On the day after the United Kingdom’s historic vote to leave the European Union, Donald Trump held a press conference at his newly renovated golf resort in Scotland. The presumptive Republican nominee spoke with his usual hyperbole, but with unusual fluency and attention to detail. It almost goes without saying that his subject was not the historic vote, but the newly renovated golf resort.
The new Trump Turnberry, its proprietor explained, was “built to the absolute highest standards of tournament golf.” It featured “a brand new sprinkler system at the highest level.” Trump specified which holes had been lengthened and which relocated; he noted that number 11, “a spectacular hole,” had been moved 200 yards closer to the ocean, and the waves crashing on the cliffs below it were “one of the greatest sights you’ll ever see.” He discussed the property’s zoning challenges, the hotel suites in a lighthouse overlooking the ninth hole, and the 1977 British Open “Duel in the Sun” between his friends Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, who, Trump mentioned with delight, told him number 11 is much improved after the renovation.
Trump answered questions about Brexit, too, but with none of that precision or passion, even though the news meshed nicely with his campaign themes of angry nationalism and immigration skepticism. He awkwardly described it as proof “other countries want to take their monetary back.” He said his German friends are so upset about incoming migrants that they want to leave their own country, even though they are, he mentioned in a bizarre addendum, “very proud Germans, to a level you wouldn’t believe.” He shrugged off the post-Brexit crash of the pound, pointing out that it would be good for business at his resort. Asked if he had talked to his policy advisers, his answer was classic Trump: “There’s nothing to talk about.”
The Trump campaign is untraditional in almost every way, but considering the real possibility of a President Trump, the candidate’s flagrant indifference to the details of public policy is particularly remarkable. He has said he forms his views through instinct and intuition rather than “deep analysis.” He has boasted that his main policy adviser is himself and the advisers he does have say he doesn’t read briefing papers. He has mocked Hillary Clinton for surrounding herself with “eggheads” and churning out reams of wonky government reform proposals. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will be speaking on Trump’s behalf at this week’s Republican convention in Cleveland, recently said “it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t know a lot about the issues.”
The quadrennial conventions are usually a time not only for presidential nominees to make their opening arguments to the nation, but for the major parties to lock down where they stand on the burning and lukewarm issues of the day, featuring a parade of surrogates who can communicate the party’s updated identity and how it intends to govern. But that is not how Trump rolls, and that is not how his four-day celebration of his hostile takeover of the Republican brand is likely to play out. The theme of the convention will be Make America Great Again, but if the campaign so far has been any indication, its blueprint for how to do that will have less to do with specific 11-point policy plans or conservative ideology in general than the sheer awesomeness of a turnaround artist named Donald J. Trump, who will promise to do for the United States what he did for the 11th hole at Turnberry.
The Trump campaign has not been a policy-free zone, but it has been a triumph of personality over plans. His website lists just seven fleshed-out policy positions, and two of them, “Pay for the Wall” and “Immigration Reform,” involve the same policy. There is nothing about national security, government spending, or the environment, among other glaring gaps. And Trump has made it clear that even his few prominent policy stands—mass deportation of the undocumented, a ban on Muslim migrants, a huge tax-cut plan, even his wall—are negotiable, especially the details. He often blurts out new policies on the fly; at Turnberry, he said he’d be open to Muslim migrants from Scotland, a notable softening of the ban that helped him win the Republican primary. His theory of the election is that policy doesn’t matter much and details don’t matter at all. He’s running on attitude and charisma, on strength and success, on the notion that goo-goo elites made America a loser and that he’s the superhero who can make it win again. For most problems, he has a one-point plan: He’ll fix it.
So far, Trump has made the experts who dismissed his style-over-substance, gut-over-thought, persona-over-policy approach look extremely dumb. Americans like winners. They don’t like Washington. They don’t all know what the nuclear triad is, so they weren’t all disturbed when Trump clearly had no clue at a Republican debate. And presidential elections are never mere policy bake-offs; they are also about competence, leadership, values, vision, records, and which face voters want to see on their televisions for the next four years. After all, Barack Obama also ran for president as an anti-Washington change agent determined to shake up politics as usual, which worked out well for him. He didn’t just recite details of his policy agenda.
