In my travels, I've encountered numerous Trump supporters across the land. All are decent, hard-working Americans who genuinely believe that Trump will make America great again and is just the shock that the system needs.
I have noticed one cognitive tic they all possess, however. When asked how they feel about Trump's more outrageous policies - bringing back torture, building a wall on the Mexican border - they have a response. It is usually some variant of, "oh, that's just campaign talk" or "he won't really be able to do that, Congress will stop him" or something like that. In other words, Trump supporters focus on the things they like about their candidate and rationalize away the other stuff.
To be fair, in doing this Trump supporters are no different from Clinton supporters or Obama supporters or Romney supporters or whatnot. All partisans develop cognitive crutches to justify voting for an imperfect candidate, to explain away the policy positions they do not like. Given Trump's predilection for contradicting his own policy statements, that would seem to apply with particular force to him. Trump says a lot of crazy stuff that he later contradicts by saying different crazy stuff, and followed by a decent chance that he reverts back to saying his original crazy stuff. Ironically, this matches much of the commentary that argues Trump is just a grifter with no real core values.
The problem is that Trump supporters often use this gambit to explain away Trump's core issues as campaign hyperbole. And there are three logical flaws in that argument.
The first is that Donald Trump really does possess some core values. As Tom Wright noted in January in Politico Magazine, much of what Trump has said about foreign policy and the global economy matches what he has been saying on this topic for decades:
"[Trump] has three key arguments that he returns to time and again over the past 30 years. He is deeply unhappy with America's military alliances and feels the United States is overcommitted around the world. He feels that America is disadvantaged by the global economy. And he is sympathetic to authoritarian strongmen. Trump seeks nothing less than ending the U.S.-led liberal order and freeing America from its international commitments.
"Trump has been airing such views on US foreign policy for some time. He even spent $100,000 on a full-page ad in the New York Times in 1987 that had a message remarkably similar to what he is saying today."
There's nothing like winning a presidential election to reinforce a candidate's core beliefs. And if anyone is supremely confident that they have the right philosophy, it's Donald Trump.
The second logical flaw is that winning presidential candidates try to fulfill their campaign promises. They will particularly try to keep their pledges on their signature issues. Trump's signature issues have all been related to foreign policy or foreign economic policy. I wrote a few months ago:
"[The] overwhelming bulk of his campaign pronouncements are concentrated on foreign policy, loosely defined: terrorism, NATO, Russia, China, trade, immigration, etc. There is practically no domestic policy content to Trump's campaign. If Trump is good at one thing, it is generating free media coverage - and that coverage is focusing on what Trump is saying about world politics."
The thing about presidents and foreign policy is that they have a lot of leeway to do what they want in foreign affairs. As Micah Zenko noted recently in Foreign Policy:
"[U]nlike their role in domestic legislation and appropriations, American presidents have tremendous power and authority over the scope and conduct of foreign policy. This has been especially true since 9/11, when the chief's constitutional authorities started being used to justify a range of covert and clandestine actions, as well as expanded military commitments, with very little restraint or oversight from Congress or the courts."
Trump supporters who think a president Trump wouldn't really follow through on his pledges regarding trade, NATO or immigration are kidding themselves.
One final flaw: Trump knows so little about actual policy minutiae that he will be unusually reliant upon his staffers to execute his policy wishes. Let's consider Trump's closest foreign policy advisers. His principal national security adviser is Gen. Michael Flynn. Based on Flynn's behavior as a surrogate, I concluded last month that, "at this point Flynn should be kept as far away from power as humanly possible." His subsequent behavior merely confirms that assessment.
Trump's closest foreign economic policy adviser is Peter Navarro, a real, live economist at the University of California at Irvine. How high-quality is Navarro? Let's go to Adam Davidson's New Yorker profile from last month:
"Navarro's responses to critiques tend to be blistering and Trumpian. In an email describing economists who disagree with him about trade, he used the words 'stupid' and 'stupider' to characterize their views. The next morning, when I asked for clarification, he wrote, 'This is why I don't trust you or want to discuss anything on the phone with you. Where did you come up with the "stupid" thing? Were you recording me on our phone call without my permission?'
"I have never heard any public-policy expert make claims like Navarro's: that trade is the central problem in the world, that trade brings mostly pain to America, and that dramatically lessening trade will bring a renaissance to our economy. I asked Navarro to refer me to economists who agree with him on trade issues. He told me to talk with Peter Morici, an economist at the University of Maryland, and Alan Tonelson, a blogger who writes frequently against trade. 'Tonelson is a fine economist,' Navarro wrote. That email was quickly followed by one from Tonelson himself, acknowledging 'that I do not hold an economics degree.' I then spoke at length with Morici, who said that he agrees with Navarro that there are deep problems with our trade relationship with China, but that Navarro 'has a rather severe position. That zero-sum statement, I have a problem with that. Where's his proof?' "
So, to sum up:
If you think Trump won't try to fulfill his core foreign policy promises as president, then you are fooling yourself.
Trump will empower advisers who seem to be even crazier than himself.