Like a passenger on a sinking ship, the president has been throwing one longstanding position after another overboard like so much dead weight. His closest advisors, biggest boosters and some members of his family are at war with one another, in a pitch battle to steer the president in their preferred direction. From balancing the budget to relations with Russia, each faction thinks it’s fighting for the president’s true convictions and the issues that got him elected.
“Such incidents,” The New York Times put it, “indicate that the struggle for the President’s mind between two camps, pragmatists and purists, has intensified.”
This might sound familiar. But that quote comes from 30 years ago. Then-New York Times reporter Steven Roberts was writing about the great battle between the Republican establishment types and the true-believing conservatives who’d been with Reagan for decades.
The true believers had a rallying cry: “Let Reagan be Reagan!”
The phrase harks back to the earliest years of Reagan’s presidency. (It was actually inspired in part by an anti-Communist documentary called “Let Poland Be Poland,” but that’s a story for another day.)
James Watt, Reagan’s first secretary of the interior, said at a rally in 1982 that the solution to all the problems facing the administration was simple. “As I pondered that question from the depths of my soul, I felt these words,” Watt told the crowd. “Let Reagan be Reagan. Let Reagan be Reagan.”
In the last week, Donald Trump has found himself in a seemingly similar position. He has defenestrated large chunks of the agenda that his biggest boosters insist got him elected. As Ann Coulter, author of “In Trump We Trust,” tweeted after the Syria attack, “Those who wanted us meddling in the Middle East voted for other candidates.”
Trump has embraced NATO, praised Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen, scrapped his tax plan, backed off his vow to eliminate the debt, reversed his claim that China is a “currency manipulator,” came out in favor of the Export-Import Bank and lifted his freeze on federal hiring. He also seems to have relegated his senior adviser and chief ideologist, Steve Bannon, to a bit player, describing him as “a guy who works for me.”
I welcome most of these reversals, but it’s hard not to sympathize with those who feel betrayed. They made a simple mistake: They thought Trumpism was a coherent ideological program, akin to Reaganism. Indeed, during the 2016 election cycle, a great number of prominent conservatives went to remarkable lengths to compare Trump to Reagan. At times I feared the strain might give some of my friends hernias.
The problem is that Trumpism is real, but it’s not an ideology. It’s a state of mind. Or, to be more accurate, it’s a constantly changing state of mind. Trump himself admits as much, saying that he won’t be bound by ideology or doctrine, preferring “flexibility” not just on means, but on ends.
This should have been obvious by the way people used the phrase “Let Trump be Trump.” It’s usually used to scold the scolds who want Trump to be more “presidential.” Corey Lewandowski, the onetime manager of the Trump campaign, often told reporters he was the head of the “Let Trump be Trump” faction in Trump’s inner circle. This meant not worrying about his outrageous claims and indefensible insults against competitors, judges, the media, etc.
In February, “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace interviewed Dan Scavino, the man who handles the rhetorical nuclear football of this administration, Donald Trump’s Twitter account. Wallace asked Scavino if he ever cautioned Trump against tweeting something. “There’s been times, but not too often,” Scavino replied. But, he added, “I’ve always believed, in being with the man from Day One, ‘Let Trump be Trump.’”
When conservatives said “Let Reagan be Reagan,” they were referring to a core philosophy that Reagan had developed over decades of study and political combat. When people said “Let Trump be Trump,” they meant let Trump’s id run free. The former was about staying true to an ideology, the latter about giving free rein to a glandular style that refused to be locked into a doctrine or even notions of consistency.
That’s why saying “Let Trump be Trump” is almost literally the opposite of saying “Let Reagan be Reagan.”
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Reach him at JonahsColumn@aol.com.