But Obama did have a detailed policy agenda, and over the last eight years, much of it has become the law of the land. It’s unclear what would become the law of the land under Trump, and it’s unclear whether his convention will make it clearer. The party has adopted an extremely conservative platform—opposing gay marriage, calling pornography a public health crisis, declaring coal to be “clean”—but Trump’s fingerprints weren’t really on it. Many of the unorthodox roster of speakers—two survivors of the Benghazi attack, the golfer Natalie Gulbis, four of Trump’s children—also seem unlikely to shed much light on the future of policy. Trump has never served in government, and he’s said he’s figuring out his positions as he goes along. He recently bragged that he devised his NATO policy as an “off the cuff” response to a question from Wolf Blitzer, noting he hadn’t studied the topic or read any books about it. At his event in Scotland, as he repeatedly parried questions about public affairs with in-depth soliloquies about the magnificence of his resort, one reporter noted that the country is not a golf course. The presumptive GOP nominee said he did not entirely agree.
“You’d be amazed how similar it is,” he said. “It’s a place that has to be fixed.”
There’s no liberal or conservative way to adjust a pin placement, no dovish or hawkish way to design a par-3. But it makes a difference whether the next president wants to fix the health care system by repealing Obama’s reforms, as Trump says he will do, or expanding them, as Clinton has proposed. Trump also wants to repeal Obama’s Wall Street regulations, carbon rules for power plants, tax increases for the rich and the nuclear deal with Iran, while Clinton does not. Clinton supports gun control, abortion rights, paid family leave, birthright citizenship and Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, while Trump does not.
Those are some very real differences. The anti-tax activist Grover Norquist has said that the only thing needed for the triumph of conservatism in America is a Republican president with enough working fingers to sign House Speaker Paul Ryan’s budget into law. Trump may not be a typical limited-government Republican, but he is a Republican, and while he’s spent more time talking about the size of his hands than their ability to grasp a pen, he would presumably sign many of the laws congressional Republicans have been unable to pass in the Obama era. He would also appoint judges, determine America’s approach to the rest of the world and guide domestic policies on everything from transportation to innovation to food.
But so far, that has not been the focus of the 2016 race.
Trump doesn’t see why it should be. He thinks the stakes of 2016 are clear enough—the amazing builder who wants to make America great again after eight horrible years of Obama against the crooked Obama administration official who wants to extend the status quo. He doesn’t deny that Clinton has more experience in government; he sees that a major point in his favor. And he has described her campaign’s mass production of in-the-weeds policy documents as “crazy.”
So far, the Clinton campaign has issued a remarkable 205 pages of policy proposals, including obscure plans to cure Alzheimer’s disease, combat sexual assault on campus, promote small business, strengthen rural communities and support Americans with autism. Her eight-page blueprint for reducing energy waste in American buildings reflects her teacher’s-pet appetite for technocratic minutiae, pledging to “work with national code organizations like the ICC, ASHRAE, and IAPMO,” encourage federal mortgage agencies to consider energy savings in their underwriting and provide challenge grants to scale up innovative efficiency initiatives, “like GreenMountain Power’s eHome program in Vermont and the Roanoke Electric Coop’s UpGrade to Save program in North Carolina.”
These plans haven’t gotten much attention, especially compared to Trump’s attacks on a judge’s Mexican heritage or a Fox anchor’s menstrual cycles. But there’s an element of political performance art to Clinton’s ultra-nerdy approach, a way of branding her as a Serious Candidate through sheer volume of seriousness. In any case, nine-point plans are the norm in modern presidential politics. Traditionally, nominees from both parties have laid out their governing agendas in some detail, giving voters a mostly reliable sense of the policies they intended to pursue in office.
To Trump, though, Clinton’s Kennedy School of Government approach to the campaign is evidence that she’s out of touch with ordinary people. Who cares about her “super-BABs” or the “MUSH market” or her plan to double some “CDFI Fund”?
