Like a passenger on a sinking ship, the president has been throwing one longstanding position after another overboard like so much dead weight. His closest advisers, biggest boosters and some members of his family are at war with one another, in a battle to steer the president in their preferred direction. From balancing the budget to relations with Russia, each faction thinks it's fighting for the president's true convictions and the issues that got him elected. “Such incidents,” The New York Times put it, “indicate that the struggle for the president's mind between two camps, pragmatists and purists, has intensified.”
This might sound familiar. But that quote comes from 30 years ago. Then-New York Times reporter Steven Roberts was writing about the great battle between the Republican establishment types and the true-believing conservatives who'd been with Reagan for decades.
The true believers had a rallying cry: “Let Reagan be Reagan!”
In recent days, Donald Trump has found himself in a seemingly similar position. He has defenestrated large chunks of the agenda that his biggest boosters insist got him elected.
Trump has embraced NATO, praised Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen, scrapped his tax plan, backed off his vow to eliminate the debt, reversed his claim that China is a “currency manipulator,” came out in favor of the Export-Import Bank and lifted his freeze on federal hiring. He also seems to have relegated his senior adviser and chief ideologist, Steve Bannon, to a bit player, describing him as “a guy who works for me.”
It's hard not to sympathize with those who feel betrayed. They made a simple mistake: They thought Trumpism was a coherent ideological program, akin to Reaganism. Indeed, during the 2016 election cycle, a great number of prominent conservatives went to remarkable lengths to compare Trump to Reagan The problem is that Trumpism is not an ideology. It's a state of mind, or, to be more accurate, a constantly changing state of mind. Trump himself admits as much, saying that he won't be bound by ideology or doctrine, preferring “flexibility” not just on means, but on ends.
This should have been obvious by the way people used the phrase “Let Trump be Trump.” It's usually used to scold the scolds who want Trump to be more “presidential.” Corey Lewandowski, the onetime manager of the Trump campaign, often told reporters he was the head of the “Let Trump be Trump” faction in Trump's inner circle. This meant not worrying about his outrageous claims and indefensible insults against competitors, judges, the media, etc.
When conservatives said “Let Reagan be Reagan,” they were referring to a core philosophy that Reagan had developed over decades of study and political combat. When people said “Let Trump be Trump,” they meant let Trump's id run free. The former was about staying true to an ideology, the latter about giving free rein to a glandular style that refused to be locked into a doctrine or even notions of consistency.
That's why saying “Let Trump be Trump” is almost literally the opposite of saying “Let Reagan be Reagan.”
Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor of National Review.