There was once a popular theory about how to understand, and even appreciate, Donald Trump’s presidency—at least on the right. According to this theory, you had to separate Trump’s personal conduct from his professional responsibilities. There was Trump (the man) and Trump (the president). Trump (the man) said outrageous and obnoxious things, tweeted insults and conspiracy theories, demonstrated bottomless ignorance, and shocked the country daily. Trump (the president), however, presided over a standard Republican administration. He instituted tax cuts, nominated conservative judges, rolled back regulation, aligned himself with conservatives of faith and supporters of Israel, and so on.
The eccentricities of Trump (the man), it was thought, would never infect the policies of Trump (the president). For one thing, Trump didn’t really care much about policy. He was interested in attacking enemies, performing at rallies, and playing golf. For another, the vast machinery of American policymaking involved so many responsible people and so much institutional baggage that no outlandish Trump impulse could make it through the system and out into the real world. It was a hopeful theory, and it had some explanatory power for quite a while. Trump’s consistent praise for Vladimir Putin, for example, contrasted dramatically with his administration’s admirably hard line on Russia.
But with the Syria debacle, the theory of the two Trumps is dead. The imaginary firewall that stood between Trump’s personal conduct and his executive responsibilities has crumbled in spectacular fashion. According to a senior military source, Trump “went off script” during his October 6 phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The source told Fox News that Trump had talking points for the call—namely, to “tell Erdogan to stay north of the [Syrian] border.” But Trump (the man) had other ideas. He greenlit Erdogan’s attack on Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria. The rest is tragedy.
The border between the two Trumps had almost been breached in the past, but his whims were snuffed out before any real harm had been done. The president was eager to embrace Kim Jong-un and ingratiate himself to the Taliban. Much effort and fanfare went into those schemes, and if it wasn’t for the fact that such monsters and fanatics are literally incapable of making peace with the U.S., they’d now have us as allies. Erdogan is a different animal. He’s an autocrat who saw an opening and took it.
Vice President Mike Pence has since announced a ceasefire that’s blown up as quickly as Trump’s initial Syria catastrophe. The horse is out of the barn, and where it goes next no one knows. The guy who tweets about “the enemy of the people” and his “great and unmatched wisdom” is now unmistakably also running the country. All the cool heads we’d hoped were making policy have been relegated to damage control.
The theory of the two Trumps depended on Trump’s own willingness merely to play the part of commander in chief, not be the commander in chief. That, it turns out, was a bad bet. Donald Trump’s most defining trait (sometimes an attribute, sometimes a flaw) is his capacity to believe whatever claims he makes for himself. He thinks he knows what he’s doing.