Donald Trump is Sarah Palin. Follow along. John Heilemann and Mark Halperin wrote the definitive book about the 2008 presidential election – Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime – all about how we ended up with our first black president – the cool guy whose middle name was Hussein. That was unlikely, but Heilemann and Halperin show how it happened. George Bush had screwed up big time, so a Democrat was going to win, but that was supposed to be Hillary Clinton. The Clintons owned the Democratic Party, and then they didn’t. Obama had his data-driven nerds. They found the votes Obama needed in the primaries. The Clinton “machine” – a massive array of old hands who all knew each other, and of interlocking favors owed – had little to do with those who actually vote – and Hillary was shrill while Obama was humble and inspiring.
She didn’t stand a chance, but neither did John McCain. He was merely the last man standing – after everyone else on that side had pissed off this part of the party or that. McCain was mostly harmless – but the hard-right base of the party hated him anyway. He was a squish. He wouldn’t fight for them. When things got dicey he’d work things out with Democrats. He’d done that before – so McCain needed to do something. He needed a game-changer. He chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. The hard-right base of the party would love her, and they did – but that was just them. Everyone else was appalled. They heard her speak. She knew nothing, and she didn’t even know that she knew nothing. She just kept saying absurd things – with belligerence. McCain was embarrassed. Everyone was. Tina Fey’s take on Palin on Saturday Night Live was devastating. McCain lost. And that was that.
No, there was more to say. Two years after the Heilemann and Halperin book, HBO turned the Palin part of the story into a movie that won a lot of awards – Game Change – with Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in a surprisingly sympathetic performance. Moore played Palin as a lost lamb and as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown – something that the McCain folks had actually worried about. Palin was in over her head. There were those cram-sessions that befuddled her. There are two Koreas, North and South – she hadn’t heard of the Korean War. Africa is a continent, not a nation – but she was unclear on most nations in the news. George Bush had said, fairly early on, that Saddam Hussein had not been behind 9/11 at all. She said he was. She said she’d get great things done with England, because she and the Queen could talk, woman to woman. She had to be told that the Queen is not the head of the government over there. Heilemann and Halperin had confirmed all this in over three hundred interviews with the key players. Then, in a national television interview, Sarah Palin was asked to name a Supreme Court decision that she felt was troubling, or heartening. She went blank. She couldn’t name one, of any kind. It was clear that she didn’t know what was what or even how government works. She panicked. Julianne Moore did a pretty good job of capturing her angry and defensive despair.
Then Sarah Palin disappeared. She abruptly quit her job as Governor of Alaska – to do bigger and better things – and then Fox News dropped her. There were a few failed reality shows, and now she has a website. That’s about it. Last summer she endorsed Donald Trump, but even he was embarrassed by her. She wasn’t asked to stump for him. Her random word-salad speeches had been making less and less sense over the years. Trump had no use for her, and now when conservatives gather, at CPAC or whatever, they don’t invite Sarah Palin to say a few words. They’re not looking for random words, delivered with an attitude. Conservatives want to be taken seriously.
That isn’t going to happen. Sarah Palin never made it to the White House, to spend four or eight years hoping that John McCain would be hit by a bus – but Donald Trump did. He’s Sarah Palin. He’s big on random words, delivered with an attitude – America First! Yes, one slogan is not a policy, but don’t tell him that. You’ll make him angry. He’ll call you stupid, and deadly tweets will follow. No one survives those.
That’s probably not true. Those tweets are losing their potency – that’s an old man venting in the middle of the night – but he does have a bit of Palin’s proud and defensive obtuseness. He doesn’t know things. That may be why he lobbed fifty-nine cruise missiles into Syria. Much like Sarah Palin suddenly discovering that there are actually two Koreas, he suddenly discovered something new there, as Steve Benen explains here:
Six weeks after Trump declared, “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” I half-expected him to say today, “Nobody knew that Assad could be so monstrous.”
The president wants everyone to now know that his “attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.” Okay, but what was his attitude before based on? Why did it take this week’s violence and bloodshed to change Trump’s mind about something he should’ve known before?
If it seems like this keeps happening with Trump, it’s not your imagination. Trump thought overhauling the nation’s health care system would be easy, right up until he discovered that it’s “complicated.” He “didn’t realize” the nuances of how Congress works. He thought private-sector deal-making was effectively the same as reaching governmental agreements, and was surprised to discover otherwise.
He apparently didn’t realize that Assad is responsible for a series of deadly atrocities, which is why we’re only now seeing the president’s attitude toward Assad “change very much.”
The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank puts that this way:
Trump’s discoveries of seemingly obvious things raise two possibilities: 1) He thinks people are awfully stupid, or 2) he is discovering for himself things the rest of us already knew. Which is true? Nobody knows.
