A few days ago, I found myself agreeing with Donald Trump. As the GOP attempted to strip the OCE (Office of Congressional Ethics) of the independence that has made it effective enough to be hated by most of Congress, Trump publicly shelled his own party members. His admonishment was shocking to a Republican Congress that had clearly hit the ground running.
Throughout the next four years, I may agree again on something that Donald Trump says or does, perhaps minutes after I am once again deeply offended by him. If you already agree with what Donald Trump says or does, this may not bother you; if you don’t agree with anything that he says or does this may not yet have happened to you. But it should worry all of you, for we are about to be governed by a president whose nihilistic inconsistency will exhaust you and then relish in your fatigue. If you think that you will not be swept by the surging ebb and flow of what will soon be presidential policy, I fear you’re in for a fall.
“a Statesman in contact with the moving current of events and anxious to keep the ship on an even keel and steer a steady course may lean all his weight now on one side and now on the other...His resolves, his wishes, his outlook may have been unchanged; his methods may be verbally irreconcilable. We cannot call this inconsistency. In fact it may be claimed to be the truest consistency. The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose.” - Winston Churchill
Inconsistency in and of itself is neither new nor strictly negative. But Churchill’s quote makes an important distinction: inconsistency of action is always in service to a consistency of vision. The democratic experiment is built upon the consistency of outcomes even when it is propelled by inconsistent actions. Political actors delicately bundle together promises and then lurch towards modest progress. The universe of possibilities remains limited by the goalposts of the aisle: you vote with your party, your union, and your conscience, and your representatives then speak for you. If it works well, ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’ becomes a shorthand so that even if those leaders act inconsistently, you stick with them.
These goalposts allow us to construct identities, make decisions, and be confident in the outcome of the political process. We vote for or against things and support or oppose leaders when we believe that it will get us closer to the lives we want. Granted, our system is problematic and frustrating- it always has been. But, it has also been consistent enough to sustain us over the past 240 years and permitted dialogue even in the most unlikely times.
Now, we are entering a moment where party lines are no longer ideological safe havens, and the leader of the executive branch embodies the antithesis of consistent vision. The abrupt shift in trajectory is particularly turbulent because it is untethered: as Republican congresspeople recently learned, their leader will not toe the party line because he is not tied to it. For Donald Trump is a sovereign in the Schmittian sense: “he who decides on the state of exception.”
Expecting the consistency of either moderation or extremism is misguided. The rules of the game will change incessantly, and we’ll always be one step behind.
Donald Trump won’t be the first president to flip his views or actions. But he will do so with no forewarning to his faithful, no regard for his constituency, and along no consistent continuum. What he builds today he will tear down tomorrow, who he embraces first he will throw to the wolves next and vice versa. If you think you’re safe because you voted for him, think again. If you think he’ll champion your cause because he had the courage to ‘tell it like it is,' don’t be so sure.
Alternatively, if you prepare yourself for a fight against everything he is set to say or do, be wary: there may actually be moments when you agree with what he says, what he does, or the outcome of his actions.
Will you still be able to organize against a chameleon, or will you grow tired of chasing its changing stripes? Don’t be surprised if it becomes too hard to keep up, and you eventually give up. Donald Trump is counting on you giving up: I’ve watched him play this shell game my whole life as a kid from New York. He wears people down until they break, and more often than not, it works. He’s done it with business partners and family members, taking aim with surgical precision. I’ve seen few people come back from it, and I know of only one elderly woman who stared him down and won. We see how far it’s gotten him. And we’re all implicated.
This is flipocracy, where meaning melts into thin air and is replaced by frenzy. This is the outcome of never knowing what the next policy change, press conference or tweet will bring, and against who or what it will be. The utter insecurity of an administration devoid of goals or objectives can only lead to schizophrenia. Barack Obama seems to think the office will tame Donald Trump, because in the battle between institution and actor the latter often bends to the former. But I take no comfort in that. He has been unbroken by the law, the courts, and public opinion, all by using this inconsistency. It’s a peculiar kind of psychological warfare he wages, and no one or nothing is exempt.
Presidents are subjected to an endless stream of crises, each one threatening chaos in one corner of the world or another. The best presidents learn to downgrade the magnitude of these threats so that triage becomes tedium and their hand remains steady. However, the nihilistic inconsistency of a flipocracy undermines the very foundations upon which stable political institutions emerge and endure while simultaneously allowing actors at the center to remain distant and unaccountable for their actions. Donald Trump has been here before, and his inconsistency may not be his final undoing. But it may be ours.