“She’s got people that sit in cubicles writing policy all day,” he recently marveled. “It’s just a waste of paper.”
Trump has been much more economical with paper—and pixels, for that matter. His seven policy documents amount to less than 30 pages, and unlike Clinton’s, they include virtually no cost estimates or implementation strategies. And the few details they do include rarely get mentioned outside the website; for example, his brief on “Compelling Mexico to Pay for the Wall” basically proposes an extortion scheme in which the Trump Administration threatens to slap tariffs on Mexican goods and amend the Patriot Act to block wire transfers from undocumented Mexican nationals until the Mexican government forks over the cash.
Most of the documents are fairly standard Republican memos, presumably meant for the eyes of Republican insiders. His “Second Amendment Rights” brief lays out his opposition to any new gun control measures and his support for a national right to carry. His “Healthcare Reform” brief calls for Obamacare repeal plus several measures popular with conservatives, like tax-free “health savings accounts” and the transformation of the federal Medicaid program into a block grant to the states. His “Veterans Administration Reforms” (VA, in fact, stands for Veterans Affairs) are mostly boilerplate about “modernizing’ care and ending “waste, fraud and abuse,” but they include the market-oriented idea of letting veterans seek care at any private doctor or hospital. And even though Trump’s most prominent departure from Republican dogma has been trade, his memo on “U.S.-China Trade Reform” downplays his crusading on the trail for high taxes on U.S. imports, emphasizing instead that Trump intends to project so much strength that China will drop its barriers to U.S. exports, describing his goal as “not protectionism but accountability.”
You can glimpse snippets of Trump in these memos, with their offhand references to Obama as “the most divisive and partisan president in American history,” but they’re clearly staff-generated documents. You see the unfiltered Trump on the “Issues” section of his website, which features 20 short videos of the man himself at his desk talking about issues like Israel (“I love Israel.”), Law Enforcement Respect (“The fact is, they do an incredible job.”), and Political Correctness. (“I have a great education, I went to an Ivy League college, but I’m not politically correct.”) To say that these tweet-length videos reflect an elementary-school level of detail would be an insult to elementary schools. If you watch them all, which is a fun thing to do, you’ll see a few actual policy positions; he’s against the Common Core educational standards, and he would use his first day in office to reverse Obama’s executive orders on guns and immigration. But mostly you’ll see macho promises and saccharine platitudes announced with telegenic certitude.
On the military: “I’m going to make our military so big, so powerful, so strong, that nobody, absolutely nobody is going to mess with us. We’re going to take care of our vets and we’re going to get rid of ISIS. We’ll get rid of them fast.”
On jobs: “I will tell you this, and I can say it with certainty, I will be the greatest job-producing president that God ever created. I love the subject, I love doing it, and I love helping people.”
On the drug epidemic: “No more drugs are coming in. We’re going to build a wall. You know what I’m talking about. You have confidence in me! Believe me, I will solve the problem. And the people who are addicted, we will work with them to try and make them better. We will make them better.”
Politicians often make overconfident and undercooked promises to fix things, even if they don’t usually use rhetoric that draws so heavily from classic confidence-man tropes. (“You have confidence in me! Believe me, I will solve the problem.”) What really sets Trump apart is that he rarely even tries to explain how he will get rid of ISIS, how he will create jobs, how he will make addicts better. He just will. Don’t worry about the how. At a recent fundraiser for Chris Christie—just moments after he asked: “Who the hell cares if we have a trade war?”—Trump actually told the rich donors in attendance not to waste time thinking about economic policy: “A lot of you don’t know the world of economics and you shouldn’t even bother. Just leave it to me. Just go and enjoy your life.”
