White House

Trump's Many Promises Keep Colliding

Build the wall. Make better deals. His all-or-nothing vows have boxed him in.

Promises to the left, promises to the right.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The obvious interpretation of President Trump's Dreamer deal with Democratic leaders is that he's breaking promises to his supporters, especially in his suddenly diminished ambitions for the border wall. But what were those promises, precisely? And which ones matter the most to his presidency?  

The answer may be found in the work of political scientist Richard Fenno, whose formulation of the process of representation (see here or here) defines "promises" not simply as specific policy commitments but also about who they will respond to, how they will govern, and even who they will be. So what promises did Trump really make during his campaign that might apply here? Certainly there were policy promises about immigration, which he appears to be violating. Yet his core promise to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it is perhaps the most instructive. 

To anyone who understood the first thing about the sheer size of the proposal and the politics of the border, it was clear Trump had no chance at all of fulfilling the central policy promise of his campaign. So maybe the wall was, as some people argue, meant to be heard only symbolically as a marker for a general anti-immigration policy. If that's the case, then Trump may believe that he has considerable room to trade off any particular policy element for an overall tough-on-immigrants outcome, with a trade of DACA (or even the wall) for more spending on border enforcement will within the scope of his promise.

But that's all policy. What if, in addition to or even instead of any particular policy, the wall and his "Make America Great Again" slogan, as many have suggested, indicated that Trump would really be president for white people? 1  That's plausible, but it requires more refinement. It could mean that Trump was promising to act on behalf of the interests of white people. Or it could mean that Trump was promising to speak for the frustrations of white people, regardless of whatever actions he might take. Or yet another variation would be that he meant to promise he would erase the legacy of Barack Obama in every policy domain. 

And then there are another set of promises Trump made. One was action-oriented: The problem with the United States was that previous politicians had been bad at making deals, which Trump was (supposedly) an expert at. In this version, at least as Trump sometimes expressed it, there was nothing wrong at all with the intentions or the policy goals of previous presidents, even Obama, but they were all just so bad at bargaining that the United States was being undone. 

Or perhaps that promise wasn't even to strike deals -- it was that he would be, as president, the authoritative, commanding figure he appeared to be on his reality television show. Indeed, Fenno found that it's not uncommon at all for politicians to promise who they will be if elected, and in many cases that becomes the central promise in their representative relationship with their constituents. 

What matters, however, isn't how how analysts like me or Trump's constituents at large interpret the promises. What matters is how the politician himself or herself interprets the commitments he or she has made. Because, as Fenno learned, that's what will constrain them. 2

John Glenn, as a politician, was always going to be an American hero -- with both the advantages and limitations that the role implied, as Fenno wrote in his analysis of the late Ohio senator. As a "hero" there were some attacks that Glenn was never going to be able to make, because acting as a vicious partisan would undermine his entire political image. On the other hand, it would be difficult to attack Glenn as if he was just a regular politician. Yet his interpretation of his implied promise to play the hero in politics was different than Arizona Senator John McCain's. Their political actions were limited in different ways as a result. 3

If all that is correct, and if -- and this is a big "if," of course -- Trump is like a normal politician and does want to keep his promises, then what may be happening here is simply a clash between his policy campaign commitments and his action and identity promises. On policy, Trump was going to be tough on immigration. But the "Apprentice" deal-making president would be, well, making deals -- with anyone, in any area. 

So far, Trump hasn't had many occasions for performing high-profile bargaining. In part, he's limited by a diagnosis of U.S. trade and foreign policy that is divorced from reality -- it's simply not true that there are enormous gains to be had through better bargaining with foreign nations. He's also limited by what was happening in Congress -- it's been about ducking the blame for failing to meet unrealistic expectations, some of which was Trump's fault, not cutting an actual deal. Trump's refusal to do his homework on substance has also kept him from playing the role of the dealmaker, as has his professional reputation in Washington, which is in such disrepair that no one trusts him or takes him very seriously.

So where to go to cut a deal? The only place he could: To House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer. For now at least, they have strong incentives to see what they can get Trump to agree to. If Trump agrees, fine; if not, they could walk away with no harm done, and with a few more stories of why the president is unsuited for the job. 

Of course there are real limits to this kind of deal-making, because if Trump agrees to anything Republicans in the House and Senate really don't want, they'll simply block it. So far, however, Pelosi and Schumer have obtained a deal on budget deadlines which Republicans were almost certainly glad to blame Trump for, and a possible agreement on Dreamers which also might help congressional Republicans duck responsibility for a hard choice. 

It wouldn't be at all surprising to see this play out repeatedly during the rest of Trump's presidency, with specific policy promises coming into conflict with Trump's promise to be a dealmaker, and perhaps both conflicting with his promise to be the ultimate "Apprentice"-style boss. And it's another way where Trump's extravagant, pie-in-the-sky promises during his election campaign leave him ill-equipped to govern successfully.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Or perhaps white Christians, or white Christian men, or white Christian heterosexual men...or perhaps everyone, regardless of demography, who share a set of beliefs associated with white Christian heterosexual men? As I said: This all gets very complicated very quickly. 

  2. Of course, representation isn't the only form of constraint on elected officials. For example, electoral incentives may push them to break policy commitments if they believe their constituents demand it, and internal party politics can force them to take actions they otherwise would have made. 

  3. Or, to put it another way, they allowed themselves different actions based on how they understood the promises they were making to their constituents.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.