You would think, based on the surprise that has greeted President Trump’s recent decisions to walk to the brink of a trade war with China and dispatch the National Guard to the Southern border, that he had not talked about securing the border and punishing Chinese trade practices for years.
These two moves point to a curious paradox about Trump. He is a historically dishonest president, prone to lying about matters large and small at a prodigious rate. Yet Trump has consistently tried to follow through on the biggest promises that were central to his campaign. He has not always been effective, and he has seldom been artful, but it is difficult to question his tenacity.
Take border security and immigration. The cries to “build the wall” were the consistent climax of Trump rallies during the 2016 campaign. Trump promised to end the flow of unauthorized immigrants, kick them out of the country, and seal the border with Mexico. He has consistently tried to do just that.
First came his travel ban, issued, to the surprise of many officials tasked with enforcing it, at the end of Trump’s first week in office. The details and approach took the country off-guard, but the substance should not have. Trump had promised to ban Muslims from entering the country, and now he was trying to do it. It was the first major sign that the new president was not going to pull a bait-and-switch and govern like a conventional, if more blustery, president.
Trump was quickly shut down by federal courts, but that didn’t stop him. He has tried twice since then, issuing new and altered travel bans (and often getting slapped back down by courts). The president hasn’t figured out how to achieve what he wants, and his past statements about the ban have proven a legal obstacle for him, but he keeps at it.
The same holds true for the wall. By all indications, Trump’s temper tantrum on March 23, the day he signed the omnibus spending bill, was related to Congress’s refusal to fund his border well. Within days, he began cryptically speaking of a plan to “Build WALL through M!,” which turned out to be a harebrained, probably illegal scheme to pay for construction of the wall out of the military budget. Frustrated in that pursuit as well, Trump then announced that he was going to send the military to the border until the wall was built. That, too, wasn’t really plausible, but Trump issued an order to deploy the National Guard to the border.
In sequence, the president has had to concede that Mexico will not build the wall, that Congress is not funding it, and that he cannot dispatch the Army there, but he has remained staunchly committed to the wall. This is true even as Trump’s own allies try to soft-pedal the claim, or to say that the wall might just be a fence, or might be virtual. (Just on Wednesday, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said that improvements to an existing fence were the real wall.) The president can’t figure out how to get his wall, but he remains committed to it.
Trump’s advisers, or at least some of them, are often in the position of trying to prevent the president from doing what he wants to do, or at least trying to soften it. That was the case when Gary Cohn, then an economic adviser, tried to prevent the imposition of tariffs, or when national-security officials reportedly arm-wrestled him out of a swift departure from Syria during a meeting on Tuesday. These advisers may believe that protectionism and precipitous withdrawal from military deployments are unwise, and they may very well be right, but there should be little surprise that Trump is doing what he said he would.
Trump has shown his persistence, and its limits, in the cases of tax cuts, health care, and judicial appointments, too. As a candidate, Trump promised “tax reform.” Once he was in office, it became clear quickly that true reform, as in 1986, was impossible, but despite the expectations of analysts who said even a tax-cut bill could not be completed by the end of 2017, Trump jammed through a package of tax cuts. (The complications of moving so quickly are only slowly emerging.)
He was less successful on health care. Repealing Obamacare was always going to be a challenging task, and the president’s impatience, refusal to roll up his sleeves and work on the legislation, and frequently changing stance did not help. Still, his commitment to action was clear. On one occasion, when repeal seemed dead, Trump more or less willed it back to life. When even that failed, Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared they were done trying to get rid of Obamacare. Trump still continues to periodically bring it up.
As these cases show, Trump is not good at execution. In fact, he is so ineffective that some analysts seemed to expect that Trump’s reliance on his lieutenants would mean that those aides would be able to stifle Trump’s policy preferences. Instead, he has remained committed to these few core ideas, even as he shifts his views on any number of other issues, such as gun control, by the hour or day or week.
This steadfastness shouldn’t come as that great a surprise. For one thing, although Trump’s political views (and party allegiances) have shifted frequently over the decades, his views on trade and immigration have been extremely consistent for as long as he has been a public figure.
For another, presidents and other politicians tend to keep their campaign promises. Analysis of the Trump presidency often circles around the way the president is different from all of his predecessors, but this is an important way in which he offers continuity. It’s one thing to lie about not watching TV or the size of one’s tax cuts or voter fraud, but Trump is just as committed to his central platform as any other president. The positions may be unorthodox, but his tenacious pursuit of them is anything but.