It’s like Sarah Palin is in the White House now, discovering amazing things no one knew – that of course everyone knew. This is what a Palin presidency would be like, and Tom Phillips shows how:
Less than two months after branding China the “grand champion” of currency manipulation, Donald Trump has performed a breathtaking pirouette away from those allegations, declaring: “They’re not currency manipulators”.
Trump’s verdict, delivered in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, was the latest hint that ties between the world’s two largest economies were warming after the billionaire’s shock election ushered in a period of intense uncertainty that stirred fears of a trade war or even military confrontation.
“We have a very good relationship, we have great chemistry together,” Trump said of Chinese president, Xi Jinping, adding: “I think his wife is terrific.”
And that Chinese currency manipulation was five or ten years ago. No one says they’ve been doing it since, because they haven’t. Those were just random words, delivered with belligerence, and the Wall Street Journal item contains this:
He said they hit it off during their first discussion. Mr. Trump said he told his Chinese counterpart he believed Beijing could easily take care of the North Korea threat. Mr. Xi then explained the history of China and Korea, Mr. Trump said.
“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Mr. Trump recounted. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power” over North Korea,” he said. “But it’s not what you would think.”
Who knew health care was so complicated? Everyone knew. Who knew that Assad was such a monster? Everyone knew. And who knew that the North Korean situation was so complicated? Everyone knew. Perhaps he should read his briefing books.
Yeah, but those are boring, and on the currency issue, Phillips reports this:
Steven Weber, an international relations specialist from the University of California, Berkeley, said Trump’s volte-face towards China suggested pragmatism was kicking in.
Facing an intractable crisis in North Korea and having been elected vowing to create jobs and improve the economy, Trump appeared to have understood that he had little choice but to build bridges with Beijing.
“He’s obviously capable of understanding the numbers of a big real estate deal and so he is obviously capable of understanding projections about the number of jobs that would be lost in a significant trade spat,” Weber said.
Still, some are amazed:
CNN anchor Anderson Cooper struggled to digest Trump’s admission that he had completely changed his views on North Korea following a brief lecture from Xi.
“President Trump said… that after listening to the Chinese president explain the history of China and North Korea, for about 10 minutes, he ‘realized it’s not so easy’?” Cooper stammered. “I mean… is that… I really am speechless.”
Trump wasn’t speechless:
Trump swatted away criticism of his reversal using his favorite form of communication. “One by one we are keeping our promises,” he wrote on Twitter.
Those seem random words. At CNN, Stephen Collinson keeps score:
Within a few hours of extraordinary political shape-shifting, President Donald Trump abandoned stances that were at the bedrock of his establishment-bashing campaign.
NATO, he said, is “no longer obsolete.”
He backed down a threat to brand China a currency manipulator.
In another reversal, Trump praised Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, whom he had previously pledged to replace when her term expires, and once accused of holding interest rates low as a political boost for former President Barack Obama.
That’s three promises not kept, and there’s this:
Days after his administration had seemed to accept an ultra-realist approach that would allow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to remain in control of his shattered nation, Trump decried him as a “butcher” over chemical weapons attacks on civilians — fueling speculation he now advocates regime change.
That position, sure to antagonize Russia, came as the President adopted the most skeptical view he has yet displayed on the possibility of improving relations with the Kremlin, a position he once advanced as a candidate and that flew in the face of geopolitical realities and universal elite opinion in Washington.
“Right now we are not getting along with Russia at all. We may be at an all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia,” Trump said at a White House news conference, in stark tones at odds with his former vows to ease the new chill in ties with the US nuclear foe.
That’s four, and Collinson sees a possible reason for all this:
It may not be a coincidence that Trump’s adoption of conventional political positions came the day after a stunning interview with the New York Post in which he publicly criticized his political guru Stephen Bannon, his insurgent, populist political conscience.
Bannon was dumped from the National Security Council last week in a move that was seen as a triumph for officials who represent a more traditional, globalist foreign policy worldview.
His demotion was seen as another sign that the more moderate, establishment-oriented influences in his administration epitomized by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn were rising to the detriment of Bannon and his anti-establishment cohort Stephen Miller.
Who knew it was wise to be normal? Everyone but Bannon and Miller knew, and that made the NATO thing interesting:
Perhaps the most striking 180-degree reversal by Trump on Wednesday came on NATO. While he was a candidate, Trump sent shockwaves through Europe by declaring that the most successful military alliance in history was “obsolete.”
Side-by-side with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday at an East Room news conference, Trump took the opposite tack.
“The Secretary General and I had a productive discussion about what more NATO can do in the fight against terrorism,” Trump said. “I complained about that a long time ago and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism. I said it was obsolete; it’s no longer obsolete.”