When Trump does provide how-to details, they tend to strain credulity. For example, after pledging to raise taxes on the rich on the trail, he released a four-page tax plan that essentially did the opposite, cutting the top individual rate from 39.6 percent to 25 percent and the corporate rate from 35 percent to 15 percent. And while the plan claimed it would not add to the national debt, that’s pure fantasy. Even the conservative Tax Foundation says it would add $10 trillion in debt over a decade. Trump’s top policy adviser, a Morningside College professor named Sam Clovis, argued at a recent event that the foundation failed to account for the growth the plan would produce—untrue—and said it would actually reduce the debt by $7 trillion. That would require double-digit annual growth, an absurdity for a developed economy, but Trump later went even further, vowing to wipe out the entire $19 trillion debt in eight years. That would basically require shutting down most of the government, while Trump has at the same time vowed to leave Social Security untouched and to jack up spending on the military, the border, infrastructure and other priorities. He clearly isn’t mathematically correct, either.
Lately, the Trump campaign has signaled that his tax plan will be revised and maybe at some point it will be. Trump’s policies never seem to be set in stone; as he has put it, “you have to have a certain degree of flexibility.” He’s also flip-flopped on the minimum wage, specialty visas for skilled immigrants, the individual mandate in Obamacare, U.S. intervention in Libya, whether teachers should be armed, whether Japan should have nuclear weapons, whether women should be punished for having abortions, whether the U.S. should renegotiate its debt and whether ground troops should be sent after ISIL. He once described his call for a Muslim ban as a mere “suggestion,” and in a larger discussion of his immigration policies with the New York Times editorial board, he acknowledged that “everything is negotiable,” which might as well be his campaign slogan.
The point is not that Trump is unusually wishy-washy; the point is that he doesn’t care much about the nuts and bolts of his campaign policies. It’s impossible to know whether that’s because he’s not a details guy, or not a policy guy, or whether he’s not sure he really intends to do all this stuff once he gets elected. He certainly doesn’t think the details are what will get him elected. He occasionally gives policy-oriented speeches aimed at key interest groups—a paean to Israel he read from a teleprompter at the AIPAC convention, a defense of fossil fuels for coal miners in West Virginia—but they’re not exactly think tank material. Coal has been on the decline around the world, and its defenders in the U.S. are mostly desperate to slow their losses, but Trump merrily promised to resurrect the industry: “We’re going to put the miners back to work. We are going to get those mines open.”
By contrast, Clinton seems deeply invested in the nitty-gritty of her plans to prevent animal cruelty and implement automatic voter registration and tax high-frequency trading, even though she must know most normal human beings will never read them. On a call late last year to discuss a draft of her five-year, $275 billion infrastructure plan, Clinton asked her team if it would be possible to embed “Build America Bonds”—an Obama stimulus program that helped municipalities finance public works—in her proposed “infrastructure bank.” Michael Schmidt, one of those Clinton aides who sit in cubicles writing policy all day, knew that was indeed possible, because he had gotten an email from a prominent economist suggesting that very policy earlier that day.
“She genuinely believes this is what you’re supposed to do when you run for president,” Schmidt says.
Trump does not believe that at all. When he was asked who advises him about foreign policy, he said: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain.” He’s said he’s his own top economic adviser as well. And when he was asked about military advice, he famously said: “Well, I watch the shows.”
He is, after all, a showman, and showmanship is part of the president’s job. But only part of it. There was a lot of buzz over a recent New York Times article about Obama after dark, a portrait of his solitary late nights reading briefing papers in the Treaty Room, featuring the instantly viral factoid that he eats exactly seven lightly salted almonds every night. But what was most revealing was the image of the leader of the free world dutifully spending four or five hours every night studying policy memos. The public sees presidents as speechmakers, but it’s mostly butt-in-seat work, a continuous cycle of meetings, decisions and preparation for meetings and decisions. Governing is a lot harder than tweeting.
Trump builds first-class golf courses, and he had a compelling reality show, but he doesn’t seem too interested in that kind of grunt work. When John Dickerson of CBS asked what he thought it would be like being president—“the day-to-day, not the show part”—Trump had a candid response: “I don’t think about it.”
On the other hand, showmanship is a huge part of a presidential candidate’s job, a part that Trump is way better at than Clinton. And as a purely political matter, Trump may be right to mock Clinton’s in-house policy factory.
