What political movement is Donald Trump heading? After we’ve seen him a hundred days governing, the answer is still unclear. Many call Trump a populist. But there’s no sign of the wall, the immigration ban seems dead for now, China is not called a currency manipulator, Hillary Clinton is not in prison, and it seems NAFTA is here to stay. Neither, it seems, is economic populism on the menu.
Has Trump revealed his true face as an authoritarian? It’s clear that Trump has strong-man fantasies—that explains a large part of his admiration for Putin—he has failed to reshape government in his image. Indeed, his attempts to strong-arm a Republican Congress into Obamacare repeal & replace has failed.
Is Trump, after all, a useful puppet of the neoliberal elites? The drastic tax cuts which he is now proposing might suggest that he is, though it is not clear whether Trump supports them for any deeper ideological reasons. But they might have the same fate as Obamacare repeal & replace: Republicans from moderate districts might find that they’re too radical to their liking.
Is Trump the new figurehead of anti-globalism and nationalism? His foreign policy seems to suggest otherwise, in which Trump has found that bombing Syria and sabre-rattling towards North Korea earns you enthusiastic applause from a jingoistic audience. And all of the proposed trade deal renegotiations? It seems Trump has lost the appetite, or the energy for them, already.
Does the Trump administration herald the rise of the alt-right, of a new and ugly nativism? There’s no question that Trump’s appeal is based on playing to this audience. But then again, it seems that the Bannon wing of the White House has already lost some of its former power.
I think the answer for all these questions is simply that Trump has failed to turn out to be an ideological leader of any kind at all. And this is not the case because Trump is somehow ideologically eclectic, or that he pursues a politics of practical compromise, and ascribing an ideology to him is doomed to fail for that reason. No, the deeper reason is simply that Trump seems to have no coherent, stable views on what he wishes to do at all—if anything so far characterises his style of governing, it’s incompetence and chaos.
On many crucial questions, the White House simply seems to have no answers—not even centrist ones. Most major initiatives have been undertaken with an almost comical degree of incompetence. Trump’s personell politics has been shambolic, and he has invited pointless scandals, small and large, without any particular point. In all this, it seems pretty clear that he’s not an evil mastermind that is cleverly playing the media attention put on him. He simply seems to be flailing around without an idea of what he’s doing.
I think this is the simplest explanation of the American political developments we can observe. It’s tempting to think that politics is driven by larger intellectual forces, or that they reflect larger social and cultural forces, or at the very least that it is the result of clever, strategically thinking individuals. But with Trump, some of the truth might be much more banal: he’s simply not competent either way.