There were a few random words there at the end, but that’s okay:
Trump’s claims that NATO has suddenly adopted an anti-terrorism mandate because of his efforts, is highly debatable. The Western alliance spent years fighting in Afghanistan in a war that was first launched to rout out al-Qaeda and its Taliban protectors after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
But Trump’s comments allowed the President a graceful way of walking back a position that had once threatened to undermine the very rationale of transatlantic defense relations.
Stoltenberg offered a subtle reminder that NATO nations are hardly novices when it comes to fighting terrorism. He noted that the only time NATO invoked its common defense clause, Article Five, was after 9/11. And he spoke about the sacrifices of more than 1,000 European and Canadian soldiers killed in the Afghanistan war.
Still, Trump’s comments on Wednesday, paving the way for his visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels in May, will likely send a sigh of relief through Europe.
So allow Trump some nonsense there, for the greater good, of the normal, and there was also this:
In yet another ditching of a campaign position, Trump expressed support for the US Export-Import Bank, a bête noire of some of the anti-Washington voters that helped him reach the White House, which has been left in limbo with two open seats on its board.
“Actually, it’s a very good thing. And it actually makes money. It could make a lot of money.”
Actually, the Export-Import Bank is just a normal way of doing business. A foreign entity wants to buy expensive American goods – Boeing jetliners or whatever – but can’t pay cash. We offer them financing. They borrow the cash, and pay us back, with interest – and Boeing sells its jetliners and the Export-Import Bank makes a profit – for our government. Hard-ass economic conservatives say that distorts the free market. That’s government intervention in the free market – a very bad thing. Trump bought that argument for a bit. Perhaps the folks at Boeing talked to him. Who knows? But you learn something new every day.
All will be well if Trump keeps finding out what’s normal, even if it surprises him, but the New York Times Alan Rappeport notes this:
Mr. Trump began the day with an interview with Fox Business Network in which he backed away from the so-called border-adjustment tax favored by Speaker Paul D. Ryan and House Republicans.
He also backtracked on his claim last month that he was moving on from his plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act to focus on taxes. Now he is again putting health care first.
He said that the government would not continue to pay subsidies to health insurers under Obamacare only days after the administration said it would.
Mr. Trump said the threat to withhold subsidies was a way to force Democrats to negotiate with him over the future of the Affordable Care Act.
In the Journal interview, Mr. Trump said that “Democrats will start calling me and negotiating” because they want to avoid any interruption of the “cost-sharing” subsidies, which reduce out-of-pocket costs for seven million low-income people.
On Monday, the Department of Health and Human Services had issued a statement saying that “the cost-sharing subsidies will be funded” while a federal appeals court weighed the legality of the payments.
Mr. Trump’s remarks coincided with a letter in which doctors, hospitals, insurance companies and employers pleaded with him and with Congress to help stabilize insurance markets by authorizing a continuation of the subsidies.
That sounds complicated but it’s not. Trump will destabilize the insurance markets – companies fold and millions lose insurance – to get the Democrats to accept whatever healthcare plan that Paul Ryan comes up with this time. He doesn’t have to do this. But he can. So he will:
The president’s comments on Wednesday recalled his reaction when Republican leaders pulled a bill to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law from the House floor last month.
Mr. Trump predicted then that “Democrats will come to us” in an effort to save the law, which he said was imploding. They did not.
Perhaps he doesn’t want to be normal after all:
To make the muddy waters even murkier, Mr. Trump took his plans to rewrite the tax code into uncharted territory when he threw cold water on the border adjustment tax that is the linchpin of the tax reform plan.
After months of waffling on that tax, he instead called for a new “reciprocal tax” that appears to be a different kind of levy on imports.
“I don’t like the word adjustment because our country gets taken advantage of, to use a nice term, by every other country in the world,” Mr. Trump said in the Fox Business interview. “So when I hear border adjustment, adjustment means we lose.”
He added: “I love the idea of reciprocal. You can call it a reciprocal or a matching tax or a mirror tax.”
Those were also random words:
The notion left tax experts scratching their heads. “I’m genuinely confused,” said Itai Grinberg, a tax expert at Georgetown University’s law school.
It’s a tariff. Call it a unicorn and it’s still a tariff:
“Any economist will tell you that tariffs are often, if not always, self-defeating,” said Michael J. Graetz, a tax law professor at Columbia University. “It doesn’t appear to be a sound idea as a matter of tax policy.” Howard Gleckman, a fellow at the Tax Policy Center, said, “It looks like Trump is not happy with the border adjustment tax idea for whatever reason and he’s looking for an alternative.”
Renaming the thing is not an alternative to the thing, but there’s this:
With more changes apparently in store, Mr. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, added an additional major reversal on his behalf: He said on CNBC on Wednesday that the president’s campaign promise to eliminate the national debt was “hyperbole.”
Those were just random words, delivered with an attitude. President Palin does that sort of thing. Yes, it seems she’s back. John McCain wanted a game-changer. We finally got one.