attack.
This is especially important because a White House does have to do some things that are going to be politically contentious. The federal budget is a minefield, for example, and any president is going to be take heat for the choices of winners and losers that his budget implies.
Trump's first budget proposal makes it obvious that he is not going to do anything to help his non-rich supporters, and he is actually proposing to make their lives worse. (This is also true of the new health care bill.)
All of which means that a president who came into office with historically low approval ratings, and who still cannot accept his drubbing in the popular vote, needs to do everything he can to avoid self-inflicted wounds.
Again, is this because Trump actually has some core (terrible) beliefs that he is willing to pursue, no matter the consequences? Or does it mean that he is a political masochist?
I always thought that his only core policy belief lined up with Republican orthodoxy: tax cuts for the rich and screw everyone else. That he might actually care about anything other than that (and, of course, his own ego gratification) is surprising, and that he is willing to risk his own brand to pursue those goals is puzzling in the extreme.
Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar, a professor of law at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Taxation Law and Policy Research Institute at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.