The world has been waiting in vain for Donald Trump to “pivot” from candidate to president since the day he was elected.
But Trump converts his fevered stream of consciousness into action so fast, and with so little calculation, that we might not be able to recognize a pivot even if he made one.
There doesn’t seem to be any discernable pattern or structure to his behavior. He’s all id. Coherent analysis seems impossible. The old saw about drinking from a fire hose comes to mind. An unorganized torrent of activity is overwhelming us. The individual pieces rush by at such a pace that we have no time to fit them into a larger framework.
But there always seems to be one constant, and it may be the best clue we have in predicting Trump’s behavior.
Trump is an addict. His drug of choice is adulation.
We see Trump’s addiction to adulation in everything he does, from his Mussolini-like poses when his crowds roar approval, to his valuing flattery and personal loyalty above all else, to his inability to go cold turkey on campaign rallies long after the campaign has ended.
So far, Trump has been content to score his adulation fix from a single dealer, his adoring base. But that’s only a 33 percent solution, and like all addicts, the more he gets the more he needs. Now that the base has given him all it has to give, he’s looking for another supplier.
He may have found one.
What if Trump could find approval, a weaker but more widely available substitute for adulation, from another source, without giving up the love of his base? What if it’s not a zero-sum game in which he can have the love of his base, or a measure of mainstream approval, but not both?
Last week, Trump may have stumbled upon new sources who can set him up with a more satisfying, longer lasting high. They are his old arch-enemies, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and the press.
And if that weren’t enough irony for you, then consider that the behavior that may get him the approval he craves consists of two actions that were widely perceived as cruel and just plain crazy.
The cruel, of course, was Trump’s rescission of DACA, the Obama executive order that provided young Dreamers with some protection from deportation.
The crazy was Trump’s spur of the moment decision to side with the Democrats, against strong opposition from his entire party, on a deal to extend the debt ceiling and fund the government through the end of the year.
Believe it or not, there’s a not-unlikely scenario under which Trump comes out a big winner in all this.
It has already started. Some of Trump’s harshest critics, like Joe Scarborough, have moderated their tone toward him in response to the debt-ceiling deal. Most Americans, according to Scarborough, don’t give a damn about the inside political game. They will credit Trump for reaching across the aisle, getting things done, and clearing the way to focus government’s attention on the more important business of tax reform, the North Korea crisis, and the twin disasters of Harvey and Irma.
That kind of coverage is crack to Trump. He is reportedly ecstatic over the media response to the debt-ceiling deal. If his approval ratings go up as a result, he will seek more of it.
Trump may even be able to transform himself from a DACA villain into a DACA hero.
Suppose Congress enacts legislation providing Dreamers with the protection they lost when Trump rescinded DACA. It wouldn’t be a stand-alone bill, but it could well be one side of a deal in which Republicans get funding for border security in exchange for going along with a DACA replacement.
In that scenario, Trump will take credit for converting a temporary, hotly disputed, and arguably illegal executive order into a permanent, bipartisan, and unquestionably legal act of Congress. Trump can claim that this was his plan and intention all along, and shows his “great heart” toward Dreamers.
The press will eat it up, even though the claim may be laughable. Far more likely, Trump’s rescission of the DACA executive order was motivated by keeping a campaign promise to his base, and his open antipathy to immigrants, especially Mexican immigrants. America first!
But the press will look for the proof in the pudding, not in the fevered brain of the pudding maker. If Congress enacts Dreamer protection roughly equivalent to DACA, Trump will be credited for deftly pulling a rabbit out of a hat. He will insist that he rescinded DACA to protect Dreamers, not to deport them, and that by replacing a shaky executive order with a rock-solid law enacted by Congress, he has greatly improved their lot.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t give Trump any credit for wisdom, or even common decency.
He’s playing pick-up-sticks, not three-dimensional chess.
But as they say, even a blind pig sometimes finds a truffle.
Having found one, Trump likely will look for another. According to an Axios weekend posting, one Trump adviser observed that it had finally dawned on Trump that people really hate him. Earth to Trump! His deal with Schumer and Pelosi reportedly opened his eyes to a solution: stop doing things people hate, and make deals.
While Trump may get his approval fix by becoming the bipartisan deal-maker he always claimed he would be, he could also run into trouble. The approval high may be short-term ecstasy, but the constant search for it is a dangerous game.
If Trump gets too hooked on newfound approval from Democrats, fellow New Yorkers, and the press, he could lose support from his remaining base along the way.
Signs of weakening support among Trump’s base have already appeared. The New York Times reports that Trump has enraged pretty much every element of his conservative base with his debt-ceiling deal with the Democrats (“For Conservatives, Trump’s Deal With Democrats Is Nightmare Come True”).
It’s not just the boring congressional stiffs like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Trump has stirred up the entire hornet’s nest of right-wing ideologues. Everybody from For America, to FreedomWorks, to the Tea Party Patriots is apoplectic about the deal. Even Steve Bannon’s Breitbart News piled on. Under the headline of “Meet the Swamp,” Breitbart ran a picture of Trump with Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Mitch McConnell. It doesn’t get much more elemental than that.
In the end, Trump may have to decide on his drug of choice. Will seeking mainstream approval be enough for him, or does he need a stronger high that only the adulation of his base can give him?
Trump may be too far gone with the non-Trumpist majority of the American public to climb back into its good graces.
He may have to dance with the one who brung him, the Bannon/Breitbart house-wreckers. And that’s exactly what he’ll do if he senses that he isn’t getting the approval he believes he deserves for acting in a more bipartisan manner. He’ll go back into attack mode, schedule more rallies, and look for a high from the raucous cheering of his supporters.
So, was last week a turning point? If so, which way will Trump turn?
Or is it all just sound and fury, signifying nothing, just another weird visit to Trumpland?
Beats the hell out of me.
You figure it out.
Follow Philip on Twitter at @PhilipRotner. Philip is an engaged citizen and a columnist who has spent over 40 years practicing law. His views are his own and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated.