On October 25, 2016, at a Florida rally, Donald Trump boasted of his intentions to repeal the Affordable Care Act: “You’re going to have such great health care at a tiny fraction of the cost, and it’s going to be so easy.”
On February 28, President Trump mused from the White House, “I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”
On March 6, House Republicans unveiled the American Health Care Act, their plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.
On March 23, President Trump demanded a House vote on AHCA. Hours later, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan pulled the bill from consideration. They didn’t have the votes.
The stunning failure of AHCA, President Trump’s top legislative priority, was the first high profile chance for Mr. Trump to showcase his leadership skills. Several factors contributed to its swift belly flop. Speaker Ryan badly miscalculated his ability to massage the political and ideological needs of his caucus, despite a massive Republican majority that had been salivating to scrap Obamacare for years. Crucially, the substance of the bill pleased no one. According to an infamous Quinnipiac poll released on the eve of the Congressional showdown, just 17% of the public supported the AHCA—popularity roughly on par with Subway’s Jared Fogle—which makes the White House’s current bid to resurrect the bill all the more dubious. But equally significant is that the bill’s implosion served as a swift rebuke to Trump’s oft-touted skills as a dealmaker; the president flexed his negotiating muscles, meeting repeatedly with congressional Republicans and twisting arms on Twitter, but he was unable to persuade his own party.
Though stung by its failure, Republicans are currently reviving AHCA in a bid to beef up Trump’s 100-day scorecard—and its fate is far from certain. But the initial AHCA disaster is indicative of why Trump is struggling to find his footing. As his presidency reaches its 100-day mark this weekend, Trump is floundering under the weight of historically low approval ratings, failed legislation, self-inflicted controversies, simmering overseas tensions, and an ongoing FBI investigation into his potential collusion with a foreign adversary. The most obvious factor is his personality and temperament, and indeed, Trump’s affinity for chaos has not been tempered by the weight of the office. But many of his problems are more boring, stemming from his flat disinterest in leading the charge on policy.
Legislation tailored to Trump’s stated goals—driving down costs and boosting coverage—may have garnered public support. Instead, the CBO estimated the AHCA would leave 24 million without insurance and significantly increase premiums for millions. His AHCA bear-hug is the most prominent instance yet of Trump abandoning central promises to acquiesce to mainstream conservatism. As his governing style emerges, it appears that Trump’s presidency is flailing because he fundamentally misunderstands his own appeal.
Trump the Campaigner prevailed by positioning himself as the establishment’s worst enemy. This was especially advantageous during the primaries, as he courted a party disgusted with politicians of all stripes. Republican voters greeted him as a refreshing antidote to the smarmy phoniness of Ted Cruz, the focus-grouped robotics of Marco Rubio, and the effete weakness of Jeb Bush. Trump dismantled his competition, exploiting their weaknesses with the precision of the world’s most hurtful schoolyard bully. Combative, acidic, and obsessed with winning at all costs, Trump was uniquely suited to prevail against the tempered caution of DC politicians, conquering each rising candidate as if levelling up in a video game.
He utilized the same tactics against Hillary Clinton, contrasting his outsider status and business acumen with her coziness with Washington and seemingly endless black cloud of scandal. He never successfully lifted his own favorability numbers out of the toilet, but he ably molded the matchup into a “lesser of two evils” dynamic capitalizing on Clinton fatigue and a perfect storm of unanticipated events, including a host of Wikileaks revelations and James Comey’s late-October letter to Congress.
One can imagine a successful Trump presidency—or one, at least, that harnesses the campaign’s populism and amasses public support. Elitists and experts were blind to Trump’s appeal partially because he aggressively poked at longstanding partisan conventions; similarly, a successful President Trump might internalize the lessons of 2016 and seek to reshape the parties to his liking. Congressional Republicans spent years building the case for entitlement reform; Trump insisted Medicare and Social Security were sacred. The GOP scoffed at Obama’s infrastructure proposals; Trump touted it as a top priority. Conservatives historically favor free trade; Trump sneered at recent trade deals with contempt. Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp”, a central closing argument, implicitly condemned both parties. Equally intriguing was foreign policy; Trump cast Bush hawkishness as foolish and Obama diplomacy as naïve and unsafe, instead proposing vaguely that we be “smart” and “strong”. Even where they lacked coherence, these proposals were framed as irrefutable common sense. Trump often sounded like your uncle a few beers deep, disgusted with our stupid leaders and convinced the problems were easily fixable—if only someone smart could be in charge. Hell, it could even be you or me. His confidence was compelling, even if his policy grasp didn’t exceed the average YouTube comment.
The problem with Trump’s ideology being the blueprint for his success is that, as it turns out, Trump doesn’t really have an ideology. WrestleMania optics—appearance of strength, embarrassment of rivals—overshadow principles; Trump is more animated by what CNN panelists deem to be a “political win” than whether or not he executes a consistent and effective governing philosophy. He wears his interests on his sleeve; ask yourself how many times this year you have heard Trump dive into specific AHCA provisions, and then ask yourself how many times you have heard him reference his electoral victory. The variance is telling.
This worldview is in stark contrast to Speaker Ryan, a key architect of the pre-Trump modern Republican vision. Ryan bristles not only at Trump’s abrasive rhetoric and tone, but also at his ventures outside of traditional conservative orthodoxy. Ryan has never been surer of his destination, but he’s deeply uncomfortable that Trump has become his vehicle. Theirs is the most obvious of shotgun weddings, a couple mismatched in all but their desire to raise this new set of tax cuts as their own. If their pairing was for a class project rather than as two of the government’s most powerful men, it would likely end with Trump knocking a red-faced Ryan’s copy of Atlas Shrugged off his desk.
As Trump has attempted to convert his ideas into policy, an ideological tug-of-war in the White House has >stumbled into public view pitting the more traditional conservatives (Ryan, Vice President Pence, First Son-In-Law Jared Kushner) against the burn-it-down nationalism of Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller that fueled the campaign. At the moment, it appears the traditional conservatives have the upper hand. In 2016, Trump troubled foreign policy experts by declaring NATO obsolete and promising to label China a currency manipulator. This month, he reversed both stances. In 2015, he came out against the Export-Import Bank; this month, he called it “a very good thing”. In 2013, he savaged President Obama for proposing military intervention in Syria; this month, he ordered intervention himself, savaging Obama for not doing it earlier.
Supporters suggest these flip-flops reflect the pragmatism necessary to navigate the complicated dynamic with Congress. It’s difficult not to feel, though, that this is just an extension of Trump’s slippery relationship with the truth. Within hours of his inauguration, he sent his press secretary out to lie about his crowd size. Last month, he “falsely tweeted that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, prompting congressional Republicans to twist themselves into pretzels to corroborate his social media ramblings despite all evidence to the contrary.
Flip-flops are not the same thing as an outright lie, but both have been stubborn constants in the Trump presidency so far. If he can win an election claiming that Mexico will pay for a border wall and then govern based on the reality that they will do no such thing, where does that leave us? It probably doesn’t really matter if he was lying all along or if somebody finally sat him down and explained reality to him; we’re stuck with the tab either way. Trump’s motivations may be unclear, but his embrace of conspiracy theories and disingenuous “FAKE NEWS” accusations are muddying the water in ways that will be difficult to reverse. The constant misdirection and distortion of truth will have a corrosive effect likely to far outlast any of his policy changes in the first 100 days.
It has been suggested that every president’s successor is his opposite. This is true of Barack vs. Donald: just listen to them speak. Obama’s sentences stalled and buffered as he formulated the best version of his thoughts; Trump’s barrel ahead like a freight train with a conductor as unsure as we are of how this will end. The professorial Powerpoint presentation of “Look . . . Let me be clear” is a world away from the wide-eyed cocaine bender of “It’s gonna be fantastic, that I can tell you. . . Believe me.”
These stylistic tendencies bleed into their governing too. It’s why Obamacare squeaked past the finish line after a robust, methodical thirteen-month debate, while the AHCA crashed and burned after three weeks. Similarly, it’s why the Trump administration rushed out a travel ban that couldn’t pass legal muster, and replaced it with another one that still couldn’t. They want the sugar high of a promise kept without eating their vegetables, and it has given the early days of the administration an unmistakable stench of incompetence.
Analysis of a President’s first 100 days can be arbitrary and overblown; a lot will happen before the 2018 election consumes Washington. It is useful, however, in measuring a president’s effectiveness when his political capital is at its peak. As Trump reaches his milestone, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that he is in over his head, unsure of his convictions and unable to lead effectively. While an early flurry of activity suggested a productive agenda, most of his executive actions are minor (the Keystone Pipeline and all 35 of its jobs), moronic (the ‘2-for-1’ regulations rule), already reversed (the federal hiring freeze), or tied up in the courts (the travel ban)—and the legislative scorecard is even uglier.
The confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court (achieved by stealing a vacant seat and changing Senate rules) remains his single big victory. The November Carrier jobs deal showed a glimpse of the populist president Democrats feared Trump might be. Disregarding the merits of the deal, Carrier was a PR slam-dunk that positioned Trump as a champion of the workingman. Since then, Trump has tamed his big government impulses, pursuing something more palatable with Tea Party-style conservatism.
This suggests that President Trump’s inner compass will point to convenience before any overarching philosophy. Paired with his volatile temper and disregard for norms and institutions, it lends the Trump administration an unprecedented level of unpredictability—and with it, a palatable national anxiety. Maybe tomorrow we’ll wake up to more tweets about Schwarzenegger’s Celebrity Apprentice ratings—or maybe we’ll bomb North Korea. Even now, 100 days into it, we have no idea what the rest of a Trump presidency has in store for us. Neither does Donald Trump.