It’s not clear how much voters care which candidate has the most intellectually honest nine-point plans, which candidate’s views are the most consistent, or which candidate gets awarded the most Pinocchios or Pants-on-Fires by fact-checkers. And it isn’t necessary to know the details of Clinton’s $125 billion Revitalization Initiative for downtrodden communities—reentry programs for the formerly incarcerated, down payment assistance for needy homebuyers, tax credits for apprenticeships—to make a reasonably informed decision in November. If you know that Trump thinks Obama has been a disaster and that Clinton was Obama’s secretary of state, you can make a reasonably informed decision in November.
But even though Clinton rolled out dozens of policies during her Democratic primary against Bernie Sanders, and even though her ideological differences with Trump and the Republican Party are much sharper, policy has not been at the forefront of her general-election argument so far. Instead, she’s portrayed Trump as an erratic charlatan who’s unfit to serve as commander-in-chief, a con artist who will do to the country and its people what he did to his bankrupt casinos and the students of Trump University, a loose cannon who’s demeaned women, blacks, Hispanics and a disabled reporter in ways we wouldn’t want our children to see. She talks about some of his more typical Republican policies in her speeches—his dismissal of global warming as a Chinese hoax, his push to deregulate Wall Street, his plan to give himself a massive tax cut, his opposition to stricter background checks for guns—but her advertising has focused on his temperament and his record outside politics. Of course, Trump hasn’t focused on policy, either, attacking “Crooked Hillary” as a corrupt and incompetent loser who lied about Benghazi and her emails, threatening to dredge up her husband’s sex scandals. He has no interest in getting into a wonkathon with a wonk.
This week in Cleveland, the Republicans—at least the ones who attend, as opposed to the former presidents, former nominees and battleground congressional candidates who are skipping—will do more than launch the battle to keep another Clinton out of the White House. They will launch an internal battle for the identity of their party, a battle between conservatism and Trump-ism. Party leaders like Speaker Ryan want to prevent Trump’s policy apostasies and apathies from diluting the GOP brand as the limited-government party. They hope to avoid the Trump stench if he loses and they want to make sure he will enact their policies if he wins, not just massive tax cuts but massive rollbacks of environmental and financial regulations, massive reductions of health and welfare spending and conservative majorities on the Supreme Court and throughout the judiciary. Meanwhile, Trump needs to make sure Republicans are energized to turn out the vote in November, but he may be tempted to resist getting linked too closely with that historically unpopular GOP brand. He prefers his own brand.
Trump’s running mate, Indiana governor and Tea Party stalwart Mike Pence, represents a victory for the conservative side of the ledger. He was a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq, Social Security privatization, and the TPP trade deal with Asia, positions Trump has been running against on the trail. It’s no coincidence that the Clinton campaign is already attacking Pence on policy grounds, portraying him as a consistently extreme right-winger who supports discrimination against gays and yearns for the end of abortion rights. But that hasn’t been its approach to Trump, in part because the Clinton team isn’t confident voters will believe he’s a consistently extreme right-winger. And even when voters disagree with his position on, say, guns, they’re understandably unconvinced it’s a hard-and-fast position. He’s a populist, not an ideologue; “My views,” he has said, “are what everybody else’s views are.”
Voters can find out exactly where Clinton stands on countless major and minor issues, and she inevitably owns every detail of those 205 pages of policy. Trump is more of a work in progress, a policy Rorschach test. His vagueness and inconsistency allow voters to fill in his policy blanks, while he stands for unobjectionable things like greatness and strength and winning. Most Americans, after all, are not policy wonks, because policy details can be boring. They want to see wages go up and terrorism go away; they don’t necessarily care how it happens any more than they care how Turnberry’s 11th hole was moved 200 yards to the left or why its sprinkler system is so terrific.
Maybe Republican leaders would like him to fill in some of those policy blanks this week, but Trump has little incentive to get more specific. Just rest assured that he’s got a very good brain, he went to an Ivy League college, and he’s going to get rid of ISIS fast. His message to America is likely to sound a lot like his message to those Chris Christie donors: “Just leave it to me. Just go and enjoy your life.”
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