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Trump Is Starting to Take Risks to Keep His Anti-Establishment Campaign Promises. But Is It Too Late?

He's finally moved from barking to biting

As Donald Trump enters the third year of his presidency, he is finally breaking free of the Beltway stranglehold and moving towards fulfilling the campaign promises that unambiguously distinguished him from the 16 candidates he defeated in the Republican primaries.

Trump has called for a U.S. withdrawal from Syria. He is contemplating major troop reductions in Afghanistan. He is in the midst of a major fight over immigration at home—one he had previously avoided—and is battling China on trade abroad. When Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned, Trump moved up Mattis’s departure date and told a reporter he “essentially” fired Washington’s favorite Cabinet official. He is poised to deliver a major televised address defending his proposed border wall and making the case that the status quo constitutes a national emergency.

“When they say I’m not popular in Europe, I shouldn’t be popular in Europe. If I was popular in Europe, I wouldn’t be doing my job,” Trump said defiantly. “I shouldn’t be popular in Europe. I don’t care about Europe. I’m not elected by Europeans. I’m elected by Americans.”

This is not to say that Trump has been a conventional president up until now. In style, he’s been radically different from day one. Instead of becoming boringly presidential, as he at times hinted he might on the campaign trail, he continued smashing political norms from the White House. He launched sharply personal attacks on political opponents that no other modern president would have dared in public. He tweeted with reckless abandon. He fired subordinates—when they did not quit first—like a dog.

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After quoting son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner as saying Trump “would bend, and possibly break, the office to his will,” The New York Times concluded that he “has arguably wrestled the presidency to a draw.” This was written at the end of Trump’s first year.

In substance, however, Trump has been a fairly conventional Republican president: a tax cut, deregulation, conservative judges, pro-life executive orders, countermeasures against Russia, punitive military strikes against Syria following chemical weapons attacks, a troop surge in Afghanistan, a hard line on Iran, speeches to friendly crowds of religious conservatives and gun rights activists. (The deficits, alas, are typical too.) He was more restrictive on immigration—the travel ban affecting a half dozen or so of the 50 Muslim-majority countries came early—and more protectionist on trade, but hardly the second coming of Pat Buchanan.

Critics on the Left and Right began to question whether there was such a thing as “Trumpism” distinct from the normal Republican platform. Instead of leading with uniquely Trumpian initiatives on infrastructure or trade, Trump sought Obamacare repeal and a lower corporate tax rate while letting “Infrastructure Week” become a joke.

The populists who reinforced Trump’s “America First” instincts—always at a disadvantage relative to the GOP establishment and movement conservatives in Washington—were quickly sidelined. While immigration hardliners remained, the foreign policy team bore a striking resemblance to the George W. Bush inner circle that gave us the Iraq war, a costly misadventure Trump described as a “big, fat mistake.”

There were always signs that Trump would eventually chafe under the constraints his aides imposed on him. Efforts to convince him that “border adjustment” was superior to tariffs in accomplishing his trade goals failed. He overrode key advisors (even Jared and Ivanka) on the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal. He publicly chastised Republican senators for breaking their promises. The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman reported last year that Trump was feeling more comfortable in the job, trusting his own judgment more.

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One need not agree with all these policies—I think Trump is wrong on tariffs and Iran—to sense a pattern. The supposedly impulsive Trump deferred for months, even years, to the likes of Mattis, H.R. McMaster, Reince Priebus, Paul Ryan, and a host of others. What he got was a continuing quagmire in Afghanistan, legislative inaction after the tax cut, and defeat in the midterm elections. The donor class still had more to show for unified Republican government than the Trump-friendly working class.

Bob Woodward’s insidery book about the Trump administration cast the president’s eminently sensible questions about the human costs of our wars and how long they must last as akin to bogus inaugural crowd size numbers. Lindsey Graham is portrayed as one of the good guys for telling Trump: “It never ends. It’s good versus evil. Good versus evil never ends.”

In December—the month Mitt Romney not so coincidentally called a low point in his widely celebrated anti-Trump Washington Post op-edTrump rebelled. His modest retrenchment, canceling a small unauthorized war in Syria, triggered bipartisan reaction. The guardians of cherished political norms behaved as if congressional war powers and civilian control of the military should go out the window because of Trump.

“If we lived in a lesser country than our great nation, today is the day we really would be talking about a military coup,” influential conservative commentator Erick Erickson, an on-again, off-again Never Trumper, wrote in a since-deleted tweet. “Soldiers down to the enlisted ranks are raising hell about the President’s Syria decision.”

“Syria is crumbling. And we’re talking about a fucking wall,” a Republican senator fumed to Politico. Whatever the limitations of a border wall or Trump’s government shutdown strategy, the mentality that Syria takes precedence over American border security—indeed, that we can do more to keep Americans safe by securing Syria rather than our own border or nation-building in Afghanistan rather than fence-building at home—remains strong inside the GOP. Trump has channeled the rank-and-file’s nationalist mood but has few reinforcements in Washington.

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Trump has generally kept his military actions in Iraq and Syria focused on the strain of radical Islam most responsible for terrorist attacks against Americans rather than getting sidetracked by regime change, in contrast with the last Republican president who diverted resources from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein. Now he is even beginning to sound less reflexively hawkish against Iran.

There are many reasons why Trump’s renewed focus on his distinctive campaign promises may be too little, too late. Democrats now control the House. They have no incentive to hand him any victories ahead of 2020, even—perhaps especially—on issues where they agree. They will be ramping up their investigations of the president and his administration. Alienating Senate Republicans, who, with the significant exception of Rand Paul, are often closer to Romney than Trump on many of these questions, will prove costly if (when?) impeachment is pursued. Russia, possible campaign finance violations, and the rest of special counsel Robert Mueller’s handiwork loom large.

So too do Trump’s limitations—in personnel, legislative deal-making, persuading Americans beyond his base. Trump’s defense of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for example, is both bad history and a terrible argument to make while trying to extricate U.S. forces from a similarly doomed imperial exercise. His reluctance to consider appointees who better reflect the foreign policy he ran on than John Bolton is already making it harder for him to follow through.

This dilemma has been highlighted by two of my TAC predecessors. Robert Merry argues convincingly that Trump has gotten in his own way to the detriment of his presidency, while Daniel McCarthy contends that Trump’s downsides are difficult to separate from his upsides.

“As for tweeting and tough-talk, it’s hard not to see a connection between the determination to say what he likes—however crude it may be—and the spirit necessary to defy the elite consensus in practice,” McCarthy writes. “Rhetorical excess is a small price to pay if it comes with the strength to say ‘no’ to the next war.”

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Frustrated conservatives once said of the 40th president, “Let Reagan be Reagan,” which prompted the columnist Joe Sobran and others to shoot back, “Let somebody else be Reagan.” Now there is a similar battle cry: “Let Trump be Trump.” But there doesn’t seem to be “somebody else” this time around. Trump’s likeliest Republican successors at the moment are Mike Pence, who is not fully on board with his populist-nationalist revision of movement conservatism, and Nikki Haley, who largely opposes it.

Trump’s sudden interest in the “Trumpier” parts of his agenda may have come too late in his polarizing presidency or too early for there to exist a political network capable of helping him succeed. Still, there is no time like the present.

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