On January 23, 2017, the third day of his presidency, Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Speaking to an audience of cheering union leaders, the president heaped scorn on "ridiculous trade deals that have taken everybody out of our country." A few days later in a rally on Capitol Hill Bernie Sanders and Rosa DeLauro, two of our greatest living public servants, celebrated the move as a victory for American workers.
Trump's first achievement was also in a real sense his last. And now we know that he didn't mean it.
On Thursday it was reported that Trump has asked Larry Kudlow, the former CNBC financial news host who makes his colleague Jim "Mad Money" Kramer look like a model of sagacity and reserve, to seek re-entry to TPP. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a confirmed #NeverTrump Republican who rarely encounters an actual Trump policy with which he actually disagrees, cheered the news.
Except it actually wasn't news. In January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Trump told a reporter from CNBC that he had a "big story" for him: "I would do TPP if we made a much better deal than we had." Sooner or later, in between bouts of denouncing Russian policy in Syria, declaring and withdrawing from non-existent "trade wars," insisting upon and feigning horror at the idea of deporting millions of young people brought to this country as children, Trump was going to do an about-face on TPP.
Trump's decision to reverse his most significant economic policy decision is not news any more than it is "news" that he doesn't actually care about workers, declining or stagnant wages, mass unemployment, the financialization of the economy, the disappearance of the working and middle classes, or any of the other high ideals crafted for him by his learned apologists. His good ideas (pulling out of TPP and, if possible, NAFTA, single-payer health care, raising taxes on the rich, spending trillions on infrastructure, not rushing into wars in the Middle East on the basis of flimsy or non-existent evidence), his bad ones (building a 2,000 mile-long wall across our southern border, kicking out the DREAMers), and his absurd ones (giving teachers guns to shoot their students) were not really ideas. He was never going to leave Social Security or food stamps alone or pass anything that makes the Affordable Care Act better, much less replace it with Medicare-for-all; he was never going to build the Wall; he was always going to bomb Syria and commit us to at least another decade in Afghanistan.
For three years now columnists and feature writers have labored in vain to explain the so-called Trump phenomenon. He was, we said, adjusting our spectacles, a different kind of Republican, a reactionary populist, an Eisenhower moderate, a Nixonian paternalist, a fascist — whatever. We were all wasting our breath. The scribblers who did potted lit-crit numbers on The Art of the Deal in search of the answer to the Trumpean riddle were the only ones who got anywhere near the mark. This 372-page ghosted memoir cum management tips bestseller is the Necronomicon of the Trump Tower Horror.
I am looking now at a PDF of this book, which I have never bothered to read or even glance at. The answer has been there all along and it is so painfully banal and affectless and straightforward in its nihilism that it isn't even frightening. For Trump there are no goals, aims, ends, objectives, duties, or even rules. There is no "there" there — only the fetishistic worship of a mysterious entity called "the deal."
"I never get too attached to one deal or one approach," he writes. "I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first." Believe in the deal!
"The way I promote is bravado. I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration, and a very effective form of promotion." All glory, laud, and honor be to the deal!
"If you plan for the worst — if you can live with the worst — the good will always take care of itself." The odd seemingly throwaway use of "the good" in its abstract, almost Platonist sense is instructive: good itself — morality, decency, beauty, justice, courage, honor — is a meaningless distraction in comparison with the demands of the deal.
This is why Kudlow's commission from the president was framed explicitly as a deal-making opportunity. It doesn't matter whether he obtains better terms from the other countries, who have already abandoned all the pro-American provisions requested earlier by the not-exactly hard-driving Obama administration. In six months or a year or two years, America's participation in TPP will be a fact. The ritual of the deal will once more have been completed.