Civics 101 is being held in the Oval Office

The past 24 hours or so have literally left my forehead sore from all the brow-raising stories that have been coming out of Washington. In a series of interviews in the past day or so, our President has completely pulled multiple 180s on a whole slew of issues, and reversed himself on several of the key positions he took during the campaign.

Remember when he said he would label China a “currency manipulator” on Day One of his presidency (even as experts pointed out that China had stopped devaluing the yuan)? This was one of the big populist rallying cries of his campaign, where he said that the Chinese were “stealing” American jobs and criticized Obama as a weak protector of US industry. Indeed, in an interview with the Financial Times last week, and in anticipation of the Chinese leader’s visit, Trump said,  “You know, when you talk about, when you talk about currency manipulation, when you talk about devaluations, they are world champions.  And our country hasn’t had a clue, they haven’t had a clue . . . but I do.”   And I’m obligated to point out that in his “Contract with the American Voter” released shortly before the election, Trump pledged that he would “direct the Secretary of the Treasury to label China a currency manipulator.”

Reality, meet Donald Trump. This week saw a swift about face on all of that rhetoric. After meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping, Trump sang a different tune:  “They’re not currency manipulators, ok?  They’re not currency manipulators.”  Trump conceded in the same interview that he needs Chinese cooperation on North Korea, which is likely a big reason why he flip-flopped on this issue.  And to be sure, the Chinese leader probably explained exactly what a trade war between the two powers could look like. Either that, or Trump simply realized that for all his self-aggrandizing rhetoric on this issue, it was he that didn’t have a clue.  So that strongly held position, that populist battle cry, fell prey to a clear view of what a grim reality might actually look like.

Speaking of North Korea, this is another area where Trump has had to confront a reality that doesn’t match up with the ideology he held on the campaign trail (and I’m giving him credit for having a defined ideology here). He has been belligerent on the topic of the Hermit Kingdom, and certainly there is much to criticize about the country, which has been making a show of test-launching missiles and making pronouncements that the continental US is now within range of their weapons.   Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea was also aimed primarily at the Chinese, who he assumed kept North Korea as something like a lap dog.  Fix the problem with North Korea, he said, or we will.

In the same 24 hours as his about face on Chinese currency manipulations, Trump changed his tune on this issue also. Again, it was Xi Jinping who set him straight.  “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” he said.  Couldn’t he have listened to someone with a clue before making it necessary for another global leader to explain the real world to him?  These interactions are often a battle of wits.  It helps to come armed.

But wait, there’s more! In addition to jettisoning positions on China and North Korea, the president also switched positions on the Export-Import Bank, Janet Yellin and NATO.

As a candidate, he had criticized the Export-Import Bank as “unnecessary.” It “turns out,” he told the Journal, that the bank helps small companies. “Actually, it’s a very good thing,” he said.

On Janet Yellin, another reversal. As a candidate, he said Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen was keeping interest rates “artificially low” to help Barack Obama. Wednesday, he said, “I do like a low-interest rate policy.” He is reportedly considering re-nominating her to her spot at the Fed.

And NATO. Oh, NATO.  Candidate Trump couldn’t hate on the international defense coalition enough.  It was obsolete.  Others weren’t paying their fair share.  He was considering withdrawing from the organization, or radically reconfiguring it.  It was probably this position, above all, that gave Vladimir Putin such a boner that he literally decided to try to fuck democracy to death.  Now, alas, that’s gone too.  He has walked back on that position, falsely claiming that the turnabout was because NATO has reconfigured itself to be tougher on terrorism.  At his news conference on Wednesday with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, he said, “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”

Hooray NATO! Now, if Trump were a person who could occasionally be accused of intellectual honesty, that statement would read, “I thought that NATO was obsolete, but it turns out that my opinion was simply wrong.  I didn’t understand the organization, I was misinformed and wrong when I spoke before. NATO is, and has been, integral not only to our national security, but to the security and stability of our allies throughout the world.”   But you’ll never hear those words, because they would demand both honesty and humility, and our president has neither.  Nor does it inspire confidence when America’s leader cops to a level of ignorance greater than many people who aren’t saddled with running the free world.  Contrary to the propaganda from the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984, the inspiration for the title of this blog, ignorance is not strength.

One has to acknowledge, however, that Trump’s changed positions almost certainly represent improvements. He is undergoing some on-the-job training, and his far-right populist rallying cries, never firmly grounded in reality, are gradually giving way to real, objective facts.  As a consequence, his absurd, ignorant and uninformed policy pronouncements and positions are gradually giving way to policies which have a firmer grasp of the real world and the practicalities of the job.  This is no endorsement.  He is still pursuing many wrongheaded policies on the environment, on education, on jobs and the economy.  The rudder has completely come off anything you might want to call his foreign policy.  He is disturbingly volatile in his use of military power.  Still, as Sam Jackson might say, he’s learning shit.

Donald Trump is the beneficiary of the most expensive taxpayer-funded civics class in history. He may yet learn enough to not completely destroy the country’s future.