Believe it or not, the period in which presumptive GOP presidential nominee and doll-handed luftballon Donald Trump merely made fun of women for their menstrual cycles or retweeted "white genocide” memes to win the affection of his fanbase was the sensible part of his campaign.
The good news about this period is that you knew he meant what he was saying. Or was that the bad news? Either way, we've now given way to the part of this campaign where Trump "clarifies" his policy preferences. It's already a phantasmagorical universe.
Over the past few days, Trump has faced inquiries about his tax plan, and his policy on the minimum wage. He has been -- how do you say? -- inconsistent. Which is perhaps understating the matter. On taxes, Trump actually released a tax plan that was going to massively benefit the wealthy -- cutting their top rate from 39.6 percent to 25 percent and giving them a few choice breaks on top of that. But when asked about it, he went on to aver that the rich would actually be taxed more.
Trump's unique answer to the current flip-flop charge is to say that what goes up and what goes down is all relative to "negotiations" -- that his expectation is that the final numbers will differ from his current proposal. But he's a presidential candidate -- there's no one to negotiate with at the moment, except himself. And as pointed out by Andrew Kaczynski, who published this 30-year timeline of Trump’s past positions on taxes for BuzzFeed, Trump has been re-negotiating -- and re-proposing -- a tax plan for as long as anyone can remember.
Barring some miraculous electoral outcome in November, a President Trump will be negotiating with a GOP-controlled Congress, so why he thinks taxes on the wealthy will "go up" at that point is really anyone's guess. Does he mean to veto their bill? Is he, for some reason, finding it necessary to give Republican legislators some sort of credit for being willing to do something they've never seemed inclined to do, as a sop to his angry populist base? Who knows? Next week, he will be saying something altogether different.
Trump has similarly selected "every side" as his stance on the minimum wage. Previously, Trump was of the opinion that America's wages were definitely "too high," a pronouncement that probably came as a shock to residents of a nation in which wages have been frozen in amber for decades.
This past weekend, Trump took two unique positions on two different Sunday morning talk shows -- which, let's face it, is definitely the safest harbor for those who are predisposed toward not making any sense. On "This Week," Trump said that he thought "people have to get more," and that after he was done "bring[ing] companies back into this country," they would be "mak[ing] a lot more than the $15" minimum proposed by minimum wage activists.
But he also said, "I'm allowed to change," and on "Meet the Press," he did just that, saying that while he'd love for people to make more money, that it was up "to the states" to decide that. I thought he said he'd be bringing jobs back, though? With policies crafted from Trumpian willpower and magic? Well, who knows?
Faced with the prospect of a candidate who's going to veer wildly from position to position like this, the media should just adopt the simplest stance possible: that Trump is uniquely uninterested in anything outside the central claim of his candidacy -- that his magic Green Lantern powers will simply result in winning -- and so he's content to make up the rest of it as he goes along, taking whatever stance in the moment feels like it's going to be the most popular thing to say. There's no real thought going on; Trump is literally just responding to stimulus on an instantaneous basis. He's not trying for object permanence.
Instead, you can expect the press to try to sit down and grapple with this, like it's some sort of puzzle they're obligated to solve. As I've noted before, the political media has basically made it their habit and obligation to do all the thoughtful reckoning of Trump's myriad policy stances, and he's content to sit back and let them take all of his weird equations and solve for X on his behalf.
This is something that the media has already taken up in earnest on taxes and the minimum wage. If you wander into the wilderness, you'll see articles that seem to think Trump has done something definitive ("How Trump clarified his position on taxing the wealthy," "Trump changes tune on tax hikes for wealthy Americans”), articles that buy his line on "negotiations" ("Donald Trump says he's willing to tax the rich harder”), articles that suggest he's in some sort of natural political pivot ("Trump shows flexibility on taxes, minimum wage in turn toward November”), and articles that insist that Trump has actually already pulled off a con ("Sorry, suckers: Trump didn't actually shift on taxing rich and minimum wage”).
What's missing is just a simple story headlined, "Oh, wow, it turns out that Trump doesn't really have any thoughts on these issues at all, that's kind of weird, can he actually do that?"
All of this comes at a time when the media itself has to pivot to the general election and they're looking at the prospect of having to somehow work Trump's fact-free sociopathy into the weave and weft of their storyline. As David Roberts elucidates at length over at Vox, their natural tendency is to abhor a "lopsided race," and so it would be smart to wager on the media doing whatever work is necessary to level the playing field and create the illusion of a race that is actually competitive.
And right on time, Roberts' thesis found some tidy confirmation in this Washington Post piece titled "Clinton's wonky policies of fine-grained complexity contrast with rivals' grandiose ideas." At first blush, you might think that this is a good thing -- but this article actually goes on to shower favor on big-sounding ideas that cannot be mapped out or explained, and it castigates Clinton for actually getting detailed about her policies.
In contrast with Trump, who doesn't know from one minute to the next how he'll tax people, this article makes clear that Clinton has a specific plan to augment Wall Street regulatory reform that you can see for yourself, and a plan to allow "undocumented residents to walk into local federal offices and ask for help," if Congress can't offer any guidance of their own. A specific contrast is drawn between Clinton's account-for-everything wonkiness and Trump's "make-it-up-as-I-go" proclivities. A guy from the libertarian Cato Institute, interviewed for some reason for this piece, notes that despite not liking either candidate, it's clear that at least "one of them is in the real world" while the other "has no bearing on reality."
And yet, the general tenor of the piece is to criticize Clinton for making laws longer and seeking to give public sector employees more work to do, as if "build a wall on the Southern border and make Mexico pay for it" is some sort of easier, uncomplicated lift that won't trouble bureaucrats or force lengthy legislative sessions. The piece's first sentence is this: "Hillary Clinton’s official campaign platform is now twice as long as 'Hamlet': seventy-three thousand six hundred forty-five words of policy ideas. One hundred seventy-four pages. And growing."
"Hamlet," by the way, is a play that teenagers study. But the larger point is this: the media often pretends to prefer policy substance to extravagant ideas, but when the moment to make a judgment arises, it turns out that they find policy substance boring and complicated. Their preferences naturally equalize to the benefit of zany nonsense. Plumbing the depths of Trump's bizarre, surrealist pastiche is, to the media, a more attractive and fun exercise than simply admitting that Clinton, while not being above critique by any stretch of the imagination, is working within logical, real-world constraints.
As Milan Kundera once wrote, "Nothing requires a greater effort of thought than arguments to justify the rule of non-thought." And every autocrat in history has benefited from the intelligentsia's willingness to take up that task in earnest.